I thought he’d tell me I was next.
That’s how I figured it. That’s what I honestly thought Coach Cal would tell me, when he sat down in my family’s living room, and tried to get me to come play for him. I figured he’d look me in my eye … and give me that big Cal smile (you know the one) … and then reel off the names of all of those great guards he’s coached. I won’t lie, it’s a pretty cool list: John Wall. Devin Booker. Derrick Rose. Eric Bledsoe. Brandon Knight. The Harrison twins. Archie Goodwin. Tyler Ulis. Man … I’m pretty sure that list just goes on forever.
And I thought that’s what Coach Cal’s pitch would be. Running through his list of guards … and then telling me that I could be the newest name on it. That I was next.
Well, actually, check that — I was partly right: Coach did look me in my eye. And he did give me that big Cal smile. But he didn’t tell me that I’d be next. Instead, he told me that I’d be….
No, really. That was it.
“I don’t see you as the next anybody,” he said. “I see you as yourself. You’re Malik Monk. I can’t make you many promises — but if you come to Kentucky, I can promise you this: We’re going to find out who that is.”
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Throughout our conversation, I don’t think Coach said “point guard” once. I don’t think he said “shooting guard” once. I don’t think he talked about other Kentucky players … I don’t think he talked about other “Cal guys” … and, though he definitely could’ve, and I definitely would’ve been impressed, I don’t even think he name-dropped a single All-Star. Coach just told me that he wanted me to come to Kentucky — and that he wanted me to become the best possible version of myself.
And that’s the moment when I knew for sure that I wanted to become a Wildcat.
And now, a little over a year later, I can’t help but think back to that moment.
I haven’t found out yet who the best possible version of myself is — and to be honest, as far as that goes, I think I’m still just scratching the surface. But I’ve found out what the best possible version of myself does:
He plays in the NBA.
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Today, I’m declaring for the 2017 NBA draft.
Declare — I’ve been thinking about that word a lot since I made my decision. It’s not a word that I normally use … I’m not someone who declares things very much. To tell you the truth, I’m not really much of a talker at all. I’ve usually just been one of those guys who wants to let his game do the talking.
But I wanted to make an exception today, and write this letter. And I wanted to write it because I know that, in order for today to get here … well, a lot of good things had to happen first. I have to thank God, most of all, of course. But I also know that I’m not here in this position just because of my God-given ability, or because of my years of hard work.
I know that a big part of the reason I’m here is all of the people — the amazing people — in my life who have helped me along the way.
I want to thank my family, in Arkansas, who raised me.
And when I say family, I mostly mean my mother, Jackie, and my brother, Marcus.
But I also mean the community that I grew up in: the Woodz.
That’s where I came up as a young kid, and it’s one of those places that will always feel like home to me. When I tell people about it … see, the thing is, it’d be real easy to take a quick look at the Woodz and not think much of it. It’s this small neighborhood in Lepanto, Arkansas — which only has a couple of thousand people to begin with — and I’m sure people drive past it every day and don’t even think twice.
But the Woodz helped me get to where I am today. It’s one of those places where everyone is friends with everyone. We’re all from pretty modest means — sharecropping, factory-working, and not a whole lot of opportunity to get out from that — and I think those circumstances we grew up in just meant that everyone sort of stuck together. And of course, we hooped together: all of us kids, at the park, until all hours.
And one thing that I’ve done my best to keep in mind, over the years, as I’ve started to play basketball more seriously and get some recognition for it … is the idea that everyone in the Woodz — man, everyone in northeast Arkansas, to be be honest — is watching me. And that I’m not just playing for myself. I’m also playing for all of the kids in those areas who are just like me — and who can watch me play in the SEC … and in the NCAA tournament … and now even in the league, I hope … and know that I was just like them: raised humble, and rural, and in a place where people don’t get a lot of opportunities.
But also a place where people work hard, and stick together.
And if those kids watch me and they want to hoop, then that’s great. But it’s not even about that. What I’m talking about more, is like … man — like, if I found out, years from now, that some of the kids who were watching me back home turned out to be doctors, and computer scientists, and that sort of thing? If they got inspired by me making the most out of my opportunity, and then they found a way to make the most out of theirs? That would be everything.
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And then I also want to thank my newest family — Big Blue Nation.
BBN … y’all really took me in this year, and made me one of your own. And I honestly don’t even know if you realize how much that meant to me.
When I committed to Kentucky, it was after a pretty intense recruiting process. I was choosing between Arkansas — my home-state school — and UK. And when I decided to come to Kentucky … man, a lot of people in Arkansas got really mad about it.
