He still has nearly a full season of high school basketball left to play before he gets to Kentucky, but five-star recruit Keldon Johnson has already received a little dose of what it’s like to be a Wildcat.
On his official visit to UK earlier this fall, Johnson — a 6-foot-6 wing in his senior year at Oak Hill Academy (Va.) — played some pickup basketball with the current Cats.
“And he loved that,” said legendary Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, who has often praised Johnson’s work ethic and competitiveness since getting him on campus over the summer.
“He said he held his own. I don’t know. I wasn’t there,” Smith continued with a smile. “But Coach Cal did say, ‘If he was here this year, he’d be playing for us.’ He thinks that much of his game. I think he’ll do great there.”
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Calipari saw plenty of Johnson’s game on the Nike circuit earlier this year, extending a scholarship offer at the beginning of the fall and, ultimately, accepting a commitment and signed letter of intent from the Virginia native last month.
Fans in western Kentucky got a chance to see what Johnson was all about Friday night at the Marshall County Hoop Fest, where the future Wildcat helped lead Oak Hill to an 84-63 victory over Hamilton Heights (Tenn.).
Johnson scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds, and Smith said that was just an “OK game” by his star player. The first few minutes showed what Johnson is capable of.
He had three explosive dunks in the first half, including one alley-oop finish at full speed in transition where he had to cock his head back to keep it from hitting the backboard. He made a contested three-pointer. He played with great energy and athleticism on defense, hit the boards with that same energy and didn’t hesitate to give up the basketball to talented teammates such as Florida signee Keyontae Johnson and Kansas signee David McCormack.
“He’s got the total package,” said Smith, who has coached more than his share of NBA players over the years.
For Johnson, this weekend also allowed him to connect with his future fan base.
Plenty of blue and white was spread throughout the Marshall County High School gym. UK hats and shirts were all over the building. One man sitting behind the Oak Hill bench was wearing a white shirt, blue tie and blue slacks, grinning alongside a pro-Wildcats sign he brought to the game.
“The fan support was crazy,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of people out there calling my name and things like that. It was an awesome environment.”
Johnson, the No. 14 overall prospect in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, said he expects to play the ‘2’ or ‘3’ when he gets to Kentucky next season. One of the most gifted scorers in the country, he already excels at getting to the basket and finishing in traffic, and improving his outside shooting is his biggest individual point of emphasis this season.
Smith said Johnson is making about 37 percent of his three-point attempts this season.
UK’s 2018 class (so far) includes two other talented guards — Immanuel Quickley and Tyler Herro — and some of UK’s key backcourt players from this season’s team are likely to return to the Cats next year.
Johnson said he hasn’t really had any deep “who’s staying and who’s going?” conversations with the UK coaching staff. Their answers wouldn’t change his approach.
“I don’t really talk to them about it too much,” he said. “Regardless of who comes back and who doesn’t come back, I still gotta do my part. And I still gotta go out there and produce, regardless of who’s there and who’s not there.”
That’s exactly what John Calipari will want to hear.
Johnson is also already getting acclimated to the off-court demands that come along with being a Cat.
A few minutes after Friday night’s game, he was standing courtside, signing autographs for UK fans.
“I feel like that’s the least I can do,” he said with a big smile. “They come out and support me and watch me play … so if they want an autograph, that’s what they get.”