UK Men's Basketball

‘Ultimate warrior’ in the 2018 recruiting class checks all of Calipari’s boxes

Simi Shittu, left, is entering his senior season at Vermont Academy.
Simi Shittu, left, is entering his senior season at Vermont Academy. AP

According to his high school coach’s description, Simi Shittu possesses just about every trait that John Calipari is looking for in a UK recruit these days.

Vermont Academy’s Alex Popp says his star player — a native of Burlington, Ontario — “can guard all five positions on the floor.” Calipari likes that.

Popp says that Shittu was in the gym at 5 a.m. Wednesday putting up shots, a representative display of his work ethic outside of regular team activities. Calipari likes that, too.

As anyone who has watched a Calipari-run practice or observed the UK coach closely during games has seen, mistakes can be forgiven. It’s lackadaisical play that often draws his ire most. “He’s the ultimate warrior,” Popp said of Shittu. “He’s competing on every single play.” The UK coach will certainly like that.

And perhaps no one in the recruiting class of 2018 epitomizes Calipari’s latest recruiting buzzword — “positionless” — more than Shittu, who recently measured at 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds yet often plays the point guard role for Vermont Academy.

“We play through him on every possession,” Popp said. “And if he gets the rebound, he starts the break. He’s such a good decision maker. … And that’s the way the game is trending. Smart coaches are going to take advantage of this and exploit mismatches.”

Calipari has taken notice of Shittu’s game — and the future possibilities that would go along with getting him into a UK uniform — this summer, making a side trip to Canada to catch the top-10 recruit in an open gym on the last day of the last recruiting period in July.

Simi Shittu was one of the leading scorers and rebounders on the Nike circuit this summer. Gregory Payan AP

The UK coach didn’t get to have a conversation with Shittu at that event due to NCAA contact rules, but Calipari will have another chance in the near future.

The fall recruiting period begins Saturday, and Popp said that Vermont Academy is holding its first open gym Tuesday morning. He told the Herald-Leader that Calipari is among the coaches expected to be in attendance.

Though Shittu doesn’t technically have a scholarship offer from Kentucky listed next to his name on the recruiting websites, Calipari has made it clear that there’s a spot for him with the Wildcats if he wants to join the program. The UK coach has also extended an open invitation for Shittu to visit Lexington this fall.

The conventional wisdom is that Shittu will be officially extended a UK offer during that visit, which could happen in the very near future.

Popp said Shittu would probably commit to a specific visit date soon, and that the plan is to take that UK trip this fall, before the start of his senior season. “That’s kind of what we’re looking at,” he said.

For much of the spring and summer, it was unclear just how serious UK was in its recruitment of Shittu, who averaged 21.2 points and 10.2 rebounds on the Nike EYBL circuit this summer and was one of the top 10 scorers and top five rebounders in the league.

UK assistant coach Kenny Payne was a regular at many of his games, but the Cats seemed to be prioritizing others in the 2018 class. Calipari’s visit at the end of the summer — he had to leave just about every top recruiting target behind in Las Vegas to watch Shittu in Canada — showed Kentucky was for real.

Shittu is a talent deserving of such a side trip.

When the post-summer recruiting rankings were updated recently, he was one of only six players to earn a top-10 ranking from every major recruiting service. None of the national websites has him lower than ninth overall.

“I think that he had one of the most underrated summers of anyone out there,” 247Sports national analyst Andrew Slater told the Herald-Leader. “If you look at his numbers across the board, he had legitimately one of the top five, at worst, summers, regardless of AAU circuit. He’s a legitimate double-double machine with a high motor. His perimeter skills are much improved. Very good athlete as well. And he’s a really high-character kid with good grades off the court.”

Shittu has narrowed his recruiting list to 10 schools: UK, Arizona, Arizona State, New Mexico, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Oregon, South Carolina, UConn and Vanderbilt.

Popp says if his star player finds the right fit this fall, he’d go ahead and announce a commitment.

“And if he doesn’t, then he’s going to wait,” he said. “It’s just a matter of him selecting the right scenario for his next step. ... I’m pretty confident that with his work ethic and the talent that he already is — the sky is the limit.”