I fell in love in Las Vegas last weekend. I’m not proud that it happened, but I can’t say I regret it. I mean, yeah, I’d be concerned if someone I knew went to Vegas and said he fell in love with an 18-year-old he’d never met. But fate can be funny like that. Sometimes you go to Vegas, do the things that every other person there is doing, and then try to bait your buddies into asking about your INSANE trip when you get home just so you can laugh way too hard as you say, “Hey man, what happens in Vegas …” Other times you go to Vegas, fall in love with an 18-year-old almost as soon as you get off the plane, and do nothing the rest of the trip but think about the two hours you spent together. That’s me. I never meant for it to happen, but Malik Monk has my heart, and he can do with it what he wishes.
As a professional sportswriter, I’m obligated to drop irrelevant mentions of attending a memorable game into my writing, as if I’m doing it to establish credibility instead of just boasting that I got to witness something awesome. With that, I was in Vegas for Kentucky’s thrilling 103–100 win over North Carolina on Saturday, and it was probably the best basketball game I’ve ever seen in person. I was so there, you guys. T-Mobile Arena was packed to the brim, mostly with rabid Kentucky fans who nearly had an orgasm every time the Wildcats scored. But North Carolina also had so many fans there that you couldn’t wave your Sperrys in the air without hitting at least one white guy with parted hair and a button-up shirt tucked into his khakis. The atmosphere, the talent and athleticism, and the frenetic and relentless pace of play on display all combined to make this game the kind that left me clenching my butthole from start to finish. Whatever you thought about it while watching on TV, just know that, as someone who was there, it was actually 10 times better in person.
Anyway, back to Monk. He finished with 47 points on 18-of-28 shooting, including an 8-of-12 performance from beyond the arc. Here’s the moment I knew I was in love: With a little under 13 minutes left in the first half, Monk had already scored 11 of Kentucky’s 17 points. Then this happened.
At first glance, this seems like a routine (albeit not exactly easy) pull-up jumper. But there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, all of Monk’s points so far were the product of jump shots; this was the closest he’d been to the basket on any of his makes. He was — as those of us in the business like to say — on fire. And that’s the other thing that made this so noteworthy: This was the moment that Monk knew he was feeling it. Watch that clip again and keep your eye on him after he makes the shot.
Not to brag, but I was at that game (did I mention I was there?), sitting a few rows up from half court on the side that Monk took this shot. I was so close that the image of him seconds after the ball went through the net will forever be burned in my mind. If you couldn’t tell from the clip, Monk angrily looks down at his hands, as though it physically pains him that he’s so goddamn good. Then he closes his eyes, lifts his palms, and mutters something to himself. What does he say? The specifics don’t matter. We all know the gist.
“Why, God? WHY ARE YOU CURSING THESE POOR BASTARDS WHO HAVE TO TRY TO GUARD ME TODAY?”
That’s the essence of Monk and why, through 11 games, the true freshman is on track to become one of my favorite college basketball players of all time. The dude just doesn’t give a shit about anything other than getting buckets. He took so many shots Saturday that were absolutely bonkers to even attempt, yet somehow as the game wore on they seemed less and less ridiculous because he was in such a zone. Not long after taking the shot that made me fall in love, he did this to UNC’s Justin Jackson.
Removing the context that Monk was playing at an out-of-his-mind level, that’s an absurdly bad shot. If Bo Ryan were coaching, he would’ve pulled Monk’s scholarship before the ball even left Monk’s hands. I mean, there isn’t a coach alive who could hear the description of that play — “one of your right-handed players will go one-on-one, take four dribbles, cover virtually no ground, and then launch a step-back jumper going to his right, with his heels on the 3-point line, over a defender with a 5-inch height advantage” — without feeling the soul being ripped out of their body.
And that game winner? My god. Outside of Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, I can’t think of a single player in the country with the stones to not only shoot this, but to shoot it and know that it’s going in.
In September, I wrote about what made watching Steph Curry so much fun last season. The thesis was that Curry defied everything we thought we knew about basketball by inexplicably getting better the farther he got from the basket. Monk hasn’t gotten to the point where he’s regularly jacking up 30-footers (yet), but the same idea applies. It’s not so much the number of points that Monk scored on the Tar Heels; it’s how he went about doing it.
The jump shot is the purest form of basketball art, and as such it’s the hardest thing to master. Human beings shouldn’t be able to, in roughly a nanosecond, calculate all of the variables that go into making a fadeaway jumper off the dribble with a hand in their face and adjust accordingly. Seriously, if you or I ever made a shot like that, it’d be a miracle we’d never stop talking about. So to see someone like Monk make them over and over and over to the point that it’s shocking when he misses is nothing short of remarkable. That’s why even though the box score says he scored 47 points Saturday, you could convince me that Monk finished with 238, given how often he left me completely gobsmacked.
The other fascinating thing about Monk is that, outside of shooting and general athleticism, there isn’t really anything about him that stands out. He’s small for a shooting guard, as he’s listed at just 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds (which seems a lot heavier than his skinny frame would suggest, until you realize his massive balls must weigh around 15 pounds each). He doesn’t have great ballhandling skills, he doesn’t rebound or defend particularly well, and his idea of court vision seems to be locking his eyes on the rim to begin calibrating the machine that he calls his jump shot.
And that’s exactly why he’s the best. He embodies the philosophy that the only thing that matters at the end of the game is the score, and since you can’t get points from doing things other than putting the ball in the basket, there’s no point in wasting time doing them. I’m terrified that he’ll go 3-for-19 in a huge game this season (like Wednesday night’s matchup at Louisville), but screw it — I’ll still proudly serve as the president of the Monk fan club. After all, his skill is only part of the story. There’s also the fact that he has his own last name tattooed on his left triceps. Oh, and there’s this tidbit from his bio on the official Kentucky athletic department website:
“[Monk] chose his jersey number because ‘on the fifth day of the Creation, God made the animals’ and he loves learning about animals.”
I’m in love with an 18-year-old, and I don’t care who knows it.