Making a Case for DeAndre Liggins

It’s easy to forget now just how big of a recruit DeAndre Liggins was two years ago.  Before John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, Liggins was all set to be Kentucky’s Point Guard of the Future.  He was a super-recruit with loads of potential, a stud ready to take the reins of College Basketball’s All-Time Winningest Program.  Now, he’s a benchwarmer playing behind both Wall and Bledsoe, and, possibly, another off-the-court incident away from being off the team completely.  Most people are fine with this.  I am not.

I realize that it’s tough to play up a sympathetic angle with Liggins; he’s done more than his share to make that pretty much impossible.  Between his refusal to enter a game in Las Vegas, his disappointing play on the court last year, and whatever he’s done to get in Calipari’s doghouse to start this season,  he’s not left much room to squeeze in reason to feel bad for him.  He is, almost by definition, an unsympathetic figure.

But when I think back to the summer of 2007—when Liggins gave his verbal to UK—I can’t help but remember how excited I was to hear about him.

Kentucky’s recruiting over the past decade had been, to put it kindly, shaky.  In fact, I wrote a post dedicated entirely to this.

But Billy Gillispie vowed to change that.  Gone were the days of competing with UABs and Georgias for recruits; we were Kentucky, dammit!  At the turn of the millennium (which, at the time of Gillispie’s arrival, was just seven years ago), we were signing whoever we wanted.  North Carolina, Duke, Kansas—all those schools took a back seat to us.  We’d come within an overtime period against Mike Bibby and Miles ‘I’ll Just Conveniently Play the Fucking Game of my Life Tonight‘ Simon of winning three straight National Titles.  Now, we were competing with (non-Memphis) C-USA schools for recruits.

True to his word, Gillispie snagged Patrick Patterson (a Top-10 player) and Alex Legion (a Four-Star shooter who’d recently de-committed from Michigan) within his first 100 days on the job.  Kentucky was starting to look like a place that could attract blue chip talent again.

I saw DeAndre Liggins as not only a continuation of this success, but as the potential game-breaking recruit every school needs. He could be someone Kentucky would eventually point to as evidence when they said, ‘I know you want to get to the next level, and we know how to get you there.’  Some of the stuff I read suggested Liggins had the potential to be a future lottery pick—something Kentucky hadn’t had in a long time.

But as Liggins’ senior year at Findlay Prep progressed, not much good news seemed to make its way out.  The thing most people remember was the year-long concern that Liggins wasn’t going to academically qualify.  He ended up making it, but what was more troubling to me (which, I suppose, says a lot about my priorities) was the lack of hype surrounding his senior season and subsequent downgrading of his Rivals’ ranking.  I attributed this demotion to his unselfishness:  Everyone called him—more or less—a glue guy, the kind of player that makes others around him better, be it by passing, rebounding, or just old fashioned basketball acumen.  The latter of those attributes is an especially tough one to evaluate, given the AAU-heavy recruiting circuit of today, and has a history of being overlooked by analysts.  I conveniently told myself that Liggins’ game was unselfish to a fault, and that was the real reason his rankings fell.  I convinced myself he was the rarest form of superstar:  The kind that worried little about numbers and personal achievement.  He would be blessed with an innate love for the assist and an altruism that is damn-near impossible to find amongst prep stars today.  Liggins was Scottie Pippen: The Relentlessly Loyal Sidekick who did all the little things and—to those who watched closely —was just as important as the supposedly Fearless Leader.

Of course it’s easy to see now how skewed my perception really was.  I was seeing Liggins’ game through a rose-colored lens.  My logic made zero sense–even if he was a so called ‘glue guy,’ did the same recruiting analysts who’d loved him for his adhesive-like qualities suddenly lose their ability to appreciate them?  Of course not.  What was much more likely: He was playing against better competition and the flaws in his game suddenly became illuminated—but more on this later.

Flash forward to Liggins arrival on campus.  As mentioned earlier, there was some speculation over whether or not he’d even be eligible, and those questions remained unanswered until literally days before the start of school.  But now that he’d made it, the expectations came with him. People were ready to see UK’s Point Guard of the Future.

But in a move that would become indicative of Billy Gillispie’s strange two-season run with Kentucky, the coach started Michael Porter, a UK player most famous for being recruited to play football at USC (which, just for the record, I’ve never believed) at PG to open the season.  Now, I don’t want to say too much negative stuff about Porter because, by all accounts, he was and is a fantastic kid who was always willing to do whatever it took to help the team—and kudos to him for that.  In his defense, Gillispie was guilty of asking him to do too much.  And even though I tend to put the blame on Porter for this, the fault falls squarely on Gillispie—he knows enough about basketball to see what a player isn’t capable of.  So, in the interest of not dragging a good kid’s name through the mud, I’ll just stick to the facts.

