Locked in what has seemingly become a two-team recruiting battle over five-star basketball prospect Keldon Johnson, the Kentucky Wildcats didn’t do anything to lose ground over the weekend.
UK hosted Johnson — a 6-foot-6 wing player from South Hill, Va. — for his official visit last weekend, a trip that came about three weeks after the 17-year-old received a scholarship offer from the Wildcats during a previous visit to Lexington.
Johnson is preparing for his senior season at high school powerhouse Oak Hill Academy — his first season with that program — and his hall of fame coach said the latest trip to UK was a positive one.
“He had a great visit to Kentucky,” Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith told the Herald-Leader on Tuesday night. “He likes Kentucky. He likes the tradition. He likes the program there. He likes Coach Calipari. He had no negatives when he got back from the visit. There was nothing he was questioning. So, he likes Kentucky a lot.
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“Everybody thinks it’s between Kentucky and Texas — I don’t know if that’s the case — but I do know Kentucky has a good shot at him. And Texas is recruiting him hard.”
The general consensus in recruiting circles is indeed that Johnson will end up at either Kentucky or Texas, though he’s also taken an official visit to North Carolina State and has official visits coming up to Maryland and Florida State.
Smith noted that Longhorns Coach Shaka Smart, who has been recruiting Johnson since middle school, has been by Oak Hill twice since the fall recruiting period began a little more than a week ago. John Calipari was there last week, UK assistant coach Joel Justus is expected back Wednesday, and coaches from the other three schools on his list have also been through twice this fall.
Smith said that level of interest illustrates just how much those programs want Johnson, who appears to be getting closer to a college decision.
“I think he has an idea of where the teams stack up right now,” Smith said.
Johnson also has an idea of what he wants to accomplish on the basketball court.
He started his high school career in Virginia before heading to Huntington (W.Va.) Prep last season, and he’s now returning to his home state to wrap up his high school career.
Under Smith’s guidance, Oak Hill has established itself as the premier name in high school basketball, and the Warriors’ alumni are well known to those who follow the sport. Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith, Rajon Rondo, Jerry Stackhouse and Ron Mercer are just a few of the big names who have represented the school over the years.
“He knows the lineage of players we’ve had in the past 30 years, and he wants to be one of those guys and be in that conversation: that he’s one of the best guys to ever play here,” Smith said of Johnson. “That’s important to him, and when he walks in the gym he focuses on what he’s got to do.”
Johnson has the ability — and, apparently, the work ethic — to one day join that group of basketball greats.
One of the most gifted scorers in the country, Johnson averaged 20.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game on the highly competitive Nike circuit over the summer. He was also a co-MVP at the NBPA Top 100 Camp in June.
“He’s become so much of a better player than he was a year ago,” Smith said. “He’s gone from a top 25-30 player to a guy that’s top five or top 10 in the country. … He has the ability to score at a lot of different levels. He gets to the basket and finishes inside as well as anybody. He’s a strong, physical player when he attacks the rim. He’s got three-point range. He’s been working on his pull-up game. He’s a very, very good passer. He’s an outstanding offensive rebounder. He really rebounds his position, which a lot of guys don’t do when they’re as good as he is.”
Smith also praised Johnson’s potential as a perimeter defender and kept steering the conversation back to the hard work he’s seen his new star player putting in since he arrived at Oak Hill a few weeks ago, compared to watching him earlier in his career.
“I think he plays with more passion,” Smith said. “I think he plays harder. He plays every possession now, instead of playing in spurts. I think he realizes how important that is when you’re a player of his caliber. If you want to be a top 5-10 player in the country, that’s what those players do.”
With three official visits down, Smith said Johnson is planning to take this weekend off — Oak Hill has a four-day fall break — and then take official visits to Maryland and Florida State, tentatively scheduled for the next two weekends.
The early signing period for high school seniors begins Nov. 8 and stretches through Nov. 15, and Smith said he expects Johnson to have a college decision by then, if not sooner.
“I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t sign early,” he said.