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Wide eyes and words of astonishment are the response when Daimion Collins’ name comes up in Kentucky basketball circles these days.
“He surprises me every day in practice,” fellow UK freshman Bryce Hopkins said at the team’s Media Day last week. “You penetrate, drive and throw up a lob, and he’ll put his head at the top of the rim and dunk the ball. It’s crazy to see. His putback dunks and stuff like that — it’s crazy.”
It’s not just those new to college basketball who are in awe of Collins’ abilities.
“It’s rare,” sixth-year college player Davion Mintz said of the 6-foot-9 freshman’s talent. “That guy can touch the top of the backboard. Like, literally.”
“Not many are built like Daimion,” added junior forward Keion Brooks, a bit of wonder to his expression. “He does a lot of stuff that normal people just can’t do. His reach, how high he jumps, he’s also skilled, too. He’s special. He’s going to be really, really good. He’s one of a kind.”
Even the coaches have been impressed.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” said UK assistant Chin Coleman. “His ceiling is unbelievable. His ceiling is actually the sky. He can almost touch the sky.”
Jai Lucas started recruiting Collins — a native of Atlanta, Texas — back when he was an assistant coach with the Longhorns, and that recruitment obviously carried over with Lucas’ move to Lexington last year. He’s watched the skinny kid from east Texas grow into a still-skinny college freshman at Kentucky, a possible one-and-done lottery pick in next year’s NBA Draft.
Lucas is probably more familiar with Collins’ game than anyone in the program. And he’s still often amazed by what he sees. Asked if there have been many “Whoa!” moments from Collins this preseason, Lucas smiles, nods and lets out an emphatic “Yeahhh.”
“Some of the blocked shots and some of the lobs he catches, there are few people who have been able to do stuff like that,” he said. “And I think that’s the one thing that stands out immediately is just his athleticism and his ability to do some of those things in the air and above the rim.”
In high school, Collins — a McDonald’s All-American — had the reputation as one of the best rim-protectors and rebounders in the 2021 class, arguably the most athletic frontcourt player in the entire country. His stat lines against the overmatched competition in east Texas were often ridiculous. He averaged 35.2 points, 14.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 6.2 blocks per game as a senior, earning first-team All-American and state player of the year honors from MaxPreps.com, finishing out the recruiting cycle as the No. 15 overall player in the class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.
On the court, he’s impossible to ignore. Off the court, he might be the quietest player on this Kentucky roster, speaking softly with an agreeable smile, rarely carrying on for more than a few seconds at a time.
“I think I’ve been playing pretty good,” he said, assessing his first few weeks of practices as a college freshman. “I’ve been improving my game.”
His coaches and teammates — while impressed with his unique athleticism — are still trying to figure out what exactly his game is at this stage in his development.
“One thing about him is he’s more skilled than you expect him to be,” Lucas said. “And he’s a clean slate. He’s not one of those guys who’s had a basketball trainer, who’s lifted weights, who’s had all this stuff. So everything he’s done and everywhere he’s gotten in basketball has been natural talent.
“So I think you expect him to take another jump once you get him on a meal plan and get him on a regular workout routine and get him in the weight room, and stuff like that. That’s kind of what we’ve seen so far through practice.”
A ‘ridiculous’ talent
Collins remained so much of an enigma through the early days of Kentucky’s preseason that John Calipari finally called him into his office to present a challenge.
“You’ve got to show me more,” the Hall of Fame coach told the 18-year old freshman. “I don’t know enough about you. Make some mistakes. Shoot some balls you shouldn’t shoot. Do some stuff so you can see what you are and what you’re not, and then we can talk through it.”
Calipari said Collins came out after that and started putting up three-point shots. Stats are tracked through Kentucky’s five-on-five scrimmages, and after a while, Calipari looked at the numbers. When Collins was shooting the ball from inside the arc — pull-ups, floaters, putbacks — he was at about 65 percent. From three, zero percent.
In front of the rest of the team, Calipari told Collins to look for more opportunities to dive to the rim, find more scoring chances within 16 feet, and if a shot goes up — even if he’s playing on the perimeter in one of UK’s four-out sets — crash toward the basket and see what happens.
“And all of a sudden, yesterday, he was ridiculous,” Calipari concluded.
Collins confirmed that the chain of events — from the office conversation to Calipari’s talk in front of everyone to the improved play — went “exactly” how the coach described it. His own assessment of how he expects to help the Wildcats win this season: “Grab rebounds, block shots, finish around the rim, shoot the jumper when I need to.” (And another small sign of his long-term potential: Collins was actually 3-for-4 from three-point range in the Blue-White Game on Friday).
It’s that play around the rim should be something to behold.
At UK’s Pro Day event this month, the official measurements had Collins with a 7-5 wingspan, 8-7 standing reach and 42-inch vertical. Combine those numbers with the natural instincts and impeccable timing Collins often shows, and you understand the eyeball-emoji faces that his teammates flashed when asked about the freshman’s abilities.
Hopkins has played both with and against Collins in scrimmages and summed up his impact on both ends of the court the best.
Offensively? “His athleticism — you can drive and penetrate and then throw the ball up wherever, and he’s going to catch it for the lob,” Hopkins said.
Defensively? “You have to be smart. He’s long, so you just have to be smart in the shots you take. You can’t just go straight up and try to bully him, because he’ll just block your shot.”
Collins grew up playing football, starting at quarterback and then moving to wide receiver when he outgrew the position. He said his time spent catching footballs translated to the basketball court, where he developed into an elite alley-oop finisher. “I can basically catch it from anywhere,” he added with a smile, shedding the humility for just a moment.
It’s the blocked shots that bring him more personal joy, however.
“I take real pride in my defense,” he said. “Being able to keep somebody from scoring and then you block a shot and you go down and your team is able to score — knowing that you do that is a big momentum change.”
There will likely be games this season where Collins provides a few of those eye-popping highlights. There will also likely be nights where he doesn’t make much of an impact. That’s the nature of college basketball for just about every freshman in the country, especially those few that possess Collins’ upside.
Luckily for him, he’ll have guys like Oscar Tshiebwe and Brooks and Lance Ware and Jacob Toppin — bigger players who have experience at this level — to alleviate some of the early pressure and help him find his way.
He’ll also have a Kentucky coaching staff eager to develop his game.
Calipari has obviously had ample success with long, athletic post players in the past. And Lucas acknowledged that it’s exciting to get a player like Collins at this level, one who doesn’t come in with preconceived notions about his playing style or workout regimen based on time spent with private trainers.
With Collins, there’s nothing to unteach. Just a blank slate with a whole lot of potential. And an eagerness to fulfill it.
“Sometimes, some things that trainers and people have taught may not be exactly what applies to the team and what we need to work here,” Lucas said. “So that’s one refreshing thing is that you don’t have so much stuff to kind of get out of him. It’s more teaching new things, and that’s something you rarely get to do in college is teach some of the fundamentals and basics. And that’s been one of the most exciting parts about him.”
Important upcoming UK dates
Friday: Exhibition vs. Kentucky Wesleyan (7 p.m., SEC Network)
Nov. 5: Exhibition vs. Miles College (7 p.m., SEC Network)