Separated from all contact practices since early October and Kentucky’s first nine games of the season with a delicate calf injury, second-year forward Keion Brooks Jr. has returned with a vengeance.
Finishing with 12 points on 6-8 shots, six rebounds, four assists, one block and one steal in 24 minutes, Brooks was one of the main reasons Kentucky managed to take the 76-58 victory and move on to 3-0 in conference play.
After months of uncertainty and practice limitations, British head coach John Calipari was delighted to have a “stabilizing force” back in the Kentucky roster.
“The only thing he couldn’t do with us was something with contact. He was practicing, conditioning, and I said, “You better do it, because we’re going to know something in the next few days.” You are in better condition. And it was, ”Calipari said. “He’s just a disciplined and conscientious (player). It’s good to have a stabilizing force. … There was a lot of good.
The impressive first performance comes after an emotional week for the second-year forward, one where he expected news of yet another delayed return from the team’s medics.
“I told the team that, when he spoke to the doctors he looked scared to death, thought it was going to last longer. The hands were shaking. He came to me, they whitewashed him, and he and I got moved and I hugged him.
After the news, Brooks didn’t care about his place in the rotation or how many minutes he would get right away. The veteran forward only cared about doing what was best for the team.
Given the team’s recent public and private turmoil, Calipari was quick to use Brooks’ response and general message as a lesson for the team.
“I said, ‘I have to figure out how I can drag you. He said, “Coach, I trust you, you do what you think is best for this team. “I told the team,” Calipari said. “I said, ‘Think about some of you. You are captioned, and some of you are like, “Why did you submit to me ?! ” Think of you. Think about how he reacted to this. He is a leader, for example. He’s not a confrontational guy, it’s not who he is.
When it comes to on-court presence, Brooks built right after his impressive year-end performance at Gainesville last March, performing with poise and confidence. You could see the slight rust, but Brooks made the right scoring, passing, and defense decisions more often than not.
“You’ve seen the kind of athlete he is,” Calipari said. “See, he’s a lot stronger physically than where he was. He is much more mentally patient, the game has slowed down for him. It’s a big problem. We played without him, I mean come on.
Calipari compared Brooks to a coach on the pitch, praising the second-year forward for his guidance and leadership on his debut into the season.
“He can calm them down on the pitch so he takes our team away,” said the British head coach. “That’s what makes it amazing at Mississippi State how we’ve done this without him. How we did it and how they stayed together. He’s a special young man, a great human being, a great teammate and a talented basketball player. Very talented. ”
Teaming up alongside Brooks for the first time in his career, graduate transfer guard Davion Mintz struggled to find words to describe the 6-foot-7 forward’s play in his debut. To put it simply, it was a game-changer.
“You watched the game, you saw it,” Mintz said. “He gave us a whole different element to the game. Keion was amazing today. It was super fun. I am speechless, really. It was amazing. ”
Oddly enough, Mintz could sense that an impressive day was coming for Brooks after talking to him during the pre-game warm-ups. There were no nerves, no pressure.
Brooks was just grateful to be back on the floor.
“Keion has had good practices. He calmed down. But in order not to discredit his practices, it looks nothing like the game. He just turned a different switch, it was amazing, ”Mintz said. “We were testing him, seeing what he could do. … We knew he would play well, but we didn’t know he would come in and make the impact he made. It’s just an honor to his job and the rehab guys who helped him out.
“… He has no pressure on him. He said to me before the game, “I’m just going to go and have fun, I have nothing to lose. I just have the chance to play at the moment. Once I saw he had this attitude, I knew, “OK, have a good day for Keion.” And he did. ”
As for Brooks, he was confident in his ability to produce in his early days, thanking Kentucky strength coach Rob Harris for keeping him in shape as his calf injury kept him out of competition.
“I always believed in my ability to come back and play well. I was constantly working out, I was staying in great shape, ”said Brooks. “Big cry to Coach Rob Harris, our strength trainer. I don’t even like to call him that, he’s so much more than that. Not only did he do a great job keeping me in shape, but I spent a lot of time with him so he was always in my ear to stay positive. The conversations that we had, he really got me through what I was going through.
Above all, beyond production, Brooks was just happy to serve as a leader for a team that had desperately needed it since the start of the season. He wanted to bring a positive and contagious attitude to the floor, and that was rubbing off on his teammates.
“You hit the nail on the head, my leadership. I’m just trying to bring energy and I hope my energy is contagious for my teammates, ”said Brooks. “They also did a great job of staying with me the entire time that I was injured. I didn’t want to go out there and let them down, not play at their level, not be as engaged as them, not have as much energy as they would have. It works both ways.
“My leadership really depended on them and on them allowing me to be a leader. It went well tonight.