Caldwell-Pope proves to be quick learner for Bulldogs

ATHENS — It was barely three minutes into Saturday’s game against No. 18 Mississippi State, and things weren’t going well for Georgia. First Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rushed an ill-advised 3-point shot. Seconds later, his unwillingness to follow a teammate’s defensive instructions resulted in a dunk by the Bulldogs’ opponent.

Georgia coach Mark Fox called a 30-second timeout and was quickly in the freshman’s face.

“It’s really the first time all year during a game I’ve had get on him,” Fox said. “He made a couple of critical errors at each end, but his response was terrific. I think he felt guilty that he hurt his team and then he had a very nice ballgame from that point forward.”

The 6-foot-5 wing went on to score a team-high 20 points with eight rebounds and three assists. He also made the game-deciding 3-point basket with 1:08 remaining in overtime as the Bulldogs’ recorded a rare road win over a ranked opponent, winning 70-68.

“Coach called a timeout and got on to me a little bit,” Caldwell-Pope said with a grin. “I wanted to play hard anyways, but that one mistake kind of got me going. I wanted to try to not make any more mistakes in the game.”

Entering Wednesday night’s SEC game at South Carolina (9-15, 1-9 SEC), Caldwell-Pope leads the Bulldogs (12-12, 3-7) — and all SEC freshmen — with 14.5 points per game. He also is the team leader in minutes played (32.5 per game), games started (24), steals (42) and 3-point baskets (57) and is Georgia’s No. 2 rebounder.

In other words, he’s living up to the lofty billing with which he came to Georgia as its first McDonald’s All-America signee in nearly 20 years.

“I knew he could play at that level,” said Richard Carter, Caldwell-Pope’s basketball coach from middle school through Greenville High. “He’s as good as any player I’ve coached, and I’ve had several go on to the NBA. He has a chance to be better than any of those.”

Nowhere was Caldwell-Pope’s professional potential more evident than when he made his game-sealing 3-point shot in overtime. The Bulldogs were up by a point when Caldwell-Pope received the ball on the right wing. Starting his dribble, Caldwell-Pope stepped hard toward the baseline as if he were going to drive to the basket, but just as quickly he stepped back behind the 3-point line and buried a high-arcing jump shot.

That move showcases what makes Caldwell-Pope a hard player to defend. He is quick to the basket off the dribble, but can be a white-hot outside shooter. The more consistent his jumper becomes, the harder it’s going to be to stop him.

“He’s doing what a lot of freshmen do,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn observed. “As they get more comfortable and get a better understanding of a lot of things ... you’re going to see improvement in their play and greater numbers. When you have the kind of talent that he does, it’s really only a matter of time before that happens.”

Said Fox: “Down the road, I think his potential is limitless. I think he’s got a very bright future both on and off the court.”

Georgia needs Caldwell-Pope and everyone to continue to play well if it's to record three SEC wins in a row for the first time since 2008. On the surface, the Gamecocks are a team the Bulldogs might expect to handle easily. But a closer look reveals they’ve played two games each against league powerhouses Kentucky and Florida, have lost to Vanderbilt and Alabama at home and are a young team that is improving weekly.

“I don’t think anybody in this generation handles success as well as they should,” Fox said. “It’s not like all the adversity is behind us. There may be more ahead of us.”