Watching Kentucky’s Malik Monk when he’s on fire is like witnessing multiple NBA players morph into one.
He curls off screens and rises like J.J. Redick but can create his own shot like C.J. McCollum. He plays the passing lanes like John Wall and has a 42-inch vertical leap like Zach LaVine. He pushes the ball in transition and finishes like Eric Bledsoe.
Kentucky’s guard is an assassin from distance at a 39-percent three-point clip, but he rounds out his 45-percent shooting mark by slipping past defenders for the easy mid-range jump shot.
Monk is a tactician. He gets to his spots on the floor and converts with efficiency. He’s the highest scoring freshman John Calipari has ever had at Kentucky. His 721 points (and climbing) torch marks set by a list of Kentucky one-and-dones thriving in the NBA, including Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, John Wall, and Devin Booker.
That’s why the Wildcats need their star freshman locked in if they hope to advance past Lonzo Ball and third-seeded UCLA for a trip to the Elite 8.
When Monk is on, he's electric
Of his 30-point performances in his freshman season, none stand out more than when he scored 47 points in a 103-100 win over North Carolina on Dec. 17. He peppered the Tar Heels for eight threes on 12 attempts, including a dagger triple with just a few seconds to spare.
In all, Monk made 18 of his 28 shots against North Carolina. He had a good theory for why
“We usually run a play for me the first play of the game,” Monk said after Kentucky’s win over North Carolina. “And if I make it, I’m usually gonna be on.”
Monk missed his first shot against Michigan State on Nov. 15, but turned around and made three straight treys in a 23-point barrage that included seven three-pointers in a win over Michigan State.
He made another seven threes in a 37-point outburst to lead the Wildcats to an overtime victory over Georgia on Jan. 31.
The tactician showed his true colors picking apart Ole Miss on Dec. 29 for 34 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
In all, Monk has scored 30 or more points four times this season.
But the streaky guard has been cold in recent weeks
After his hot start set the bar high, the 6’3 guard hasn’t produced like we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
Monk has eclipsed 20 points just once in Kentucky’s last six games. In two of those games, their premier guard failed to score in double figures. Through two NCAA Tournament games, he’s posted a combined 26 points on six-of-21 shooting, including two-of-11 on threes.
This is the same Monk who has scored 20 or more points 18 times this season.
Prior to the tournament, the Wildcats’ standout had taken 11 or fewer shots just six times in the regular season. He’s taken 10 and 11 shots, respectively, in each of Kentucky’s tournament games so far.
That can’t happen if Kentucky plans to advance past UCLA or further.
By seeding, there’s no closer Sweet 16 matchup than No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 3 UCLA. The two teams met in the regular season on Dec. 3, when the Bruins dealt the Wildcats a 97-92 loss in Kentucky.
Monk had 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting that day. He’ll need to be even better if the Wildcats hope to advance to the Elite 8.
A potent scorer in his own right, Lonzo Ball leads the Bruins’ frenetic offense. Much like Monk, Ball can score from anywhere on the floor, only his range comfortably extends far beyond the three-point line. UCLA’s attack, though, isn’t limited to their freshman standout. In UCLA’s win over Kentucky, Ball scored just 14 points while five other Bruins posted double figures.
Even if Kentucky powers past UCLA, they’ll meet a stacked North Carolina team that put up 100 points against the Wildcats in mid-December. Kentucky needed all 47 of Monk’s points to stave off the Tar Heels in a regular season game. They’ll need him to come up big again if they’re going to pull off the upset.
The Wildcats are a talented team coached by one of the best in John Calipari. De’Aaron Fox is another freshman point guard slated as a lottery pick in this year’s draft. Bam Adebayo’s interior presence helped push the Wildcats to a second-round win over Wichita State.
But their offensive attack starts and ends with their talented, all-world freshman guard. And if Monk can’t get out of his recent shooting funk, the music could come to a screeching halt during Kentucky’s trip to the big dance.