Why wasn’t Sheppard — the team’s best player, by just about any measure — in the starting five in place of Wagner, who hadn’t lived up to the NBA lottery pick billing over the first few games?
Never mind that things were working just fine. The Wildcats were consistently fun to watch for the first time in years. Sheppard and fellow super sub Rob Dillingham were thriving in their roles off the bench, still receiving ample opportunity to show their stuff. Everyone was getting plenty of minutes, and all involved sounded perfectly content with the arrangement.
And then Wagner went down with an ankle injury in UK’s eventual 95-73 rout of No. 8 Miami.
And then Sheppard did indeed get his first college start, greeted Saturday afternoon by a Rupp Arena pop rarely heard before a game begins.
By Saturday evening, everyone saw what happens when you mess with the recipe for success.
The Wildcats were missing a key ingredient.
It would be a disservice to hang Kentucky’s 80-73 loss to UNC Wilmington solely on the absence of Wagner, who remained sidelined Saturday with that injured ankle. But it would be disingenuous to watch that game and not acknowledge what the freshman means to this UK team.
Sheppard was the first to acknowledge the Wildcats missed him on the court.
“D.J.’s a really, really good teammate,” he said after scoring 25 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out six assists — all team-highs — in a losing effort. “He’s a great communicator. He’s a good defender. He fights. He gets us in what we need to be in. He keeps everyone up. So he’s really, really good and just being a good teammate and doing what he needs to do.”
And he was that again Saturday.
Wagner’s high school teammate, Aaron Bradshaw, has often been the team’s biggest fan during games, constantly chattering and cheering from the bench as he recovered from offseason foot surgery. On Saturday afternoon, Bradshaw knew he was finally going to make his debut, and as he stared out at the court just before tipoff, it was Wagner who was in his ear, trying to pump him up.
When UK won the tip and Sheppard rose up for a 3-point attempt on that first possession, Wagner threw three fingers in the air from the UK bench. The shot didn’t fall, and Kentucky found itself in a battle from there.
Sophomore starter Adou Thiero said afterward that the team was “off” from the beginning. Fellow starter Tre Mitchell — a fifth-year college veteran — said the Cats were “very dead” from an energy standpoint. He said that while specifically discussing Wagner.
“D.J. just brings another energy to the court,” Mitchell said, noting that not only is the freshman a good communicator on the court, but he’s great at lifting up his teammates before and during games.
Wagner’s competitiveness was a talking point long before he arrived on UK’s campus. John Calipari, who also coached the 18-year-old’s father — Memphis star and NBA lottery pick Dajuan Wagner — mentioned that trait again Monday night on his weekly radio show. He said he had shown his young team a tape of Kobe Bryant talking about learning to play while uncomfortable and pushing through exhaustion on the court.
“I looked at D.J. Wagner today and I said, ‘You have a will to win. You could reach in and grab something extra.’ Most guys don’t have that,” Calipari said. “And I looked at him and I said ‘I coached your dad. He had it too.’ Most of that’s because they push through exhaustion... There’s something else in their body.”
And then there’s the actual basketball.
“You’re talking about a playmaker, a dude that attacks the basket very well, draws a lot of attention off of pick-and-roll situations,” Mitchell said of Wagner. “And he dogs the ball on defense. He pressures the ball, and we had a lot of straight-line drives tonight. A lot of and-ones.”
Aside from the defense, which Calipari spent much of his postgame press conference lamenting, the Cats didn’t click at all offensively, unfathomable after establishing themselves as one of the best — perhaps the best — scoring teams in America over their first seven games.
“The thing that bothered me to start the game — I understand our starting point guard was out, OK? But we didn’t play the same way. We held the ball,” Calipari said. “Everybody is trying to make a play. So now you say: ‘Well, why didn’t you get off more 3s?’ Because everybody who caught it, held it.”
