Back in July, five-star basketball recruit Keldon Johnson was asked how long he’d be willing to wait on a scholarship offer from the University of Kentucky.
Johnson — a 6-foot-6 wing from Virginia — had made it clear earlier in the year that he coveted an offer from the Cats. He had visited UK on multiple occasions and was enjoying a highly successful summer on the Nike circuit, where John Calipari and his coaching staff had seen him play several times.
Many recruits in Johnson’s spot would have been frustrated by UK’s deliberate approach toward his recruitment. That wasn’t his outlook.
“Whenever it happens, it happens,” Johnson told the Herald-Leader at the time. “I’m not going to give them a time period that they have to offer me.”
He then paused for a split second, smiled, and added:
“Because, I mean, it’s Kentucky.”
That last word was said with reverence for the Wildcats’ program.
Johnson’s patience paid off.
Calipari came through with a scholarship offer earlier this fall, and Johnson announced his commitment to Kentucky on Saturday night, picking the Wildcats over fellow finalists Maryland, North Carolina State and Texas.
“He’s a high-level scorer. He’s a high-level competitor,” Scout.com’s Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “He’s aggressive. He attacks. He plays hard with very good energy. He competes on the defensive end, and he’s a really good athlete.
“He’s going to be a terrific college player. I’d like to see him improve on his long-distance shooting, but he’s still capable of making shots. I love watching him play just because of how hard he plays.”
After spending last season at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, Johnson transferred to Oak Hill Academy (Va.) for his final year of high school. Oak Hill has been the country’s preeminent basketball program for decades, a breeding ground for talent that has produced dozens of future stars, Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony, Ron Mercer, Josh Smith and Jerry Stackhouse among them.
Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith told the Herald-Leader that Johnson has a shot to add his name to the program’s prestigious list of pros, and the new UK commitment started putting in the necessary work toward that goal as soon as he joined the program.
“He’s told me that he’s never worked this hard in his life,” Smith said. “But he wants that, and he doesn’t shy away from that. He wants to be good. He wants to play for money one day — as all players do — and I think he knows he’s got to work every day to make that happen.
“And there’s no reason that shouldn’t happen. He has that kind of ability, and I’ve been impressed with his work ethic and his attitude.”
Johnson averaged 20.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game on the Nike circuit this past summer. He’s a dynamic scorer who rebounds well for his position and plays with great energy and athleticism on the defensive end, but that last stat might be the most overlooked part of Johnson’s game.
“He’s very unselfish,” Smith said. “I think one of his better skills is passing the ball. He doesn’t have to score to be a good player. He can make other players good by passing the ball and making plays, and some really good players aren’t like that at his age.”
Johnson is a prime candidate to make a climb in the rankings during his senior season at Oak Hill — ESPN has already moved him to No. 7 overall on its list — and one-and-done buzz will surely follow him to Lexington next season.
Smith said that’s a possibility, but he wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson stays at Kentucky for more than one season.
“He wants to be a pro as quick as he can, but he’s not going to rush it,” he said. “I don’t think he’s going to be one of those guys that makes a mistake and says, ‘I’m outta here,’ after one year. If he’s not ready, I think he’ll go back to college another year. Whatever it takes him to get to where he wants to get to.”