Porter was, by just about everyone’s account, one of the worst starting guards in UK history.  His numbers for the ’08-’09 Season: 4.1 Points, 2.5 Assists, and 1.7 Rebounds/Game to go along with 2.2 Turnovers/Game, a 36% Field Goal Percentage, and 33% from behind the 3-Point line.  Porter shot a grand total of 139 Field Goals in 36 games and 847 minutes that season, an average of 3.86 shots per game, or one shot per every 6.09 minutes played.  Numbers like this make it all the more remarkable that Jodie Meeks was able to do the things he did last season; if nothing else, they illustrate just how little the other team had to be concerned with when they doubled Meeks, because the other player in Kentucky’s backcourt was scared to shoot (or instructed not to).   Michael Porter should’ve had a hard time making it as the 12th man on Kentucky’s team. Instead, he started all 36 games last season.

Gillispie defended this decision to start Porter with what would become his trademark logic: Those who earn it, get it.  Most people (i.e., everyone) had a hard time accepting this answer.  One look each of the guys told you everything you needed to know.  Liggins was a 6’5’’ athletic specimen; Porter looked like he’d have a tough time making the golf team.

At least early on, Liggins made Gillispie’s decision look foolish.  In the season opener—a home loss to VMI—Liggins went for 6 points, 5 assists, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 27 minutes of action.  In another home loss—this time to Miami—Liggins tallied 18 points, 5 assists, 7 rebounds, a block, and a steal in 32 minutes.  It’d be misleading to leave out his 10 combined turnovers in those games, but the potential was there.  He was one of the few guys on the floor (the others being Meeks and Patterson) that visibly stood out from the rest of the team.  He was long, athletic, and the upside to his game was there for everyone to see.  How could Gillispie not play him?

Suffice it to say he found a way.  Things only got worse from there.  Liggins’ minutes started to dip. He played less than ten minutes in thirteen of Kentucky’s games, bottoming out with three DNP’s against Florida, Tennessee (Meeks’ 54-Pointer), and LSU in the SEC Tournament.  This was the guy that virtually everyone expected to open the season as the starter at PG. He would finish the year with one start.  His averages for the season looked like this:

Games Played: 33

Minutes/Game: 16.5

Points/Game: 4.2

FG Pct: 36.2

3FG Pct: 23.5

FT Pct: 67.3

Rebounds/Game: 2.4

Assists/Game: 2.8

Turnovers/Game: 2.2

Assist/Turnover Ratio: 1.2

Steals/Game: 0.7

Blocks/Game: 0.4

Given, it wasn’t the worst freshman season in the history of college basketball, but it was a far cry from the kind of debut campaign we were hoping for.  But—fortunately for Liggins—there were still many who refused to give up on him for one reason: Billy Gillispie was insane.

The tyrant coach and problem-child player had created an interesting divide amongst the Kentucky Faithful:  You were either in the Liggins Is Overrated and Brought This All on Himself Camp or the Gillispie Is An Idiot And Running Our Star Recruit Into The Ground Camp.  Liggins wasn’t doing himself any favors with his attitude or erratic play, but Gillispie’s constant nonsense did more than enough to counteract that.  Billy Clyde Gillispie was slowly but surely destroying every ounce of credibility he had; his team was losing, his press conferences were becoming more and more inane, and rumors surrounding his personal life were getting nasty.

At the end of the season, Billy Gillispie was fired.  This had as much to do with the off the court stuff than the losses that came on it.  Several players, including Liggins, were rumored to be out the door if Gillispie was brought back.  But he wasn’t.  John Calipari (the same guy who’d recruited Liggins two years earlier) was brought in, and a whole new era for Liggins and Kentucky began.

The Pro-Liggins Case

The case for Liggins is pretty straightforward:  Gillispie stunted his development as a player.

