Memphis Basketball: Kemp's debut was a little of this and a lot of learning
By JOSHUA PARROTT
MEMPHIS - Talk to John Calipari about the debut of University of Memphis freshman Willie Kemp and you can't help but be encouraged by what the longtime coach has to say.
"I was happy with him," said Calipari, now in his seventh year as the Tigers' head coach.
Still, Kemp - a Bolivar product - needed plenty of encouragement Thursday night after shooting 2-for-13 from the floor, though Memphis still cruised past Jackson State, 111-69, at FedExForum.
"Coaches just told me to keep on shooting," said Kemp, last year's Class AA Mr. Basketball who started at point guard and finished with five points, five assists and only two turnovers. "You make some, you miss some. I guess I was a little nervous tonight."
Can you blame him? Imagine being from a small town of 5,800 or so people and moving away from everything you've ever known - including your mother, Maxine - to go to a college located in a metro area of more than 1.2 million people.
(For those who care, the official attendance for Thursday's game was 10,027, or nearly twice the population of Kemp's hometown. Maxine was on hand, sitting a few rows behind the Memphis team bench.)
It's obvious from his first game with the No. 13 Tigers that Kemp is not yet the superstar he was in high school. At times, he played like a nervous freshman. At times, he played like a confident senior.
Still, Kemp is still the same player who was lighting up scoreboards across the state as a prep player. So what's changed?
"It's been a big change," Kemp said of making the adjustment to the college game. "The game is much faster. Everybody's bigger and stronger. We're all at the same level."
So granted, while even Michael Jordan was a gangly college freshman long before his glory days with the Chicago Bulls, Kemp doesn't appear to be a superstar right now.
But that isn't a problem for Memphis, either.
Calipari doesn't need a superstar. He needs a point guard. And for the time being, Kemp will split that duty with junior Andre Allen, who had six points and five assists off the bench Thursday.
And much like former Bolivar teammate Wayne Chism at the University of Tennessee, Kemp is learning how to deal with splitting time as a college player.
"I need for him to do what he's capable of doing and getting everyone involved," Calipari said of Kemp.
As much as he struggled shooting the ball Thursday, Kemp showed flashes of brilliance. For example:
When he saw a gap in the Jackson State defense with 8:58 left in the first half, Kemp drove the ball to the basket and hit a driving bankshot over 5-foot-8 guard Catraiva Givens.
Seconds later, Kemp hit teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts cutting to the basket with a sweet backdoor pass that led to an easy layup.
A Kemp touch pass with 3:45 left in the first half led to a layup by teammate Antonio Anderson.
All that put together made Calipari a happy man.
"That's exactly what we wanted," he said.
As for Kemp's shooting numbers?
"I'm stunned he missed those," Calipari said. "I couldn't believe he missed those."
Still, Kemp, Calipari and Rod Strickland - the team's director of student-athlete development - were encouraged after the game. (Keep in mind this is the same Rod Strickland who scored more than 14,000 points and dished out more than 7,000 assists in his NBA career.)
"Now that he has that under his belt, hopefully he will be better (next time)," Calipari said.
Strickland echoed similar encouragement.
"He still has a lot of things to learn," Strickland said. "But I think he played well tonight. He ran this team and did what he was asked to do."
Joshua Parrott is the preps editor for The Jackson Sun. He can be reached at 425-9634 or firstname.lastname@example.org