Writer’s note: Hello UK fans! My name is Aaron Torres, and if you’re wondering “who the heck is this guy,” well, you have something in common with most of my family! Anyway, I am the author of the new book on the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats “One and Fun” and also cover college hoops (and a little college football) for Fox Sports.
Speaking of Fox, way back at the start of the season, I pitched them an article on Alex Poythress, with the idea that “his story” would be told through the eyes of his former teammates at UK (a lot like the excellent piece my buddy Drew Franklin from Kentucky Sports Radio did a few weeks back). Unfortunately for a few different reasons (all of which were my fault) by the time the article was ready, it wasn’t the right fit for Fox.
Still I enjoyed doing it, and thought it was something Kentucky fans would enjoy reading, so I wanted to make sure that it ran somewhere.
Thankfully Cameron was nice enough to let me run it here… enjoy!
Willie Cauley-Stein will never forget the first time he played against Alex Poythress.
It came in the summer of 2012, just days after he had arrived for his freshman season at Kentucky. At the time Cauley-Stein wasn’t what he would eventually become — which was a consensus first-team All-American, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and NBA lottery pick — but instead was something different altogether: A nervous and intimidated freshman at UK, unsure if he belonged at one of college basketball’s premiere programs.
Going up against guys like Poythress — who at the time was projected as possibly the top pick in the following year’s draft — didn’t make that transition any easier.
“I was like ‘Man, I don’t even know if I’m supposed to be here,’” Cauley-Stein said during a recent interview. “I was super discouraged by Alex, because he was so much bigger (physically) than me, he was so much more mature body-wise, and I just remember playing pick-up, and I couldn’t stop him. It was like, (he’d drop a) spin-move dunk, he could shoot it, come off the dribble, and it was like ‘this dude is unstoppable. How am I supposed to play against this dude?’”
That’s right, while some might not remember it, Poythress was once “that dude” at Kentucky, part immaculate force, part immovable object, and surefire future NBA star.
Obviously things haven’t followed that path since then, but in the process, Poythress has created a different path altogether. Over the last four years he has become a cornerstone on some of the most talented teams in Kentucky history, while helping re-shape the national image of what a “Kentucky basketball player” really is.
Off the court, Poythress (like John Wall, Brandon Knight, Karl Anthony Towns and others before him) is a dedicated student, who graduated from Kentucky in three years and was recently named an Academic All-American while taking Master’s classes. On the court he is a dedicated teammate, willing to switch positions, move to the bench, and basically do whatever it takes to help win games.
And as Poythress gets set to play his final few games in a Kentucky uniform, we decided to track down the people who know Poythress best — his former UK teammates — to discuss what makes him so special.
Like Cauley-Stein, Goodwin has a vivid memory of the first time he figured out who Alex Poythress was. Unlike Cauley-Stein it didn’t come in a pick-up session in the Joe Craft Center, but instead on the AAU circuit a few years earlier.
Just like Cauley-Stein, Goodwin immediately saw an explosive athlete, who terrorized peers his own age. Even in a gym with all the best high school basketball players in the country, Poythress stood out.
“We were playing against him in AAU,” Goodwin said. “He caught the ball one step inside the foul line and took off. He got fouled, but man, you just it. Not many 17-year-olds have that size or strength.”
The pair arrived at Kentucky a few years later along with Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel, and as we all know, things didn’t exactly go to plan. Yes, Noel, Poythress and Goodwin were three of the best high school players in the country, but their inexperience, coupled with the expectations that came in a season immediately following the 2012 National Championship, led to a disappointing year in Lexington.
Sure, there were highlights (including Poythress’ 20-point performance against Duke in the Champion’s Classic) but plenty of low-lights too, in a 21-12 season which ended with a loss to Robert Morris in the NIT.
While the season was tough, it brought Poythress and Goodwin (who were roommates) closer together.
“It made us better friends,” Goodwin said. “When you go through that (adversity), you see who’s for you and who’s not.”
With the season over, the same process began that happens every year in Lexington: Trying to figure out who is staying and who is going. While Noel and Goodwin decided to take their talents to the next level, both Poythress and Cauley-Stein remained on the fence.
Unsure of what to do next, they consulted each other.
And when they found out each other’s interest in coming back, it quickly became a no-brainer.
They would return to Lexington, and make sure things were different the following season.
“Towards the end of the year when we’re trying to figure out who was coming back and who was leaving, he was like ‘Yo, Willie if you’re coming back, I’m coming back,’” Cauley-Stein said. “And I was like ‘Oh? Alright then, we’ve got some unfinished business.’”
