Zion Williamson surprised the recruiting world Saturday night, but it didn’t go in Kentucky’s favor.
One of the most-hyped high school basketball recruits in years, Williamson announced he would play his college career — one likely to last only one season — at Duke, picking the Blue Devils over UK, Clemson, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Clemson was the heavy favorite going into the 17-year-old’s announcement, but it was Mike Krzyzewski who won over another star recruit.
“Coach K, when he came to my house to meet with my family, it wasn’t just about basketball and what he could do for me in one year,” Williamson said. “It was how he could build Zion as a brand on and off the court for the next several years and the rest of my life.”
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Williamson’s decision almost certainly means Kentucky will sign zero top-five national prospects for the third straight recruiting class. It also means the Cats have been beaten by the Blue Devils, yet again, for one of the country’s top recruits.
John Calipari recruited R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish — the No. 1 and 2 prospects in the class, respectively, according to the 247Sports composite rankings — but both players signed with Duke in November.
Williamson — a 6-foot-6 forward from Spartanburg, S.C. — is the No. 3 player in the class.
Calipari also showed some interest in No. 4 recruit Bol Bol, who has signed with Oregon, and No. 5 recruit Romeo Langford, who has narrowed his list to Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt. (UK stopped recruiting Langford over the summer to focus on other players).
The Cats’ top-ranked signee for next season is Oak Hill (Va.) wing Keldon Johnson, who is No. 12 in the 247Sports composite rankings. UK has also signed point guard Immanuel Quickley (No. 13 in those rankings) and shooting guard Tyler Herro (No. 33 overall).
Williamson’s commitment to Duke — he can’t officially sign with the Blue Devils until April — also means there are no longer any uncommitted players in the class of 2018 with scholarship offers from Kentucky.
The only other prospect in the class that Calipari has shown any interest in over the past few weeks is 7-footer Moses Brown, who played in front of UK’s coaches at the Hoophall Classic in Massachusetts a few days ago and hosted Calipari for an in-home visit in the fall.
247Sports director of recruiting Evan Daniels isn’t bullish on Brown’s chances for a UK scholarship offer.
“As of now, I don’t necessarily see them pursuing that,” Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “So I don’t know. They’re not going to take a guy just to take a guy, and the truth is there’s not much out there. There’s really not a lot of direction to point them in.”
One name that has popped up in recent days is E.J. Montgomery, a 6-10 power forward from Marietta, Ga., and the No. 6 overall player in the new 247Sports rankings (he’s No. 15 in the composite rankings).
Montgomery was committed to Auburn until that program was linked to the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball last fall, leading Montgomery to re-open his recruitment.
Not much has been reported on possible new suitors for Montgomery, but Daniels told the Herald-Leader he looked into it recently and Kentucky was “not involved.”
The Cats might not even need another recruit for next season.
It’s possible every player in this season’s frontcourt rotation — freshmen Nick Richards, PJ Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt, and sophomores Sacha Killeya-Jones, Wenyen Gabriel and Tai Wynyard — could be back for another year.
Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have been the Cats mentioned most as NBA Draft picks after this season — and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could join them — but Quade Green and Jemarl Baker, who has been injured this season, are expected back.
All three of UK’s 2018 signees so far — Quickley, Herro and Johnson — are backcourt players who will bolster that position group.
If Calipari does need to add someone late, it could come in the form of a graduate transfer — those possibilities usually don’t pop up until March or April — or a 2019 prospect who chooses to reclassify.
James Wiseman — the No. 2 player in the 2019 composite rankings — has been mentioned as a possible reclassification candidate, and UK is universally considered to be the favorite in his recruitment.
Wiseman, however, told the Herald-Leader and others last month that moving to the 2018 class was “not an option,” and he plans to stay in 2019. Daniels said he hasn’t heard any compelling information that would make him doubt Wiseman’s statement.
“If he says no, then I would say no,” Daniels said.