VAUGHT: Kentucky’s struggle to find reliable point guard may come to an end

By Jamie H. Vaught
Contributing columnist

With its slow start this season, Kentucky has been struggling to find a reliable point guard who can fit in and take charge without making too many turnovers.

But the very young Wildcats may have found a permanent solution to their point guard dilemma this past weekend when graduate transfer Davion Mintz emerged and turned in a solid performance during his team’s 75-63 loss to North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic in Cleveland.

The improving 6-3 Mintz, a Charlotte, N.C., native who earned his second UK career start, led Kentucky with 17 points, eight rebounds and 36 minutes, all of which are season highs, against his home state school. He also gunned in three 3-pointers (out of six attempts) along with two assists and two turnovers.

And Mintz, for the season, currently leads the team with 17 assists, ahead of Terrence Clarke’s 13 assists and Devin Askew’s 12. Also, Mintz is leading the Wildcats with eight 3-pointers for not-so-good 28.6 percent.

As for freshman Devin Askew, a five-star prospect from Sacramento, Calif., he seemingly would be an ideal backup point guard after starting the first four games. He has a bright future and l still like him.

Former UK standout Roger Harden, who is ranked third on school’s all-time career list with 498 assists, likes Mintz as the starting point guard. Shortly, after the North Carolina game, Harden tweeted in support of Mintz and Askew. The ex-Wildcat added that Mintz needs to be more vocal, and get better shot selection and execution.

Mintz, who sat out last season at Big East’s Creighton with an ankle injury, is a versatile guard who can play the point, off the ball, defend and shoot.  Although he is a newcomer in Lexington, Mintz provides valuable experience and leadership for the youthful Wildcats.

While at Creighton, Mintz was considered the team’s best defender and started all 35 games in 2018-19, averaging nearly 10 points in 28.8 minutes.

Like his UK coaches and teammates, Mintz obviously isn’t too happy with the squad’s dismal 1-5 start, which is the worst since the 1926-27 season.  He said the team had high expectations and now realizes it’s very inexperienced. What can the team learn from Kentucky’s recent struggles?

“It’s the same thing that Coach (John Calipari) has been preaching to us since we got to campus. This isn’t an easy process, this is going to be hard,” said Mintz in a Zoom interview with the media in early December. “Honestly, it hit us very, very early. The times are unfortunate, we’re playing against guys who have the advantage to be together for a while, unfortunately like we haven’t.

“It’s just been a huge smack in the face for us. It happened. It’s a huge eye opener for everyone, including myself, that we have no other option than to figure this out, and we have one of the best coaches in the nation who supports us around here and all of our staff to help us figure this out. It’s not like we’re led astray. We have no option other than to step forward and figure this out. I think that’s all I can say about it.”

With sophomore Keion Brooks Jr, UK’s only experienced player from last year’s 25-6 team, sidelined with a leg injury, Mintz admitted it has been kind of tough to take charge of the Wildcats on the floor.

“It’s tough to kind of say that I replace responsibility for a guy like Keion, a guy who was significant to a really good team last year and a guy who has been very mature for us,” said Mintz, whose favorite sports memory was scoring 41 points in high school in front of his father. “Even though he hasn’t had his presence with us on the court, he has been doing a lot of things off the court as far as team meetings.

“So, I’m still learning the type of things from him, although he’s younger than me, but he’s just been here and has a sense of knowing. It’s been fun and I also do have to step up in that nature and keep guys level-headed. I’ve got to carry that culture that he brings to the program even though he isn’t playing right now.”

On UK’s tradition-rich environment, Mintz commented, “I’ve been a guy that’s been in a similar environment. I know that BBN is a little different. It’s huge out here. It’s a religion, as they say. It was very similar to how people cared and supported at Creighton, a team with no professional sport in the state. For me, I’ve been a guy that’s played in big games, played against top-ranked teams. I’ve been through hundreds of college practices, hundreds of games, so I’m looking to bring this team everything that I’ve been through.”

With his maturity, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mintz improve in the backcourt as the season progresses since his career assist-to-turnover ratio is high. He was among the national leaders in that category. At UK, his assist-to-turnover ratio is 17 to 11 (1.55).

“I just try to make the right play, whatever that it is,” said Mintz, who is pursuing a graduate degree in kinesiology and health promotion. “If that’s an opportunity for someone else to score or someone else open, then that’s what it’ll be. If it’s an opportunity for me to finish it, that’s what I do. But, in all situations I just try to make the best play just to convert. No wasted possessions. So, that’s my philosophy.”

Before arriving at the Nebraska school several years ago, Mintz was a four-year starter at North Mecklenburg High School in the Charlotte area.  A first-team All-Stater, he was also named the school’s Senior Male Athlete of the Year in 2015-16 and the Class of 2016 Student of the Year.

Like everybody else, Mintz said playing basketball through the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging and difficult. It doesn’t help that the Wildcats also have a losing record.

“Right now, we’re not good as a team,” said Mintz, whose godfather is former NFL star Randy Moss. “We are really good individuals and guys who I feel that are going to have to be willing to understand, including myself, that we have to change something and just continue to fight. I know it’s cliché and whatever, but I mean, I just don’t want people to stop believing in this team. We’re going to figure this out. Honestly, it’s just a real bump in the road right now. It’s a big hole, we’ve just got to find a way to get out of it.

“The isolation part, just not being able to get out and experience. You’ve got to be very careful with where you’re going, curfew times, just trying to be mentally sane. Knowing, all right, it’s probably safer for me to go to the gym or DoorDash food than go get it myself. It’s just having the responsibility is the hardest part.”

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of five books about UK basketball, including newly-released “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.” He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.