The pair did have some unfinished business, and when the next group of superstar freshmen came in, they had something that Cauley-Stein, Poythress and others didn’t have the year before: Leaders who had been there before. The duo stepped up, serving as a bridge between the coaching staff and new players such as Julius Randle, James Young and others when they arrived on campus.
Specifically Poythress took Young under his wing, which might be a bit surprising, considering that they both played the same position. But for Poythress it was never an issue.
Sure the duo battled in practice every day, but off the court, Poythress served as a mentor for Young.
“Alex is one of the first people I met when I got to Kentucky,” Young said. “He showed me around campus, and he really took me under his wing,”
And more than anything, that is who “AP” is, according to those who know him best.
Yes, on the court he can be a leader, someone who’s loud and vocal and not afraid to talk a little smack after a big dunk. But off of it… well, that’s another story altogether. There, Poythress is quiet and reserved, focused on his academics, and yet still always takes time to look out for those around him. When describing Poythress, virtually every single person interviewed for this piece used the same word to explain exactly who he is. They called him their “brother.”
And there’s no doubt that the bonds of that brotherhood showed through during Poythress’ junior year in 2015, when a hot start for both the player and team was derailed after Poythress suffered a knee injury.
When it first happened, no one was exactly sure just how bad it was. But when they did find out, well, no one was exactly sure how to act.
“I remember when it happened in practice,” Cauley-Stein said. “They told us that night, we had a team meeting and they told us he had torn his ACL. It was emotional. Dudes were crying, because he’s such a good dude.”
For Poythress, the road to recovery began with words of encouragement from his teammates; those like Goodwin and Young sent texts, while those still on campus tried to do everything they could to lift Poythress’ spirits.
Cauley-Stein specifically played a huge role in Poythress’ recovery, if only because he knew exactly what his teammate was going through. The 7’1 center had just spent the previous several months recovering from an ankle injury suffered during the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and knew just how tough and lonely the rehab process could be.
“You’re not with the team at certain points, you’re not doing the same things, you’re not in the same inside jokes,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s the problem, you’re in the locker room and you’re not getting the jokes when they happen, so you’re just like ‘man, I just feel super left out.’”
After experiencing that himself, Cauley-Stein made sure that Poythress didn’t go through the same thing.
“Every single one of us was going into his room, every single night,” Cauley-Stein said. “If we were going out, before we were going out, we were saying ‘What’s up? You missed this today. This was funny. I wish you could have been here.’ Everybody would just pop in his room.”
“It was cool to keep him in the loop. We kept him with us.”
Poythress wasn’t interviewed for this story, but it’s safe to assume that one of the toughest days of his career came in early April of last year. It was the day that seven of his teammates — seven of his brothers — declared for the NBA Draft.
Had you asked anyone a few months earlier, they would have said that Poythress would have been the eighth person up on the podium that day, but instead, he was stuck recovering from that knee injury. It left him with little choice but to come back for his senior season.
Again, Cauley-Stein relied on his own experiences to try and help guide Poythress.
“It’s part of God’s plan,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s the way I took it when I broke my ankle, it’s like ‘Man, I wasn’t supposed to leave.’ I was planning on leaving and I end up breaking my ankle and I come back. And you have to put that in your head, that everything happened for a reason. That God humbled me today, so I could be better for tomorrow. That’s the way I looked at it the whole time, and I still look at it like that.”
To his credit Poythress worked diligently during the recovery process and was healthy and ready to return for the start of this season. While it’s been an up-and-down senior campaign (including another knee surgery), Poythress has shown flashes of the player he once was, and can still be at the next level. Ironically, two of his best games have come against Alabama, where he scored a season-high 25 points back in January, before putting up another 20 in the SEC Tournament.
Speaking of the next level, that is obviously the next step for Poythress.
Those who are there now are excited to see what he’ll bring to the table.
“He’s more than capable of being a player here,” said Goodwin, who is now in his third year with the Suns. “With his athleticism and his strength he’s just got to realize what he does well, what his role will be.”
In the meantime, the focus for Poythress will remain on these final few games, where he will try to bring Kentucky another National Championship.
Only time will tell whether another banner is headed to Rupp Arena, but whether one arrives or not, one thing is certain: Poythress will remain an icon in Lexington for years to come.
“Alex is going to be remembered there for a long time,” Young said. “He’s done so many things for the University of Kentucky, he’s a huge part of the community, and he’s just a huge part of Kentucky in general.”
Aaron Torres covers college basketball for Fox Sports, and is the author of the new book on John Calipari’s first team in Lexington: One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.