Last week’s commitment from five-star forward Jarred Vanderbilt added another talented basketball player to a UK recruiting class that was already ranked No. 1 nationally.
What the addition of Vanderbilt — a 6-foot-8 prospect and 19.0-percent three-point shooter on the Nike circuit this past summer — didn’t do is alleviate concerns about the Wildcats’ outside shooting for next season.
The only players on the current team with a three-point percentage of higher than 28 percent — Malik Monk, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis — will all be gone by next season, Monk to the NBA and Mulder and Willis to graduation.
Incoming point guard Quade Green is a solid three-point shooter, but none of the Wildcats’ other signees in the 2017 class fit that description.
So, where will the shooters come from?
“I don’t think they’re going to come,” 247Sports national analyst Jerry Meyer told the Herald-Leader. “If you don’t get Trae Young, then who are you going to get?”
Young — a 6-2 point guard from Norman, Okla. — is one of only two backcourt players in the 2017 class with a scholarship offer from UK, but he is now thought to be leaning toward Kansas or Oklahoma after the Cats added two players at his position in the early signing period — Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The other 2017 guard with a UK offer is 6-5 Hamidou Diallo, who has off-the-charts athleticism but was just a 20-percent three-point shooter this past summer.
The only other uncommitted backcourt players in the top 50, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, are point guards Trevon Duval and Matt Coleman, and shooting guard M.J. Walker. There are no indications that UK is or will be recruiting any of those players.
Meyer mentioned the possibility that UK could add a graduate transfer or foreign player late in the 2017 recruiting cycle to help with outside shooting. Going the junior-college route or hoping a talented shooter in the 2018 class reclassifies up are also possible options, though there are no clear candidates in those categories.
The most likely scenario might simply be that UK goes into the 2017-18 season with major outside shooting concerns.
That, Meyer noted, is not uncommon for the Wildcats under Coach John Calipari.
He said after Vanderbilt’s commitment — during a conversation on UK’s past shooting woes — that he’s heard UK fans complain about their team’s three-point prowess ever since the Cats’ Elite Eight loss to West Virginia in 2010, when Calipari’s first season at Kentucky ended with his team going 4-for-32 from three-point range.
As a team that season, UK shot 33.1 percent from three-point range, still the lowest mark under Calipari and good enough for No. 209 nationally in 2009-10.
Kentucky finished in the top 50 nationally in three-point percentage the next two seasons, thanks largely to Doron Lamb, but, in the four full seasons since then, the Cats have finished in the top 100 just once and have been No. 150 or worse the other three times.
So far this season, Kentucky is shooting 33.2 percent from long range and went into this past weekend ranked No. 243 nationally in that category.
“Coach Cal has had shooters,” Meyer said. “But I think shooting is lower on the value list than other traits for a (UK) prospect. Now, some of that’s just the way it is because very few players are complete players. And, typically, your five-star type players, your one-and-dones, if they have a weakness, most of the time it usually is shooting. They’re great athletes and they have other (ways to score).
“It’s not necessarily a criticism of Coach Calipari. Obviously, he’s a great coach and knows what he’s doing. Phenomenal recruiter. But, when you look at this (2017) class, and when you look at what has been a concern for Kentucky teams in the past, you can’t help but think about outside shooting.”
The argument could be made that UK has indeed had great shooters the past three seasons — Devin Booker, Jamal Murray and now Monk have all been dynamic outside threats — but they weren’t necessarily dead-eye shooters as recruits. Booker (33.7 percent in his final summer on the Nike circuit), Murray (36.3 percent) and Monk (34.6 percent) all had substantially lower three-point numbers as prospects than they did as Wildcats. Some of that is shot selection, some of it is playing with more talented teammates and some of it is the inherent improvement of young players.
Three-point shooting of recent UK shooting guards
3-pt % at UK
3-pt % in final AAU season
There are a few reasons why UK — despite its unprecedented recruiting successes of the past few years — hasn’t ended up with more dead-eye shooters in those recruiting classes.
First, UK recruits the best of the best, and there simply aren’t that many great shooters among the top 25 prospects in the country in any given year.
So, realistically, Calipari could either go after a great talent like Diallo, who does so many things well but struggles with his outside shot, or he could look outside the top 50, maybe even the top 100, for a great shooter to fill that spot.
“Coach Cal, of course he values shooting,” Meyer said. “But I don’t think he values it like a Mike Brey (of Notre Dame) or a John Beilein (of Michigan). Now, some of that is circumstance. I’m sure if John Beilein and Mike Brey were recruiting for Kentucky, they would probably value athleticism and overall playmaking more, and (go after) one-and-done type players.
“So, a lot of it is context. And some of it is: you miss on some players.”
And UK has missed on some great shooters.
Calipari landed guys like Booker and Murray in back-to-back classes, but he went hard after shooting guards James Blackmon Jr. and Luke Kennard, who both had much higher shooting percentages as prospects, in those same cycles.
In the 2017 class, Calipari offered scholarships to Gary Trent Jr. and Lonnie Walker — both 40-percent outside shooters — but UK backed off Trent after (correctly) concluding that he was leaning heavily toward Duke, and the Cats missed on Walker when he committed to Miami.
UK’s coach could have looked further down the rankings list for a shooting guard in this class, but that leads toward another conundrum. Would such a player even play at Kentucky if Calipari signed him?
Willis shot 44.2 percent from three-point range last season — the sixth-best mark in UK’s history — but he’s played just 19.1 minutes per game this season on a team that could use great shooters. That’s the sixth-most playing time on the squad.
Mulder is shooting 42.9 percent from deep so far this season — what would be the eighth-best mark in program history — but he’s playing just 12.0 minutes per game, eighth-most on the team. Mulder was 2-for-3 from deep in UK’s 73-70 loss to Louisville but played just nine minutes that night.
Willis and Mulder both fit that description of players ranked outside the top 100 as recruits, and it’s tough for those players to play starter’s minutes at Kentucky.
“It’s hard to play guys like that over, say, an Isaiah Briscoe, because your system is built more around athleticism than it’s built around spacing the floor and outside shooting,” Meyer said.
That’s not a criticism, added Meyer, who said college coaches try to find “the edge” wherever they can. At UK, Calipari can recruit at a level that allows him to value shooting in a different way than other coaches.
It means UK has been home to some wildly talented teams in recent seasons. It also means headaches in close games when no one can seem to make a shot.
Next season, Kentucky fans should expect more of the same.
“Kentucky can get the best athletes. So that gives them the edge,” Meyer said. “It’s a no-brainer. But, then what you’re always fighting is, ‘OK, do we have enough shooting?’ I think that’s been a constant question the past few years.
“And, when you look at this year’s class, you’re like, ‘Uh oh.’ To me, it’s a little more glaring than any other year.”
UK’s three-point shooting in the Calipari era
*-Through Friday’s games