The Cats made just 5 of 17 3-pointers. They were shooting 42.6% and averaging 11.9 makes per game going into the weekend. They had 14 assists, seven below their season average. They had nine turnovers in the first half alone after averaging just 8.1 per game before Saturday.
“And they were all because we’re trying to make the hardest possible play, instead of just easy plays,” Calipari said.
When will D.J. Wagner return?
Two things can be true at the same time.
Sheppard has started this season off spectacularly. Wagner has been pretty good, too. And his contributions on the court don’t always translate to the box score or even the deeper analytics. He’s a connective tissue for these Cats. As is Sheppard. As is Mitchell. As are others.
Wagner sets a tone for the team before and during games, even when he struggles individually.
His mere presence on offense — a dynamic playmaker that defenses must account for at all times — leads to more openings for teammates, even if he never touches the ball. He can drive and kick out for a squad that can shoot. He’s a blur in transition, the preferred method of this team so far. Defensively, he gets beat sometimes, too, but he dogs opponents on and off the ball, often leading to miscues that can turn into UK points.
And he was playing his best basketball yet at the time of his injury.
Wagner was fine in Kentucky’s first two games, averaging 12.0 points, 3.5 assists and 2.0 steals in blowout wins over New Mexico State and Texas A&M-Commerce. He struggled mightily against No. 1 Kansas — four points, one assist, 1-for-12 from the floor — as Sheppard scored 13 points and swiped four steals in 16 minutes. Three days later, Wagner scored nine points against Stonehill College while Sheppard went off: 25 points, 9-for-10 shooting, 7-for-8 on 3-pointers with seven assists and three steals.
That got everybody in a tizzy. And then Wagner turned it up.
He scored 22 points in an overtime win over Saint Joseph’s and then dropped 28 points on Marshall four nights later. He averaged 5.5 assists and just 2.0 turnovers in those games. He made 17 of 31 shots and 13 of 15 free throws. Those were games five and six in the college career of Wagner, the youngest player on this UK team by four months.
In the win over Marshall, the Cats scored 118 points — the most ever in Calipari’s 15 seasons at UK. Three days later, Wagner was named the SEC freshman of the week.
“I never worried about D.J., and I told him that,” the UK coach said after the Marshall game. “I went up to him and said, ‘You know, I am not worried about you at all.’ Because he has a great temperament about it, and he’s living in the gym. So it will bust through.”
And Calipari also knows that will need to happen for this team to completely realize its potential by March. Getting such immediate contributions from Sheppard and Dillingham has been a bonus, and the Cats will need Wagner and Justin Edwards — another projected lottery pick coming into the season — to become their best college basketball selves over the next few months.
What Wagner could be was starting to become apparent. And what the Wildcats miss when he’s not there was glaring Saturday against UNC Wilmington.
Sheppard followed Wagner with the SEC’s freshman of the week honors Monday, but he surely would give that title up for another go at full strength against the Seahawks. Dillingham, who didn’t enter Saturday’s game alongside Sheppard for the first time since last month’s loss to Kansas, had his worst outing as a Wildcat by far. Just two points on 1-for-9 shooting. Four turnovers and four fouls in 24 minutes.
Calipari said on his weekly radio show Monday night that Wagner attended practice that day as a spectator as he continues to get treatment on his ankle. UK is calling him “day to day,” and — barring a setback — the injury is not expected to sideline him too much longer.
It’s possible he could return against Penn on Saturday. And Kentucky won’t play again for another seven days after that — a date with No. 9 North Carolina looming on Dec. 16.
The Wildcats would surely love to have Wagner back on the court by then.
“Whether he’ll play Saturday, we won’t know for a while,” Calipari said Monday night. “… I know he wants to play, but it’s black and blue. It’s not swollen anymore, but it’s black and blue. So, we’ll see.”
No. 16 Kentucky vs. Penn
When: Noon Saturday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 6-2, Penn 5-4
Series: Kentucky leads 5-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 86-62 on Jan. 3, 2011, in Lexington