UK Men's Basketball

Analyst says Kentucky now the team to beat for one of nation’s top basketball recruits

Keldon Johnson was one of the top players on the Nike circuit this year. He earned a UK scholarship offer Tuesday.
Keldon Johnson was one of the top players on the Nike circuit this year. He earned a UK scholarship offer Tuesday.

Last month, Keldon Johnson — one of the top basketball recruits in the 2018 class — was asked about the possibility of landing a scholarship offer from Kentucky.

Johnson had visited UK multiple times, and John Calipari had seen him play quite a bit in both high school and AAU settings. The 6-foot-6 wing from Virginia clearly coveted the UK offer. At the same time, he said that he wasn’t going to put any time constraints on Calipari, explaining that he’d gladly wait as long as it took to get one.

Why wait around for the offer, with so many other great choices?

“I mean, it’s Kentucky,” Johnson told the Herald-Leader.

Kentucky came through Tuesday, extending Johnson a scholarship offer during a previously unannounced unofficial visit to Lexington.

Before the UK offer, Texas was the clear favorite in Johnson’s recruitment. He had formed a close bond with Longhorns Coach Shaka Smart, and most recruiting analysts were predicting he’d ultimately end up in Austin.

Calipari’s offer set off a Crystal Ball flurry in favor of the Cats.

247Sports national analyst Jerry Meyer was among those who switched picks to UK.

“I like Kentucky’s chances here,” Meyer told the Herald-Leader. “The fact that he takes a visit — kind of kept it on the lowdown — and then he gets the offer. With schools like Kentucky, in a situation like this, you figure that if they offer a guy they feel really good about their chances. I don’t think they get involved otherwise.

“And he seems pretty excited about. We’ll see what happens. Obviously he’s going to visit Texas, and it would seem to me to be a battle between those two schools.”

Johnson has scheduled official visits to Texas, Florida State and Maryland for next month. A return trip to Lexington for an official visit could be possible, but he’s already been on UK’s campus a few times, dating back to his time spent at nearby Huntington (W.Va.) Prep last season.

Earlier this summer, it was announced that Johnson would spend his senior season at Oak Hill Academy.

Meyer ranks Johnson as the No. 11 overall prospect and No. 2 shooting guard — behind only Indiana high school star Romeo Langford — in the 2018 class.

“Overall, he’s a very good player,” Meyer said. “What I like about him is he’s physical. He plays hard. He’s unselfish. He’s sort of a ‘throwback’ type of player, but he has great athleticism. And I think he’s pretty skilled.”

Johnson’s long-range shooting is still coming around, but he excels at getting to the basket and making plays. He brings tremendous energy to the court, and Meyer noted his athleticism. He also projects as a “very good” perimeter defender, the analyst said.

The unselfishness — Johnson averaged 3.1 assists per game for his Nike league team, despite being one of the circuit’s top scorers (20.7 points per game) and playing off the ball — is a major part of his appeal, especially to a program like Kentucky that will likely have multiple top-10 recruits on the floor at any given time.

“I just think he’s a guy who plays to win,” Meyer said. “When you play to win, you tend to play unselfishly. … He’s going to fit anywhere, but I think it makes him very attractive to Kentucky particularly.”

Johnson hasn’t put a timetable on his college recruitment, but a decision in time for the early signing period in November seems a likely scenario. The Cats are clearly in a good spot.

“Everyone thought he was going to go to Texas prior to this, so my perception is that it’s basically a two-horse race: Kentucky and Texas,” Meyer said.

Five-star basketball recruit Keldon Johnson is moving to Oak Hill Academy for his senior season, and UK is interested in his recruitment.

Madness guest

Expect another long guest list of high school seniors at UK’s Big Blue Madness in October.

Five-star point guard Darius Garland is the first class of 2018 recruit confirmed for the event. His father told 247Sports this week that they’d be in Lexington the same weekend as Madness for an official visit.

Garland — a 6-1 prospect from Nashville — has also been seen as one of the least likely players with a UK scholarship offer to ultimately end up picking the Wildcats.

“They have a shot,” 247Sports analyst Jerry Meyer told the Herald-Leader. “But my feeling, personally, is that I think Vanderbilt has the advantage.”

In addition to the two Southeastern Conference schools, Garland is looking at official visits to Duke, Indiana and UCLA.

Meyer noted that Garland and his father have both spoken favorably of possibly pairing up with another great 2018 point guard — such as Tre Jones at Duke or Immanuel Quickley, who’s expected to commit to UK — but they’ve also said that Garland is at his best with the ball in his hands, running a team.

Jones, who has already committed to Duke, is the only point guard above Garland in the 247Sports composite rankings. Quickley is No. 3 on that list, and it’s possible — perhaps probable — that UK will return five-star point guards Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from this season’s team.

At Vanderbilt, the ball would clearly belong to Garland.

“He would be the face of the program,” Meyer said. “Probably the highest-ranked guy they’ve ever signed. And he knows he’s going to get the ball and they’re going to tell him to go with it.”

Garland also has high school friends that will be playing football at Vanderbilt, and there is buzz around the Nashville area that he wouldn’t mind staying close to home.

“I think that’s going to win out in the end,” Meyer said.

Mr. Nice Guy

247Sports recruiting analyst Andrew Slater spoke to the Herald-Leader recently about Scottie Lewis, one of the top recruits in the class of 2019 and a player who’s expected to be a major Kentucky target in the coming months.

In an aside, Slater mentioned that Lewis — a 6-5 wing from New Jersey — is, “one of the nicest people I’ve met” in his years of covering basketball recruits.

Lewis has an infectious, positive personality off the court to go along with his dynamic skills and athleticism on it. That type of attitude is often overlooked — and undervalued — when evaluating recruits.

“There is something to be said for having that kind of person in your locker room,” Slater said.

Kentucky is already viewed as one of the favorites in Lewis’ recruitment.

Five-star basketball recruit Scottie Lewis is planning to visit Kentucky on Friday with five-star teammate Bryan Antoine.

Other notes

▪  ESPN shuffled its 2019 rankings Thursday, moving Nashville big man James Wiseman to the No. 1 spot on the list. Wiseman was very high on UK during an interview at Nike’s Peach Jam last month. After the interview session, another reporter commented to the Herald-Leader that Wiseman came across as “about as heavy a Kentucky lean” as he’d ever heard. He’ll be one to watch for the Cats.

▪  Five-star point guard Immanuel Quickley officially cut home-state Maryland from his recruiting list Wednesday night. Quickley is now considering Kentucky, Kansas and Miami, and he’ll take official visits to all three schools next month. UK remains the heavy favorite.

▪  Sophomore point guard Jalen Terry took an unofficial visit to UK on Wednesday. Terry — a 5-11 prospect from Flint, Mich. — is ranked by 247Sports as the No. 40 overall recruit in the 2020 class. Iowa is his biggest offer at the moment.

▪  During an ESPN recruiting broadcast a few days ago, national analyst Paul Biancardi called up a graphic featuring his top 5 “Hardest Playing Dudes” in the 2018 class. UK targets Simi Shittu and Zion Williamson were both on the list. A Herald-Leader poll of recruiting experts earlier this month concluded that Williamson and Shittu are the second and third most likely 2018 recruits, respectively, to ultimately pick the Cats.