Everyone at school in Bentonville — my classmates, teammates, coaches — all supported my decision. And everyone back home, in the northeast part of the state, all treated me like kin — they were just very happy for me. But beyond that … it got kind of vicious. When we’d play road games, people would call me some pretty awful things. And on social media, Twitter, Instagram, whatever, people would leave me some pretty nasty messages.
I won’t lie: It was tough. You hear something enough times, you know, and you can start to wonder if it’s true. It was almost like, man … am I turning my back on my home state? Am I all of the terrible things that they’re calling me? That stuff can get in your head in a bad way.
But then I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t have to go through it alone.
Kentucky fans made one thing crystal clear to me: They had my back. No one made me wait until the fall, until I got to Lexington, to be accepted into Big Blue Nation. Man, it was just right off the bat: Like, Once you’re one of us, you’re one of us. And whether it was defending me on social media … or sending me messages about how excited they were for me to come play there … or alums getting in touch and letting me know what an amazing experience was in store for me in the fall … it really helped a lot. It helped turn an extremely tough situation into an extremely positive one. And it helped me realize that, just by committing to Kentucky, I was already a part of something special.
And I’ll never forget that.
So when I say, Thank you, Big Blue Nation — know that it’s not just one of those things people say on their way out. Y’all really helped me through it, in a big way, and lent me your hand when I needed one. Y’all treated me like family. And I’ll consider y’all family for life.
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And then, of course, there’s my family within my family at Kentucky — my team.
I think people get it twisted, because we have so much talent here. They think that all we care about is getting ready for the league, and that we’re not here to win.
Y’all … it’s just not true. I’ve never seen a team want to win as badly as the group of guys we had this year. It’s why we came to Kentucky, and why we came to play for Coach Cal. And it’s what we thought about every time we worked out, or practiced, or put on our jerseys. Man, even when I had my big game against UNC in December, and broke the freshman scoring record — it was like, I didn’t even really feel like talking about it. I didn’t want it to be about the 47 points. I only wanted people to talk about the last three of those points — the game-winner I hit.
All I cared about was that we won.
I remember my brother, afterwards, trying to get me to talk about breaking the record and all of that, trying to get me to smile. But I held firm, and I wouldn’t crack. I was just like, “Nah, man. We won. We won. That’s it.” Marcus couldn’t get me. But then … you know … O.K., I admit it. Someone did finally get me to crack. With a shoutout on Instagram:
Come on, it’s Drake — I had to smile a little after that one.
Drizzy shouts aside, though, that really was how it went this year — for all of us. I’m telling you: None of us cared about getting a lot of individual recognition. All we wanted was to hang up the next banner in Rupp Arena.
And it hurt a lot to fall short of that.
But I’m still proud of our team for what we accomplished together. And I’ll always cherish the brotherhood that we formed this season, both on and off the court.
I’ll also cherish the relationship that I built this season with our assistant coach, Kenny Payne. (But we just call him KP.) KP hasn’t just become my coach here in Lexington — he’s become my mentor as well. All year long, man, he’s been there: to show me the ropes, like I’m a freshman … but also to hold me accountable, like I’m an adult. And in a lot of ways, you know, Coach Payne’s presence in my life is what my entire experience at Kentucky has been about:
I haven’t just gotten better. I’ve grown up.
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY Sports
And then last but not least, man, I gotta thank Cal.
Actually, hang on, I almost forgot to tell you: There’s one more thing Coach Cal did that night — sitting on our living room couch in Arkansas, after dinner, during his recruiting visit — that I forgot to put up top. One more thing Coach did that, by the time he left, made me want to come to UK.
He picked me apart.
Nah, really: Coach just sat there, in our living room … with the most confident look you’ve ever seen … and he picked me all the way apart. He told me everything that I wasn’t good enough at yet — and broke down every single part of my game that I had to work on. Right off the dome. He just knew my weaknesses inside and out. Nailed every one of them. Dude was hard on me. And then he finished it off with a sentence that I’ll never forget:
Kentucky isn’t for everyone.
And at first I was like — Woah, O.K., I see how it is. I was thinking, you know, Wow … this is not what I expected. Like: This was not one of those “gas you up and tell you what you want to hear” recruiting visits guys tell you about. This was real.
But then … right at the end there … I slowly started to figure it out. I started to figure out that Coach Cal wasn’t criticizing me.
He was challenging me.
He was challenging me to give up scoring 30 every game — and to sacrifice some of my own shine in the pursuit of a goal. He was challenging me to play on the ball — and off it. He was challenging me to see how far along my game could develop — competing, not just against the best of the SEC every night, but also every day, in practice, against Fox and Zay, two of the best guards in the entire country. He was challenging me to step up — not just a level, but to the absolute highest level possible.
He was challenging me to come to Kentucky.
And I’m forever grateful.
And now I’m challenging myself to see what comes next.