Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist spent the first six weeks of his collegiate career stuck between trying to be a leader and realizing he’s got a lot to learn.
When coach John Calipari noticed the 6-foot-7 forward’s initiative in his own early morning workouts, he pushed Kidd-Gilchrist to find a way to get the rest of the third-ranked Wildcats involved. Kidd-Gilchrist was often in the gym by 8:30 a.m., an exceedingly early hour for the average 18-year-old.
”Everybody got the text from Mike,” freshman Anthony Davis said. ”I knew I was going to show up regardless, whoever texted me. That’s my brother, my little brother, we work out together.”
Calipari told Kidd-Gilchrist and his the others about the Chicago Bulls’ breakfast club when Michael Jordan and a handful of teammates began working out together with the NBA great’s personal trainer before eating and heading to practice.
Jordan’s efforts following the 1989-90 season led to the Bulls’ dynasty that included six titles in the decade. Kentucky’s version would settle for just one NCAA championship this season before many of the players make the jump to the NBA.
”It’s just weights and just shooting and having a good time. That’s what we do,” Kidd-Gilchrist said of the morning rituals before breakfast that will start again after the Christmas break. ”It’s a team thing. We just want to get better.”
While Davis is considered the top player in Kentucky’s freshman class and Marquis Teague is the dynamic point guard, it’s been Kidd-Gilchrist who has been the glue of the group.
”I’ll be honest with you, he’s dragging our team, which is great stuff. He’s dragging us. He’s doing it whether it’s rebounding, scoring, making free throws, making 3s when he has to,” Calipari said after Thursday’s win over Loyola (Md.) pushed the Wildcats to 11-1. ”In transition if you give it to him ahead of the pack and it’s him and one guy, he’s scoring 99.9 percent of the time or he’s going to get fouled. You know, he drags us in practice, he drags us in morning workouts. He means so much.”
Kidd-Gilchrist is averaging 13.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in just over 30 minutes. He’s developed a knack for appearing to be the most intense player among a starting five of three freshmen and two sophomores who could all be playing in the NBA next season.
”Michael’s one of those guys when he kind of figures out what he can do and can’t do, then he just goes,” Calipari said. ”Sometimes he’ll be tentative trying to figure out what am I supposed to be doing here because this is all new to him. He was playing AAU basketball six months ago, now he’s at a high level with guys that are bigger, stronger, older and just as athletic and he’s having to figure things out.”
That includes off the court, too.
Kidd-Gilchrist has impressed the coaching staff by continuing to ask questions whenever there’s a stoppage in practice or games instead of pretending he knows what’s going on. Off the court, the quiet Kidd-Gilchrist is trying to balance how vocal he should be in a leadership role after initially wanting to defer to players like senior Darius Miller.
”I’m trying, but I’m still questioning,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. ”I’m trying to do my best.”
Kidd-Gilchrist’s extra efforts, Calipari said, are rubbing off on the others who have taken notice of their teammate’s habits.
”You can’t be sitting in the ice tub yelling at guys to work hard,” Calipari said. ”And so he’s out there and he’s spending that time and he’s doing it and it’s neat to see.
”One of the reasons I talked to him about what he will do to this club is he’s going to drag that intensity of our play because it’s embarrassing if you don’t play with intensity when he’s out there.”
The players return just after Christmas to begin preparations for Lamar on Dec. 28 before hosting No. 4 Louisville on Dec. 31. The Wildcats believe the time without school is essential to their development before classes start again.
”I told them, `Between now and Jan. 9, you’re eating, sleeping and playing basketball. That’s it. You’re playing basketball, you’re eating and you’re sleeping,”’ Calipari said. ”They don’t have anything to do now.”
Making it a perfect time for Kidd-Gilchrist’s breakfast club, where the first session included Davis, Terrence Jones and Kyle Wiltjer. Other guys are ready to meet up, too, provided they can wake up or get the message.
”No one ever texted me,” sophomore guard Doron Lamb said. ”If I know about it, I’ll go.”
And the number of teammates Kidd-Gilchrist can bring along will be the biggest indicator yet of his ability to lead in the future.
”It adds a lot of chemistry,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. ”I just do it just to do it – and to have fun.”