LEXINGTON — The nature of John Calipari’s annual Kentucky basketball roster overhaul makes it easy to forget it is possible for players to develop over time.
While Calipari has never been shy about reminding fans and reporters that each player is on a different timetable, it is also true that only 13 of the 45 Wildcats drafted during the Calipari Era spent multiple years playing for the Hall of Fame coach at UK. With the new group of five-star freshmen arriving every year now joined by high-profile Division I transfers, the players signed out of high school who spend multiple years on campus can get lost in the shuffle of offseason conversation.
Maybe that is why Calipari went out of his way this spring to remind fans that sophomore forward Daimion Collins, who averaged just 7.4 minutes per game as a freshman, figures to be an essential piece to Kentucky’s success next season.
“In Daimion’s case, I think he becomes one of the best players in the country,” Calipari said shortly after the end of the 2021-22 season. “I think the things he does normal players can’t do.”
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It is difficult to find a comparison for Collins among Calipari’s previous Kentucky players.
Former UK assistant Jai Lucas described Collins as a “blank slate” early in his freshman season due to his raw athletic gifts not yet being molded by bad habits on the court. But for all his potential of him, Collins also faced a more difficult transition to college basketball than many of his peers considering he came having played against inferior competition at his tiny Atlanta High School (Texas) and missed the AAU season after his junior year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, the recruiting services were high on Collins, rating him as a consensus five-star prospect. The 247Sports Composite ranked him as the No. 16 prospect in the class of 2021.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect,” Collins said. “Cal told me from the jump nothing was going to be given to me, I’ve got to work for what I want. Last year, it played out how it did. Just got to come back this year, work harder, play harder and make it a good year.”
Collins was just the second top-20 recruit in the Calipari era to average single-digit minutes per game as a freshman.
There were glimpses of promise — like his 14 points, six rebounds and four blocks in just 21 minutes in his second career game against Robert Morris or his 10 points and six rebounds in nine minutes against Alabama — but Collins still found minutes difficult to come by. with National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe entrenched at center and juniors Keion Brooks and Jacob Toppin splitting minutes at the four.
Both of those supposed breakout games were followed by promises from Calipari that Collins had forced his way into the rotation, but Collins remained cemented to the end of the bench. After the Alabama game, Calipari said Collins had “forced me to figure out how to play him,” but the lanky 6-foot-9 forward did not play more than five minutes in a game the rest of the season.
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He did not play at all in the final two games, the SEC Tournament loss to Tennessee and shocking NCAA Tournament loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s.
Calipari acknowledged in a radio appearance earlier this spring that Collins and his parents must have felt frustration at the inconsistent minutes, but praised them for remaining realistic about where he fit into last season’s roster.
“When we were done with the conversation I said, ‘Can I hug both of you?'” Calipari said. “There was no delusion.”
Collins is listed at 202 pounds on Kentucky’s roster but told reporters he is actually just now up to 200 pounds after his first year in a strength college and conditioning program. He hopes to get to 215 pounds before the season, but bulk is likely always going to be a problem for Collins.
If he can show off improved shooting touch to provide the type of stretch forward Kentucky’s offense could use, his shot-blocking ability could be enough to overcome some of the physical limitations.
“He’s gotten a lot better since I last saw him,” said new UK assistant KT Turner, who recruited Collins in high school. “What I’ve been told from the staff, he’s been working and learning. I’m really impressed how much better he’s gotten since I’ve seen him last.”
ESPN projected Collins a second-round pick next June in its most recent 2023 NBA mock draft, but that projection figures to vary widely depending on how Collins plays as a sophomore. If he locks down a starting spot or even is productive while taking over Brooks’ previous share of the minutes at the four, Collins’ stock could soar. If he follows the path of the only other top-20 Calipari era recruit to play so little as a freshman — former Wildcat Marcus Lee — and fails to breakthrough, potential alone is unlikely to be enough to get him drafted next year.
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Collins said he did not consider transferring despite his inconsistent minutes as a freshman. He credited his parents for keeping him positive even when he was not playing as much as he hoped.
Now, Collins hopes the greater comfort that comes with a year of experience can combine with his offseason conditioning to force his way back to the forefront of fans’ minds again.
“I said you’ve got to get stronger,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to get more consistent. You’ve got to play like you’re a guard. Even though you’re 6-9, you can do both. I look at him as one of the cornerstones of what we’ll be, this team.”
Email Jon Hale at firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ.