John Calipari went 2-for-3 with top recruits who made their college decisions Thursday, missing on one of his biggest targets but fortifying what should be a formidable frontcourt of the future with a pair of five-star prospects.
Kentucky landed commitments from high school seniors Nick Richards and PJ Washington, who announced their college choices within a few hours of each other and became the first two recruits to join the Wildcats’ class of 2017.
Four-star wing John Petty also made a college commitment Thursday, but he picked home-state Alabama over UK.
Richards — a 6-foot-11 center from Queens, N.Y. — was first to announce, revealing his decision during a ceremony at his high school, The Patrick School in New Jersey, which is also the alma mater of former UK star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Scout.com ranks Richards as the No. 17 overall prospect in the 2017 class, and he chose the Cats over Arizona and Syracuse.
“He brings a defensive presence,” said Scout.com’s Evan Daniels. “He’s a guy that rebounds his area really well. He plays with toughness. He’s physical. He finishes off plays around the rim. This is a talented post player who can really help them on that end of the floor.”
A few hours later, Washington went on national TV and picked the Wildcats.
The 6-8, 235-pound power forward from Findlay Prep (Nev.) — he was born in Louisville and raised in Texas — recently narrowed his list to UK, North Carolina and UNLV, but the Wildcats had been considered the heavy favorite for the past few weeks.
Washington — the No. 14 player in Scout.com’s rankings for 2017 — announced his college choice on ESPNU’s signing day special.
“I think PJ is one of the best rebounders in the country,” Daniels said. “And he’s one of the most versatile forwards, in terms of what he can do offensively. He can score with his back to the rim. He can score attacking from the high post. He can make mid- to long-range jump shots. … He has a 7-2 wingspan, so he’s got great length. There’s a lot to like about him as a prospect.”
Richards and Washington both took official visits to Kentucky in September, and they both returned to Lexington a few weeks later, paying their own way to attend Big Blue Madness.
At his announcement ceremony, Richards showed off a pair of blue and white shoes emblazoned with the UK logo and said that he was “proud to be following in the footsteps” of Kidd-Gilchrist, who said positive things about the Wildcats during Richards’ recruitment.
Washington put on a gray UK hat to signal his commitment to the Cats.
“The way Coach Calipari uses his players and gets them to the next level, I thought that would be great for me,” he said. “He told me he would use me like Trey Lyles and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — play me (positionless). And just dominate the game.”
With the addition of those two players, UK is likely to have one of the best frontcourts in college basketball a year from now.
Freshman big man Bam Adebayo is projected to be an NBA Draft pick after this season, but it’s possible that the Cats could return sophomore center Isaac Humphries and freshman power forward Sacha Killeya-Jones to team up with Richards and Washington for the 2017-18 campaign.
“That would give them a little bit of everything inside,” Daniels said. “Sacha is a guy who can score the basketball and has great skill. Nick brings the defensive presence. PJ brings that versatility and ability to rebound and score. And then Humphries is a big body that can do a little bit of everything.”
Freshman Wenyen Gabriel — a 6-10 player who was recruited as a wing — could also play in the post and might return for a sophomore season. The Cats will likely have freshman center Tai Wynyard back next year, too.
UK also remains in the mix for five-star center Mohamed Bamba — the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2017 class. Bamba is not expected to make a college decision until the spring.
The only bad news for UK on Thursday night came from Petty, a Huntsville, Ala., native who was the first player from the 2017 class to earn a scholarship offer from Calipari, but ultimately chose to stay home and play for Alabama.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon to preview the Cats’ season opener against Stephen F. Austin, Calipari was asked how recruiting was going. He’s still targeting several more five-star prospects for 2017, and his response indicated that he thinks UK will, once again, have a nice class once this cycle is finished.
“All is good. All is good,” Calipari said. “The staff has done a great job of getting us involved with the right guys, the right guys for this place. And this isn’t for everybody, but, at the end of the day, I think we get the kids we’re supposed to get. Doesn’t mean we’ll get them all.”
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Scout.com’s Top 20 players in the 2017 class
DeAndre Ayton, C
Mohamed Bamba, C
Trevon Duval, G
Wendell Carter, C
Michael Porter Jr., F
Mitchell Robinson, C
Kevin Knox, F
Brandon McCoy, C
Collin Sexton, G
Hamidou Diallo, G
Troy Brown, G
Gary Trent Jr., G
Austin Wiley, C
PJ Washington, F
Jarred Vanderbilt, F
Billy Preston, F
Nick Richards, C
Kris Wilkes, F
Jeremiah Tilmon, C
Brian Bowen, F