On the surface, Alex Poythress is off to a superb start in his freshman season at Kentucky.
The 6-foot-7, 239-pound power forward from Clarksville is the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder and shoots a Southeastern Conference-best 64.2 percent from the field.
But expectations remain lofty at Kentucky, where freshman frontcourt stars Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist paved the way for an eighth national championship last year as freshmen.
As the Wildcats (9-4) open SEC play at Vanderbilt (6-6) on Thursday (8 p.m., ESPN), Poythress is quickly learning that 14 points and 6.3 rebounds per game won’t necessarily cut it. The soft-spoken 19-year-old has received criticism from his coach and Wildcats fans for taking possessions off on defense, inconsistent play and a lack of showing energy and passion.
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“Here he is as a freshman, practically getting a double-double, and it is not good enough,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Well, to be honest, it’s not because it is not his best. If it was normal and he wasn’t in a program that is on warp speed, he’s fine. He is a freshman. He’ll get it sooner or later; if not this year, next year or the following year. He’ll get it and then he’ll become unbelievable. But this stuff is on warp speed and you’re held to a different standard as a player.”
Poythress arrived at Kentucky as the No. 2 power forward and eighth-best prospect in the country, according to Rivals.com. Highly sought after out of Clarksville Northeast, the 2012 TSSAA Class AAA Mr. Basketball winner chose Calipari and the Wildcats over staying in state, where he received offers from Memphis and Vanderbilt.
His development into Kentucky’s ideal big man is a process, Calipari explains, and one in which the veteran coach is heavily involved. Lately, Calipari has met with Poythress several times a week to provide one-on-one instruction.
“What he is doing in the individual workouts and what we’re trying to get him to the point of is to more exertion, more effort, pushing through comfort levels,” Calipari said. “He has come a long way. He is a great kid. He just has got to develop a habit of really exerting and then subbing yourself. Exert yourself and then sub yourself. He is only learning it. But he is doing fine.”
Poythress displayed signs of brilliance early. He strung together five straight games of 20 or more points in November, including 20 points and eight rebounds in a loss to still unbeaten and top-ranked Duke.
But his youth and inexperience also are obvious. He had just three points in a loss to Notre Dame. He was a point and rebound away from his first double-double against Marshall but he also fouled out and “reverted at times,” according to Calipari. The next game, in a loss to Louisville, Poythress didn’t start for the first time and had just seven points.
“I was a little upset,” Poythress said about the Louisville loss. “But we all have bad games. I just have to brush it off and get better the next game.”
He bounced back nicely the next game with 16 points in a 90-38 rout of Eastern Michigan on Jan. 2 — Kentucky’s most recent game. Calipari temporarily praised Poythress’ effort and said his consistency would allow for him to start a post-heavy lineup that features three freshmen.
Even so, Calipari remarked once again that Poythress stepped back at times and had some glitches.
Thus, good isn’t good enough for Poythress at Kentucky — a lesson he continues to learn.
“I feel like there is pressure on everybody,” Poythress said. “There’s just pressure being at Kentucky and you just have to learn to deal with it.”