For the UK basketball program, the area of need was clear going into the most meaningful months of this 2018 recruiting cycle.
Expected to return a few talented frontcourt players from his current team, John Calipari and the Kentucky coaching staff were looking, first and foremost, for guards. They found them.
UK officially announced the signings of three highly touted perimeter players Thursday, a day after the end of the fall signing period.
Five-star point guard Immanuel Quickley, four-star shooting guard Tyler Herro and five-star wing Keldon Johnson will all be Wildcats next season. Calipari, speaking publicly about that trio for the first time Thursday afternoon, was pleased.
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“We got competitive fighters who wanted this in the worst way,” he said. “They didn’t shy away from it. They’re not worried about sharing. They understand what this is and they wanted to be here.”
Kentucky’s class exits the early signing period ranked No. 3 nationally — behind Kansas and Duke — and there is likely still room for at least one or two more players in the Wildcats’ 2018 class.
Scout.com national recruiting analyst Evan Daniels praised UK’s early pickups.
“They got three really good perimeter players. I really like the fit of this class,” Daniels told the Herald-Leader on Thursday. “They fit well together. You have a point guard in Immanuel Quickley that’s a good distributor, works really well in pick-and-rolls and can defend. You’ve got a ‘2’ guard in Tyler Herro that’s one of the best scorers in the country. He has a reputation as a shooter, but he’s much more of a pure scorer. And then you’ve got Keldon Johnson — a tough, competitive, physical, athletic wing that rebounds, can score going to the rim and competes on defense.
“I think it’s a really good perimeter class. I think Kentucky closed really well.”
The Cats have had a commitment from Quickley — a 6-foot-3 prospect from Maryland — since late September. They added Johnson — a 6-6 wing from Oak Hill Academy (Va.) — last Saturday. Herro — a 6-5 player from Milwaukee — announced his commitment Tuesday.
Quickley is No. 8 nationally, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Johnson is No. 14 overall in those rankings, and Herro is No. 36.
UK is expected to lose Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox — who Calipari calls his “6-9 shooting guard” — to the NBA Draft after this season. Fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has also been mentioned as a possible one-and-done player, but he still has plenty to prove on the court before that will become a reality.
UK’s three new signees could very well be joining a backcourt that includes returning players Gilgeous-Alexander, Quade Green and Jemarl Baker next season.
“Calipari is certainly going to have some options,” Daniels said. “And that would be a great problem to have if you have all six of those guys as options for your perimeter. You’ve got a couple of point guards, a couple of guys who can play a combo role. You’ve got a little bit of everything.
“It would be a deep group. And it would be an impressive group.”
In UK’s official statement announcing the signing class Thursday morning, Calipari was quoted as saying that “we’re not done yet” with recruiting in the class of 2018.
He expounded, a bit, on that later in the day.
“My guess is we’ll probably try to get one more,” the UK coach said. “Maybe two. Maybe. And that all depends on how this unfolds.”
Five-star forward Zion Williamson — the No. 2 overall player in the 2018 class — remains Kentucky’s top recruiting target going into the winter.
The 6-6 prospect from Spartanburg, S.C., has narrowed his recruiting list to Kentucky, Clemson, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina, but he has not yet set a date for his college announcement.
National recruiting analyst Andrew Slater covered Williamson’s season opener Tuesday night, and he logged a pro-Clemson prediction for Williamson after that game.
“I think Kentucky definitely has a chance,” Slater told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s a done deal. But I do think Clemson is the leader.”
UK has been the favorite on Williamson’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page for the past couple of months, and the Cats still appear to have a great shot to land his commitment.
Daniels noted Thursday how “hush-hush” Williamson and his circle have been recently.
“I don’t really have any clue where Zion Williamson is going to go,” he said. “And I don’t really think he does either.”
Kentucky is also looking at five-star center Moses Brown, the No. 15 overall prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings. Brown hosted Calipari for an in-home visit in New York last week and is expected to visit Lexington sometime soon. It’s possible that he would receive a UK scholarship offer during that trip.
The only class of 2018 player other than Williamson that has a UK offer right now is Bol Bol, the 7-3 power forward who recently transferred to Findlay Prep (Nev.).
The Herald-Leader was told Thursday that news on Bol’s recruitment is expected to be made public in the next couple of days. Bol, who has narrowed his list to UK and Oregon, was widely expected to sign with Oregon during the fall period.
It’s possible that Bol did indeed sign with the Ducks during the early period and is simply waiting to announce his commitment — (much like Quade Green, who signed papers for Kentucky during the early period last fall but did not publicly reveal his commitment until three days after the signing period had ended).
Other than Williamson’s recruitment, the biggest mystery moving forward might be who from this current UK team stays for next season, and who goes on to the NBA.
Diallo, Knox, Gilgeous-Alexander, PJ Washington, Nick Richards, Jarred Vanderbilt, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones have all been mentioned as possible early entrants to next year’s NBA Draft.
Some of those players will surely head to the pros. Many will return to UK for another season. If no one leaves — and that’s not going to happen — the three new signees would put UK at one over the scholarship limit.
Calipari obviously won’t know for sure what next season’s team will look like until next spring. Some might see that as a challenge when it comes to recruiting the rest of the 2018 cycle.
“I think there’s a lot of people that would love to have that type of problem,” Daniels said. “I wouldn’t call it a ‘challenge,’ but I think it’s something that they’re going to have to work through, certainly.”