The biggest UK basketball recruiting development in a week full of them came Tuesday night, when under-the-radar power forward Jaxson Hayes received a scholarship offer during an in-home visit with John Calipari.
“Who?” you might ask.
That’s probably what Calipari himself would have said a few months ago.
Hayes — a 6-foot-10, 195-pound player from Cincinnati — will be a senior this season, and he’s never started a game for his high school team, Archbishop Moeller.
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Even at the beginning of the most recent travel season — he played for Twenty Two Vision on the Adidas circuit — Hayes didn’t register on the national recruiting radar.
“This is one of the more interesting stories in the entire 2018 class,” Scout.com’s Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “If you watched Twenty Two Vision at the beginning of the spring, he was kind of an afterthought. And by July, he had all of these high-major schools watching him. This is a classic late-bloomer.
“He’s really intriguing, because he has a lot of upside. He’s pushing 6-10, he has long arms, he’s mobile, has good hands. The light is just flickering on right now, and he’s certainly a kid we’ll be paying close attention to throughout his senior season.”
As of now, Hayes is not considered to be a Top 100 national prospect by any of the major recruiting services. He has picked up several big scholarship offers over the past few weeks and has already taken official visits to Texas and hometown Xavier.
He’s a promising talent, but UK fans who are used to seeing five stars next to the name of just about every player Calipari recruits have been scratching their heads for days over this one.
In many ways, it makes sense.
UK’s coaching staff has not been enamored with the level of post talent in this 2018 recruiting class, and 7-foot-3 power forward Bol Bol, who likes to play on the perimeter, was the only other player from that group with a UK offer before Hayes landed his Tuesday night.
The Cats could have targeted a player or two at the top of the center or power forward rankings — many of them were hoping for UK offers — but such recruits would also likely come to campus with one-and-done aspirations, perhaps lacking in one-and-done talent. That combination can often lead to issues.
It’s also possible — maybe even probable — that Calipari might not need any immediate-impact newcomers in his frontcourt for the 2018-19 season. The most recent mock draft from ESPN’s Jonathan Givony projects that only shooting guard Hamidou Diallo and center Nick Richards will go pro after this season.
If that happens — while acknowledging it’s way too early to tell at this point — UK could have 6-10 Tai Wynyard, 6-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones, 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel, 6-9 Kevin Knox, 6-9 Jarred Vanderbilt and 6-7 PJ Washington back next season.
It’s possible some of those players leave, but it’s a safe bet that a few of them will return (and 6-11 Richards could come back, too).
Hayes would give Kentucky a player to develop for a year or two before asking him to become a major contributor, and he’d likely get to polish those skills while going up against some former five-star recruits in practice every single day.
UK has already hosted Hayes for an unofficial visit, and he’s expected back for an official visit this fall — another plus for UK: he lives only 80 miles away — so expect the Cats to emerge as major players for his commitment in the coming weeks.
He could be a hidden gem in this 2018 class.
“I think he’s a down-the-road guy,” Daniels said. “You have to recognize that he has a lot of potential, but there’s still some development to do. He’s a guy that’s just now coming on, and sometimes those guys take a little bit longer to develop.
“But he has the tools.”
What about Shittu?
The emergence of Jaxson Hayes as a serious UK target looks like the end of the Wildcats’ pursuit of power forward Simi Shittu, a top-10 player in the class of 2018.
John Calipari traveled to Vermont Academy to watch Shittu work out with his high school teammates in an open gym last week, and there was some indication before that trip that Shittu and UK’s coach might iron out a visit date while he was there.
The Herald-Leader reached out to Vermont Academy Coach Alex Popp the next day to see if a date was set, and there was no response. A few minutes after Hayes’ scholarship offer from UK became public — six days later — Popp texted the Herald-Leader to say that Shittu had not set a visit to Kentucky.
The assumption in recruiting circles was that UK would extend a scholarship offer to Shittu when he did visit Lexington.
On Thursday night, Shittu announced that he has set official visits for Vanderbilt (Oct. 6), Arizona (Nov. 3) and North Carolina (Nov. 10). He also told Scout.com’s Evan Daniels that South Carolina is the only other school he considers to be “still involved” in his recruitment.
The Herald-Leader was told early Friday morning that Calipari and Shittu are indeed moving in different directions, and — unless something changes very soon — UK will no longer be considered a serious suitor.
More on Zion
The Herald-Leader’s expert panel of national analysts reconvened earlier this week to handicap the Zion Williamson recruitment, and the results were a bit surprising.
