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November 25, 2011
Malone emerges as crowd, teammate favorite
Sam Malone goes left, and nobody stops it. Nobody makes Kentucky's freshman walk-on drive to his right, and the result is that he gets buckets.
He gets them in limited quantities and limited minutes, but still. He gets 'em.
"I don't think (opponents) get a scouting report on me," Malone said. "I like that."
As No. 2 Kentucky (5-0) prepares to play Portland on Saturday, there's been no more entertaining early-season side story than the relative explosion of offensive production by Malone, a 5-foot-11 guard who's averaging two points per game in mop-up duty.
Fans still scream for sophomore Jarrod Polson to shoot every time he touches the ball. Malone doesn't need the encouragement. He's put up five field-goal attempts in seven total minutes.
"He goes after it when he gets in there," teammate Kyle Wiltjer said.
And early on, he's getting in there a lot.
With Kentucky winning its games by an average of 31.2 points per game, Malone and fellow freshman walk-on Brian Long have played in three games. Each has logged seven minutes.
"You think about it, they've both scored in a Kentucky uniform," Calipari said. "(Malone) tries to score every time he gets the ball."
There's a reason for that.
Though he might be little more than a novelty act to Kentucky fans - a human victory cigar whose every field-goal attempt is cause for glee - the kid with the bartender's name has set a high bar for himself.
"I just feel like I got something to prove," Malone said. "I had a lot of injuries in high school. My dream was always to get looks and play Division I ball, and throughout high school I always had another injury. I really think I would have made it to that level if that hadn't happened, and my legs are feeling good now, so that's what I'm doing. I'm out to prove that I can play at this level."
Malone isn't exaggerating the injuries. He tore an ACL the summer after his freshman year in high school, and that cost him most of his sophomore season. As a junior, he required meniscus surgery that he said "had some complications to it.." He had microfracture surgery as a high school senior.
But he accepted John Calipari's walk-on offer - Malone's father has been a friend of Calipari's since the UK coach was the head man at Massachusetts - and arrived at UK with a scholarship senior's swagger.
"I think I can play at this level, so I want to show that I can," Malone said. "I'm comfortable playing with these people."
When he gets to do it, that is.
Malone spends much of his practice time on the sideline. Calipari uses short rotations in practice, and both Malone and Long sit out most drills and watch from underneath the basket.
But for Malone, not playing doesn't mean sitting. He gets bored standing still, so he spends much of his downtime riding a stationary bike, a habit that he said earned him the nickname "Lance" (as in Armstrong) from UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua.
"I don't think it's that funny," Malone said.
Basketball is serious business to Malone. That doesn't mean he can't allow himself to enjoy the ride. The highlight of his wild UK ride, he said, is seeing his teammates explode off the bench after each of his baskets.
"(The walk-ons) deserve what they get," teammate Terrence Jones said, citing the players' willingness to serve as scout-teamers and to rebound missed shots for stars. "It makes us proud to see them score."
They don't bother to hide that pride.
"It's neat to see," Calipari said. "I'm not really watching what the team is doing, but I'll watch the tape and the kid will score, and I'll see a whole eruption on the sideline. This team likes each other."
And Malone likes this team. He'd like to play some more minutes for it, and though he knows that's unrealistic in the short term, Malone said he puts in extra hours working on conditioning and his shooting stroke because "you never know what's going to happen."
If nothing else, the overtime workouts keep Malone fresh for his opportunities at late-game baskets, and he knows those are the key source of his recent notoriety.
"I'm sure (the attention) will go away if I stop scoring, so the pressure's on," Malone said.
For now, though, Malone's getting known for something besides just a famous name. And he's certainly being noticed, even in cameo appearances for the Cats.
"My family knew how crazy Big Blue Nation was, but my friends were just like, 'Oh, he's going to play basketball at Kentucky. No big deal,'" Malone said. "And then they see I'm trending on Twitter, and they're like, 'Oh my God.'"