A five-star basketball recruit is finding himself at Kentucky. ‘I’m still learning.’
The statistics next to his name rarely register a second look, especially compared to the gaudy numbers he put up on the basketball court before he arrived at Kentucky.
But if you actually watch the games, you can’t miss him. He’s the one diving for loose balls. He’s the one giving all-out second and third and fourth efforts to keep possessions alive. He’s the one who’s not afraid to venture into the paint and mix it up with bigger and taller opponents.
Chris Livingston is less than a year removed from the McDonald’s All-American Game, long ranked among the top five recruits in his class and an aspiring NBA Draft pick. He’s also Kentucky’s seventh-leading scorer this season, and that seems to suit him just fine.
As long as he’s bringing the energy.
“That’s just my role. That’s what I bring,” Livingston said. “Yeah, it feels good to make shots and do this and that. But we’ve got other guys that can hit shots, too. If I’m bringing the energy to the table, doing all the little stuff: tipping balls, guarding my yard on defense, not letting my man score, flying around, being a great help defender — then the team is better off.
“I can’t just be focusing whether I’m missing or making shots. My role is to defend and play hard and rebound. So that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
It didn’t take a “Basketball Benny” — as John Calipari would say — to notice Livingston against Arkansas on Tuesday night. He made a series of strong drives at the basket in the first half to help keep UK on par with the Razorbacks, then he nailed two at-the-time crucial three-pointers in the second half to keep the Hogs from pulling away. Pull away they did, of course, to the tune of an 88-73 victory over the Wildcats, and Livingston sat in front of reporters afterward and shouldered the blame for the latest UK loss, expressing that he could have done more to help.
But that was just another sign of a selfless basketball player.
“He’s not the reason this happened tonight,” Calipari said. “He was one of the bright spots.”
Livingston ended up with 13 points — his highest total in nearly two months — and five rebounds. Just about everywhere else on the court, it was an all-systems failure for the Cats.
“The kid is getting better and better and more confident,” Calipari said. “He mixes it up, and that’s all I can ask.”
So far this season, Livingston is averaging 5.6 points and 3.0 rebounds in 17.7 minutes per game. Two seasons ago — as a junior at Buchtel High in Akron, Ohio — he averaged 31.1 points, 15.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 4.7 steals and 4.0 blocked shots per game. Even last year at prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, he was seen as “the guy” on a roster stacked with high-major Division I prospects. So, this has been an adjustment.
“I’ve never played like that in my life, to be honest with you,” Livingston said Tuesday night. “To be honest, it is tough. But I’m chasing something that’s bigger than me at this point in time. We have a really good team, and in order to bring it all together, I gotta be a star in my role. So I have to do what I have to do to help this team out. And understand what we can do later on down the line. It’s a marathon. Even though we just lost, we’re still looking ahead.
“It’s just a mental thing. You’ve gotta change your mindset.”
Livingston went on to say that part of being a basketball player is figuring out how to adapt to different situations and circumstances. On a team that has struggled — relative to preseason expectations — and playing a role he almost certainly didn’t envision for himself when he signed with the Cats as a possible one-and-done NBA pick, Livingston is just looking for ways he can help.
“I’m sure it’s tough,” said senior guard CJ Fredrick. “I’ve never been that big of a recruit, so I’m sure it’s difficult to have that hype and that publicity in high school, and then come in and figure out what your role is with this team. But he’s done a tremendous job of figuring out how to be successful in what his role is in helping us win games.”
There might not be a better of example of that than the first few minutes against Florida on Saturday night, when Livingston was a boundless ball of energy on the court, helping the Wildcats get out to an uncharacteristically quick start — an early 8-2 lead — in a game they never trailed.
UK associate coach Orlando Antigua said Monday that Livingston was “unbelievable” in that game, though he tallied just four points and two rebounds.
“That was huge for our team,” Antigua said. “He kept a lot of those 50/50 balls that wind up going our way — he was in the middle of. He was involved with. He was the first to the floor. And that just sets a tone, in particular in the first minutes of the game. It just sets a tone in terms of how we want to play. And some of that stuff doesn’t get into the stat sheet, but when we sit and we watch the film, we understand how valuable that is to our team.
“And it has to continue. And he can’t be the only one that is doing that. But that becomes contagious. Because now he’s diving, now Jacob (Toppin) is diving, now Sahvir (Wheeler) is diving, now Cason (Wallace) is diving. Now we gotta get Oscar (Tshiebwe) to dive.”
It’ll be interesting to see where Livingston goes from here. UK has just seven regular-season games left, and then it’ll be whatever postseason fate awaits. None of the most recent NBA mock drafts from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports or The Athletic mention Livingston.
In the past, he would’ve fit the profile of a promising player in need of more time at the college level. The reality of the current state of college basketball is there are no certainties when it comes to young players sticking around.
Livingston, however, has a history of taking the measured approach. He decided to finish his high school career at Oak Hill when he could have easily stayed home in Akron and put up video-game numbers as a senior. He chose to come to Kentucky when he could have gone to other programs — or even the G League — and received star treatment right off the bat. This preseason, he began his UK career with a clear mind about being a team player.
“Whatever my role entails, whatever I have to do to help — I’m willing to do it,” he said in the fall. “That’s what my mind’s set on.”
More recently, Livingston — one of the most insightful interviews on the team, despite his young age — has talked about turning his focus away from offense and concentrating on being more physical and playing better defense, pointing to that as his path toward becoming a more complete player.
“Although we are really deep into the season, I’m still learning. I’m still getting more comfortable each game we play,” he said. “... It’s basketball, so you always have to learn your teammates. You always have to learn yourself.”
Kentucky at Georgia
When: Noon Saturday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 16-8 (7-4 SEC), Georgia 14-10 (4-7)
Series: Kentucky leads 131-27
Last meeting: Kentucky won 85-71 on Jan. 17 in Lexington
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