I don’t want to speak for everyone on this, but I feel like I developed an eye for this sort of problem from seeing our previous coach—in my opinion—do this with more than his share of players.  Whether it was Antwain Barbour, Joe Crawford, or Rajon Rondo; Tubby Smith—again, in MY opinion—had a bad habit of keeping the reins a bit too tight.  As any former basketball player can attest, there are few things harder in life than playing for a coach that wants you to be both 1) aggressive and 2) to completely avoid turnovers and missed shots; almost by definition, they’re two contradicting philosophies.  Moreover, they’re two contradicting philosophies that a ridiculous number of coaches still employ.  Without going too far into this, it is beyond me why any recruit would want to play for a guy who coaches this way, as opposed to say, a Rick Pitino or a John Calipari, who both seem to almost encourage aggressive mistakes.  One of my all-time favorite coaching quotes is from Rick Pitino, and it deals with the importance of a Shooter’s Mentality.  It goes, ‘If you miss 15 in a row, know the 16th is going in.’ In short, this means that you can’t be preoccupied with making mistakes, because if you’re worried about messing up, you’re incapable of being wholly aggressive.  There’s another phrase of the same ilk that just about every basketball player has heard: You’re thinking too much.  And I think that if there’s one thing just about every basketball coach can agree on, it’s this: Good basketball is about reacting, not thinking.

With that said, my point is that Liggins started thinking too much.  He stopped reacting, and he became afraid to make mistakes.  One of the best ways to gauge a player’s fear level for mistakes is how quickly his head shoots to the bench after committing a turnover or missing a shot.  Liggins, along with just about everyone else on the team, practically game themselves whiplash last season.  Gillispie had all of them afraid to make mistakes, and that’s why they all looked like poorly-programmed robots towards the end of the season.

The Anti-Liggins Case

Of course, the case against Liggins is pretty straightforward too:  He sucks.

While I don’t side with this group, I’d be lying if I said they don’t have some strong points.  Liggins is a tweener in the ultimate—and worst—sense of the word.  He was billed as a Point Guard coming out of high school, but it didn’t take long for even the most novice basketball fans to see the problems with that:  He doesn’t handle the ball exceptionally well and he’s turnover-prone.  After awhile, people started making the argument that Liggins was better-suited to play Shooting Guard or Small Forward.  It didn’t take much longer for people to pick that one apart: He doesn’t shoot, get to the rim, or score particularly well. Why would you put him at a position that asks him to do all of those things?

He handles the ball well, but not that well. He’s not a terrible shooter, but he’s certainly not a good one either. He has a gift for getting past his defender, but he has a tendency to be out of control and make bad decisions once he gets in the lane.  In short, Liggins does a lot of things that might be rated as Average to Pretty Good, but very few things you’d rate as Pretty Good to Excellent.

And while I certainly hear this side of the argument, there’s a part of me that can’t shut the door on his raw ability.  He’s a long-armed, 6’5’’ Point-Forward that sees the floor exceptionally well.  He’s not an explosive athlete, but he’s a good one (think a less-skilled Tyreke Evans).  His shot isn’t consistent, but the form is good (a solid sign that it could become consistent).  He doesn’t always make great decisions with the ball, but I honestly believe a lot of that will be remedied by the coaching change.  He was scared stiff out there last year; I don’t expect that to be a problem this season.

Where That Leaves Us

All of that brings us to our current problem:  Liggins has yet to see the floor this season.  There’s been no official word as to why, but most speculate that it’s a consequence of off-the-court behavior.  All of this comes after an off-season full of stories on how he was one of the guys who set to benefit most from the coaching change, how he’s taking the high-road and not blaming Gillispie for his problems last season, and how he’s been the one guy in practice so far who’s been able to keep up with John Wall.

Last year, he was a highly touted newcomer that everyone wanted to see do well; this year, he’s just another one of many highly touted players, and one that most people could care less whether or not he finally puts it all together.  He’s yesterday’s news.  We signed two of the three top Point Guards in the country last spring–our hopes and dreams are no longer dependent on DeAndre Liggins.

But I guess I’m an anomaly in that sense– I’m still very invested in Liggins.  I’m not totally sure why, but I think part of it is why I also find myself rooting particularly hard for Daniel Orton and Jon Hood: They were big time recruits who signed with Kentucky before we became Kentucky again.  As much as I’d like to convince myself otherwise, those other guys (Wall, Bledsoe, Cousins, and Dodson) wanted to play for Calipari, not Kentucky.  Don’t get me wrong, no one’s happier to have them than me.  This will almost definitely be the most exciting Kentucky team to watch in over a decade—nothing makes me happier than that.  But the other guys—Patterson, Liggins, Orton, and Hood— they signed with UK when it was still a visibly up-hill battle.  There wasn’t a ton of talent on the team or even any coming in the foreseeable future, but they still wanted to be a part of the rebuilding process at Kentucky.

Liggins, at one time, was viewed as the potential centerpiece for the new-era Kentucky Wildcats.  I’d hate to see him not even be a part of it.

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