Cal lets Dillingham be himself

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2024

By Larry Vaught

Contributing Columnist

Rob Dillingham almost had to come to Kentucky to play for coach John Calipari.

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“Coach Cal, my mom loves him. Every other school tells you that you are going to get it easy and get as many shots as you want. Coach Cal tells you that you are going to fight for your minutes but you have a chance to be a star,” said Dillingham. “It was really just loving coach Cal and the challenge he gives us every day that brought me here.”

Did he really have a choice if his mother liked Calipari that much?

“My mom told me she wanted to go to Kentucky early right when she met coach Cal. He came to my hometown and she loved him,” the freshman guard said. “Usually my mom knows people and if they are a good person, and she loved him immediately.

“I still remember the day he told my mom, ‘If he comes here, it’s not going to be easy for him. He has a chance to start, but he’s going to have to wait for it.’ Every other school told her I was going to get everything. She liked what he said.”

Dillingham spent his final high school season playing in Overtime Elite. He called it a “life-learning experience” because he was away from his parents and could concentrate more on basketball.

The freshman guard leaned on his faith to help him say even-keeled during that time.

“I just thank God every day. Not everyone deserves what they get every day. Not everyone is going to wake up every day and say they can walk and smell and do everything. Really I am just thankful for everything I have and I try to be the most humble I can be,” the UK freshman said.

“A lot of people don’t get the chances I get and I just thank God for it honestly.”

He can be a free-wheeling player. He came to college with a reputation as more of a shooter/scorer than playmaker but has led UK in assists. Still, at times he can make some perplexing decisions that Calipari has had to learn to somewhat tolerate.

“Rob Dillingham, you’re coaching a kid that can create space and get a basket when he wants to. Do you clip his wings? You can’t,” Calipari said. “You have to let him go, but I give him two (mistakes) a half. On the third one, you’re coming out. You’re not going nuts.”

Dillingham is averaging 14.2 points per game — second best on the team — thanks in part to his 46 percent shooting from 3 and leads the Cats with 47 assists. He also leads the team in turnovers.

Dillingham has been trying hard not to go nuts on the court.

“Anything I can do to help us win, I will do. So far that is playing like myself and playmaking and learning all the players on my team are just as good as me. Really just making everyone else better and that comes back to me because I am not looking for myself.

“I am being unselfish and playing through my teammates. I’ve learned that giving them the ball gets me the ball back. I am really not thinking about myself. I am just moving the ball, making the right reads and making sure I am comfortable when I have a chance to make a play.”

Dillingham did that in the recent win over North Carolina, UK’s best win of the season. Dillingham admitted he made some “freshman mistakes” in the game and had Calipari asking him why he made some of those mistakes.

“Coach Cal made me realize I had to slow down, trust myself and have confidence. The second half I just tried to make winning plays,” he said.

Dillingham appreciates the trust Calipari has in him.

“He still shows me that he has confidence in me. He still lets me rock,” Dillingham said. “But, at the same time, he wants me to be more (like a) pro and make smarter decisions and stuff. Really, I’m just thankful for having him. He helps me while letting me be me.”

Dillingham’s mother is also appreciative of what Calipari continues to do for her son and recently sent a text message.

“I got an unbelievable text from Robert Dillingham’s mom. She was the one when I went into their home and said, ‘I want you to play for this man right here.’ After I told him, ‘This is the hardest thing. It’s not for everybody, Robert. This is tough stuff here. I’m telling you, I’m going to hold you accountable. I’m gonna help you, do whatever I can, but I can’t do it for you,’” Calipari said recently. “She said, ‘That’s all I wanted to hear.’ She reminded me today.

“I said to her, ‘Thank you for entrusting me with your baby.’ Think about that. That’s her baby. All of these kids, that’s someone’s child. And that’s why I don’t take it lightly.”