UK finished No. 1 — not a shocker — but Clemson at No. 2 and Kansas in a distant third were unexpected results after the Jayhawks emerged as possible favorites during the summer.
If we had conducted our poll a little later in the week, the results would have been even more surprising.
Multiple recruiting analysts followed up with the Herald-Leader after the story was published to further downgrade Kansas’ chances, while Clemson’s support grew even more. In fact, if the votes were tallied Thursday instead of earlier in the week, Clemson would have been an even stronger No. 2 choice — coming close to threatening UK’s top spot — and Kansas would have fallen behind Duke and into the No. 4 spot.
The feedback from recruiting analysts indicated that the Jayhawks had lost whatever perceived momentum they had, while Clemson’s chances of keeping Williamson — a Spartanburg, S.C. native — close to home for college are very real.
It seems strange to type, but the Tigers could very well land Williamson, the nation’s No. 2 recruit. He’s scheduled to be in Lexington for his first official visit this weekend.
Oak Hill Academy’s Steve Smith had a lengthy conversation with the Herald-Leader on Tuesday night about his star player, Keldon Johnson, and the hall of fame coach made one thing quite clear.
“His parents are going to have a say, but they’re going to let Keldon go where he wants to go and support him,” Smith said, unprompted.
Johnson — a five-star shooting guard from South Hill, Va. — has always had great things to say about Kentucky dating back to more than a year before he picked up a scholarship offer from the Wildcats.
That said, the others on his list — especially Texas — are going to be tough to beat.
Johnson has already taken official visits to UK, Texas and North Carolina State, and he’s scheduled to see Maryland and Florida State later this fall. Smith said he would be “shocked” if Johnson does not sign with a school in November.
Checking in on 2019
John Calipari has spent much of his past week getting better acquainted with players from the junior class, and the UK coach extended five scholarship offers to prospects from the class of 2019 over a seven-day period.
UK is also expected to host five-star small forward Keion Brooks, who Calipari watched in Indiana on Monday, for an unofficial visit this weekend, and he could be added to that offer list soon. Power forward Matthew Hurt — a top-five recruit — is expected to visit Kentucky later this month.
Calipari is clearly making major moves with top players from the 2019 class, and UK is considered a possible early favorite for Jeffries, Lewis and Wiseman, the latter being the No. 1 overall player in the Scout.com and ESPN rankings.
The place to be
The Associated Press posted the first installment of what will be a years-long series on Thursday — an introduction to Emoni Bates, proclaimed to be “the best 13-year-old basketball player in America.”
We usually don’t report on recruits that young, but something that Bates said at the end of the AP story stuck out. When asked about early favorites in his recruitment, Bates apparently didn’t hesitate: “Michigan State and Kentucky,” he said.
The 6-foot-7 youngster is from Michigan, so liking the Spartans makes sense.
His mention of UK can be taken as yet another example that Calipari’s Cats remain the “it” team in college basketball. That’s been the case for the past several years on the recruiting trail, and it seems unlikely to change any time soon.
▪ Five-star point guard Immanuel Quickley will announce his college decision Friday night around 6:15 p.m. There were a couple of pro-Kansas picks made on Quickley’s Crystal Ball page late Thursday night that got some people in a tizzy, but the Herald-Leader has been told to discount those predictions. Quickley is expected to pick UK.
▪ John Calipari traveled to Montverde Academy (Fla.) on Thursday to meet with No. 1 recruit R.J. Barrett, who flew to Arizona later in the day in anticipation of his official visit there this weekend. Barrett will also visit Oregon while he’s out west, then take his final official visit to Michigan next weekend. UK and Duke both remain optimistic regarding their chances with Barrett, the Herald-Leader was told earlier this week.
▪ Adair County freshman Zion Harmon will take an unofficial visit to Kentucky this weekend and is expected to return for Big Blue Madness next month, as first reported by Scout.com’s Evan Daniels on Thursday. Harmon — a 5-foot-10 guard — is currently a member of the 2021 recruiting class, but the Herald-Leader has been told that he is expected to eventually reclassify to 2020. Still, that would put him in high school for three more seasons, so UK will have plenty of time to monitor his progress.
▪ One-time UK target Louis King committed to Oregon on Thursday night. King — a five-star recruit in the 2018 class — was the only one of four high school players to be coached by John Calipari with the USA Basketball U19 team this summer and not earn a scholarship offer from the Wildcats.