Kentucky Wildcats sophomore Isaiah Briscoe betting on himself with decision to turn pro

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(Photo: Darrell Bird, 247Sports)

Prior to the season, coach said ’s decision to return for his sophomore year meant Kentucky would “really have a leader who is an alpha dog. He’s going to teach these young kids the competitive spirit you have to have.”

By year’s end, Briscoe was named to Sports Illustrated’s All-Glue Team, in recognition of his leading that trio of freshmen to within one basket of the 2017 Final Four.

In that regard, mission accomplished. On Thursday, Briscoe announced he would enter the NBA Draft and sign with an agent. Many believe Briscoe will go undrafted and start his professional life in the NBA’s Developmental League.

No matter the stop, Calipari touts Briscoe, including things that don’t show up on a stat sheet.

“If you don’t invest anything in this game, you’ll surrender,” Calipari said. “And then you’ll make an excuse and then the people around you will enable you. But when you work and invest, you just don’t surrender. You just keep playing, you keep coming, you keep doing it, and then you start dragging other guys with you. ‘We’re not giving up. All the work I put in this, come on!’ And that’s where he is.

“His leadership, his defense, his toughness, his rebounding, his ability to get in the lane,” Calipari said. “There’s unbelievable value to that. He’s really become that well-rounded player that I would have hoped.”

From day one, Briscoe relished the leadership opportunity, especially with Calipari’s “Alpha Dog” notation.

“I know what it means,” Briscoe said. “Fearless. Tough. Ain’t scared of nothing. That’s exactly how I am. Regardless of how my game is going, I’m going to be there. I’ll be there going to war with somebody. I’ll get you the ball. I’ll guard your man so you don’t get tired. I’m going to war.”

Improved statistics was also a key message from NBA personnel when Briscoe opted to remove his name from the draft.

In 2016, Briscoe shot 43.9 percent, including 13.5 percent from 3-point range, and 46 percent on free throws.

In 2017, Briscoe’s numbers were 47 percent, 29 and 63.5. He also averaged 5.4 rebounds, second best on the team despite being only 6-foot-3, and had 151 steals vs. 89 turnovers and 30 steals.

The jury remains out on Briscoe’s pro future.

“He’s going to be fine,” Calipari insisted in March. “He’s got the body. He’s got the physique, so that’s not an issue. He’s going to have to get in the gym and the shot’s going to have to be more consistent. But do you know how many guys go in that league with that as the one thing?

“When you handle the ball like he does, when you’re as tough as he is, that’s winning basketball,” the coach said. “Got to shoot the ball better. All right, get in the gym, shoot a thousand a day, make a thousand a day. Same on getting to the rim. The court’s a little more open, but he’s got those traits and all those things that he does in his game.”

Improved skills and maturity were the only missing pieces preventing Briscoe from being one of the most complete basketball players in America.

“I take you out when you don’t dive on that floor, you don’t come up with that tough rebound, you don’t talk on defense,” Calipari said. “That doesn’t take a skill, that’s an effort. That’s a focus. That’s a laser focus on winning. And when you watch this team, who has it on this team? Isaiah.”

It all starts with that New Jersey attitude.

“I’ve had that since I was growing up,” the Newark native said. “I’m the youngest in my family. I’ve always played against older guys. And just where I grew up. You had to be like that.”

It is the trait Calipari pointed to most often when educating a new crop of freshman on how the college game must be played.

“It’s all based on defensive intensity,” Calipari said. “You do that, you rebound the ball, you get a chance to stay in and miss shots. I said, ‘I’m not subbing him because that kid right there wins. He fights. He’ll punch. He bites. He’s winning. That’s what we need from a team full of guys.”

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