A simple question — asked of nearly a dozen Kentucky basketball players and coaches at the team’s annual Media Day event Wednesday — kept getting the same response.
“Who’s been surprising you the most in these early practices?” they were all asked. There was additional explanation that this could be a player who was better than expected, a player who had already progressed more than previously predicted, or simply a player who had been impressive in these early practice sessions.
Some guys brought up multiple names. Others singled out just one Wildcat.
Point guards Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington were mentioned more than once.
Freshman Daimion Collins has been wowed by Wheeler’s creativity as a passer, while junior forward Keion Brooks didn’t know the Georgia transfer was so quick until he saw him every day in practice. Veteran guard Davion Mintz noted that Washington, a freshman, plays with a pace usually reserved for older players, that onlookers would think he’d been playing college ball for a while now.
Collins — a 6-foot-9 power forward with next-level athleticism — also worked his way into that honorable mention category. Teammates and coaches spoke of his raw ability — he can touch the top of the backboard, a few pointed out — while also talking up his actual basketball skills.
But the players who mentioned just one teammate all came up with the same name, usually shooting a head nod across the Memorial Coliseum court in his direction. And none of those who said more than one Wildcat had been “most surprising” left him off their lists.
That player was Bryce Hopkins, a four-star prospect who came to Lexington as the least-touted signee in UK’s three-man recruiting class, a freshman often overlooked alongside his more highly ranked peers and the talented transfers and returnees on this Kentucky team.
Once the offseason hype ended and the practices began, Hopkins started turning heads.
UK Coach John Calipari has brought him up more than once already during the preseason — and he did so again Wednesday — noting that Hopkins was better than expected and talking positively of the way he plays a physical brand of basketball.
Listed at 6-6 and 220 pounds, Hopkins is no giant, but he is one of the bigger players on this Kentucky team, and his teammates are getting the sense that he’s one of the strongest on the court. He’s also been showing off perimeter skills.
“I already knew that Bryce was good,” Washington said. ”But the stuff that he’s been doing in practice — the way he dribbles and handles it and shoots, and just his size alone. He’s physical. But he can also get low and play up and guard. So just seeing how he can play as a guard and as a ‘4,’ that’s really unique.
“I just feel like him being on the perimeter and him being able to shoot, too — he’s been able to knock down a lot of shots from deep. And whenever he gets downhill, he’s like a freight train coming at you. People tend to move out of the way when he’s coming at you. It’s either that or you foul him.”
Junior forward Brennan Canada said Hopkins plays more like a “big guard” who can also go into the post and bang with physical forwards. Mintz has been impressed with the way Hopkins smartly uses his body to get into opponents, noting that he already plays like a college upperclassman.
Brooks, who is expected to play that similar “3-4” position for the Wildcats this season, knows the challenges of balancing skill and physicality in that role, and the former five-star recruit knows how difficult it can be to make the transition from high school. He, too, has been impressed with his young teammate.
“The physicality from high school to college is completely different,” Brooks said. “And Bryce — a lot of times — is the enforcer. He’s coming through, he’s being physical and making strong plays. But along with that physicality, he’s skilled, as well. And that’s dangerous when somebody’s that strong and athletic but also skilled — that’s a tough guard. It’s been great competing against him.”
For his part, Hopkins said Collins had surprised him the most this preseason, adding that he’s never seen a 6-9 player who can do the things his fellow freshman can on the court. Hopkins, who has come across as genuinely humble and unassuming in his early UK media sessions, also didn’t attempt to feign surprise when told that every single one of his teammates had mentioned him by name when asked the same question.
“I think I’ve been doing pretty good,” he said of his practices. “Like you said, a lot of people have been saying that I’ve surprised them. It hasn’t been a surprise to me, just because I know the work that I’ve put in and the time I’ve spent in the gym. So I just look to keep opening up eyes and keep getting each other better in practice.”
Hopkins was the No. 38 overall player in the 2021 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. In a senior season that started late due to the COVID-19 pandemic — a circumstance that might have kept him from a higher recruiting ranking — the Chicago-area native averaged 24.4 points and 12.5 rebounds per game and earned Illinois player of the year honors.
He was lauded for his growing skill set — his coach said he shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range — but he’s also long been known for his willingness to do the dirty work, if it helps make his team better.
Calipari pointed out Wednesday that a recent back injury had kept Hopkins out of practice for about a week before adding that he had since returned and was already “nudging his way up” the depth chart with his physical play, ability to rebound and positional versatility.
Asked what his role would be this season, Hopkins responded with a list, the order of which should please Kentucky’s coaches.
“A guy that defends, gets rebounds, makes shots and gets players the ball,” he said.
Defense and rebounding — those are two things that Calipari covets in his players, especially young ones trying to earn some playing time right off the bat.
Hopkins has proven he can score, shown he can shoot, and convinced his teammates that he can be trusted with the ball in his hands. The 19-year-old also knows there are plenty of other Wildcats who can do those things.
“I know, coming in, defense is going to keep you on the court. And rebounding,” he said. “Those are the two things that they wanted me to do, so those are the things that I try to focus on. Because I know if I do those two things — I already know I can score the ball — but if I focus on those two things, I feel like that can put me over the edge and keep me on the court.”
Important upcoming UK dates
Oct. 22: Blue-White Scrimmage (7 p.m., SEC Network)
Oct. 29: Exhibition vs. Kentucky Wesleyan (7 p.m., SEC Network)
Nov. 5: Exhibition vs. Miles College (7 p.m., SEC Network)