Givens likes what he sees from Wagner

Published 9:30 am Thursday, November 9, 2023

Former Kentucky All-American Jack Givens often gets to watch coach John Calipari’s team practice in his role as UK Radio Network analyst. So far, he really likes what he has seen.

“I am more excited about this team than I have been the last three or four years even though I have not seen this team totally healthy yet so I don’t know anything for sure,” said Givens before UK played New Mexico State. “I have been at practice at least two or three times per week and the thing that excites me more than anything is the competition in practice.”

It has reminded him of the 1977-78 season when he played and Kentucky won the national championship thanks in part to his 41-point game in the championship game against Duke.

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“We used to go first team versus second team in practice and the second team worked every day to make coach (Joe) Hall think they should be starters,” Givens said. “That kind of competition in practice makes you better.

“I haven’t seen that competition in practice the past few years. Nothing against walk-ons but there is a reason they are walk-ons. Practices this year are a lot more competitive.”

One of the best daily battles Givens has seen in practice has been between freshman guards D.J. Wagner and Rob Dillingham.

“If you see them going against each other you would think they are going to kill each other. I have not seen that kind of thing in practice the last three or four years,” Givens said. “I have really been impressed with the improvement of Dillingham from the time he came in until now.

“D.J. was so broad across the chest he could push Rob around and get anywhere he wanted on the floor. That is not happening now. Rob found out he needed to get bigger and stronger. He’s a little dude but he came back from Canada and put on weight and now can kind of control where he wants to go. They beat him up so bad in Canada (on UK’s exhibition trip) that he didn’t know if he was good enough but now he knows he is.”

Wagner is the most hyped member of UK’s freshman group that was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. However, Givens believes he is “one of those rare guys who are as good as advertised” once they get to college.

“He is so strong and can get anywhere on the floor he wants to get,” Givens said.  “He is learning that playing point guard on this level is different from high school but he could be special. At the Blue-White Game he was about to bite the heads off teammates because they were losing in a scrimmage game. He would not talk to anybody in the locker room after the game because he takes winning personally.

“I have not seen that since (Tyrese) Maxey played here. Maxey had that smile but he was always thinking about how to kill you. That’s the way D.J. is. That’s maybe his best quality. Nobody can get off easy when he is out there because it means so much to him.

“If he is in there, he’s going to have ball in his hands. Not necessarily for him to score but for him to make a decision about who does score.”

Givens is convinced that if Kentucky gets one or two of its 7-footers on the court it has “enough to win it all” this season and believes Calipari feels the same way.

“I have gotten to know coach Cal a little bit,” Givens said. “I can kind of tell by how he talks to me in practice when he is really feeling good about the team and players. He feels really good about this group.”