Dillingham fits in just fine at UK

Published 6:10 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2023

By LARRY VAUGHT

Contributing Columnist

Rob Dillingham came to Kentucky as a highly-rated five-star recruit but some had doubts about his ability to fit smoothly into coach John Calipari’s system.

He was not an instant hit during UK’s four exhibition games in Toronto but truly looked like a different player in UK’s Blue-White Game. He not only exploded for 40 points, seven assists and  four steals — all game highs — but showed he had added over 20 pounds of muscle/weight in the last three months.

“Let me just say what happened. This is the greatest piece of this. He goes to Toronto. Anybody up there, he struggled and he struggled because it was physically — they were men. They were 23, and every time he got bumped, he was off balance, he missed layups,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Then he missed open shots, then he went back to — and threw it away. It’s like, what in the world?”

Calipari was certain Dillingham got calls after UK’s Canadian trips encouraging him to leave Kentucky and join another team after he averaged just 5.5 points per game and shot only 31 percent from the field

“You don’t think that happened? So now he goes into the weight room and gains 24 pounds because he knew. And now all of a sudden, you are watching him create the contact and playing through bumps. And that’s what this is about here — it isn’t easy. This stuff is hard,” Calipari said.

Dillingham admitted he would stop and pass the ball in Toronto because he was not comfortable with the physical contact against bigger, older players.

“But now it’s more like, ‘Play through the bump.’ That’s what he (Calipari) tells me every day. Just continue to play through the bump. And now I gained more weight, and it does feel way easier,” the freshman guard said.

Dillingham admitted before he got to Kentucky he tried to make a play every time he had the ball. Calipari remembered when former UK great John Wall was trying to make the “ESPN top 10 play 15 times in a game” and he had to tell him he didn’t have to make a highlight play every time.

Calipari said Dillingham played a “different way” at the Blue-White Game and other than one or two miscues stayed under control.

“I just realized playing with some of the guys every day that I don’t have to make a play every play. I can look for other people. I can throw the ball, just to give it up, sometimes,” Dillingham said. “I’m still just learning how to play with everybody.”

Calipari doesn’t expect miracles and knows there will be times Dillingham might regress.

“I’m proud of him. As we go forward, it’s just I’ve got to probably have a couple of times where I look away. It’s just, ‘Okay, it’s just one of those.’ Because he’s trying so hard, and he’s a gym rat,” Calipari said. “He’s in the gym too much. There’ll be times when I peek my head out — go, get out. You’ve been in there enough.”

Dillingham isn’t likely to miss opportunities to get in the gym.

“We have a chance to be a really good team as long as we learn to play with each other and play defense and understand defense is what will win us games,” Dillingham said. “Once we understand that, I think we can be a really good team.”

Rob Dillingham drives to the basket Friday against Georgetown College. Vicky Graff photo