It’s no secret: this Kentucky basketball team isn’t very good from behind the three-point line.
After Saturday’s win over Alabama — a game in which the Cats made four of 11 from behind the arc — only seven Division I teams in the country had made fewer threes this season than Kentucky.
Which brings us to a question many fans have been asking all season: why doesn’t John Calipari recruit more shooters to play for the Wildcats?
A simple answer: he does, though it’s more complicated than that.
In the three seasons before this one, Calipari brought Malik Monk, Jamal Murray and Devin Booker to Lexington. Murray and Monk had two of the three most prolific three-point shooting seasons in program history (only Jodie Meeks made more in a season) and Booker shot 41.1 percent in limited playing time due to his team’s “platoon system.” He also won the NBA three-point shooting contest Saturday night.
Calipari’s UK teams have also featured such players as Brandon Knight and James Young — both have top-10 three-point shooting seasons in UK history — and, of course, Doron Lamb, the program’s all-time leader in three-point percentage.
But only three times in Calipari’s nine seasons here have his Wildcats ranked among the top 100 teams nationally in three-point shooting (the two Lamb teams and the squad that featured Murray two years ago).
This season’s team is on pace to be Calipari’s worst at UK in terms of both three-point percentage and three-point makes.
Though Calipari has said recently that this should be a good shooting team, its current problems from long range were not unforeseen.
During the 2017 recruiting cycle, 247Sports national analyst Jerry Meyer talked to the Herald-Leader for a story that forecasted these current Cats’ struggles. That story noted that Quade Green was really the only UK recruit that had proven to be a good outside shooter in high school (it was written before Kevin Knox or Jemarl Baker signed with UK, though Knox wasn’t known as a great shooter in high school and Baker is not expected to play this season due to injury).
“Coach Cal has had shooters,” Meyer said at the time. “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.”
Meyer’s point that the very elite talents — even those designated as shooting guards — are often not as accomplished as outside shooters holds up. It’s also true that some of the players in that 2017 class who turned out the be the best shooters were major Calipari targets. He wanted them to play for UK. It just didn’t happen.
A look at the list of the Top 100 recruits from the 2017 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, shows just three prospects that are currently ranked among the top 250 Division I players in three-point makes this season.
One of those players is Alabama’s John Petty, who was the first prospect from the 2017 class to earn a scholarship offer from Calipari and remained a major UK target until the very end of his recruitment. Petty has made 70 threes (including three in Rupp on Saturday afternoon) and is a 37.6-percent shooter.
Another — and the one getting the most attention this season — is Oklahoma point guard Trae Young, who was the first player at that position in the 2017 class to earn a UK offer. The Cats took early commitments from Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, before Young was ready to make a college commitment, and he ended up playing for the hometown Sooners. He’s made 100 threes and is shooting 36.9 percent from behind the arc, though Oklahoma has now lost five straight games and eight of its last 10.
Perhaps the player that could’ve helped this UK team the most is Duke’s Gary Trent Jr., who has made 76 three-pointers this season and is shooting a blistering 45.5 percent from long range. Trent was an early UK target, but Calipari stopped recruiting him the summer before his senior season when he (correctly) realized that Trent would ultimately be headed to Duke.
No other player in the Top 100 rankings from the 2017 class has made more than 56 threes so far this season.
As an aside: for those fans who say Calipari should look further down the list when recruiting players to Kentucky, that’s just not going to happen. Of the 49 high school players he has signed at UK, only two have come from outside the Top 100 (Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, both in-state players) and only three others have come from outside the Top 50 (Baker, Charles Matthews and Tai Wynyard).
What Calipari might lose in shooting by focusing almost entirely on five-star players, he makes up for in other areas — and he’s plainly said in the past that he’d rather have the great, long athletes who can be disruptive on defense, active on the boards and make things happen when driving to the basket.
Though this current team has its share of lapses on the defensive end, it still went into the weekend ranked No. 18 by KenPom in adjusted defensive efficiency. This team’s length and athleticism has kept even great three-point shooting teams from doing a lot of damage from outside; it ranks third in the nation in three-point defense and is Calipari’s second-best team in that category, behind only that 2014-15 team that went 38-1.
“Kentucky can get the best athletes,” Meyer told the Herald-Leader last season. “So that gives them the edge. 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.”
When it comes to the current crop of freshmen, there just wasn’t much help to be found.
UK’s shooting guard recruit from that 2017 group, Hamidou Diallo, has made 18 three-pointers and is shooting 30-percent from long range. Certainly not good, but also not a whole lot worse than his Top 100 peers.
Six of the other 19 shootings guards who were ranked as Top 100 recruits last year have fewer three-pointers. Only four total are shooting better than 35 percent from long range and have made more than 31 three-pointers on the season: Trent, Petty, Florida State’s M.J. Walker (40 makes, 38.8 percent) and Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker (50 makes, 41.3 percent). So, not a lot of consistent, high-volume shooters on the list.
The numbers for the top point guards in the 2017 class are similar.
UK’s best three-point shooter this season has been Green, who has made 29 threes and is shooting at a 38.2 percent clip. Only two of the other 20 point guards in the Top 100 rankings from 2017 have both a higher amount of makes and a better percentage: UCLA’s Jaylen Hands (38 makes on 38.4 percent shooting) and Iowa State’s Lindell Wigginton (56 makes on 41.2 percent shooting).
Hands, Wigginton, Green, Young and Davidson’s Kellan Grady are the only point guards from the Top 100 list with 20 or more threes and a 35-percent-or-better shooting rate from outside. None of the five combo guards who were ranked among the top 100 recruits nationally last year have more than 20 threes this season.
The drop-off in outside shooting gets even bigger with small forward prospects.
Kevin Knox — the No. 2 small forward in the 2017 class — is UK’s leader with 43 three-pointers and has made 35.2 percent of his outside shots. Only one of the other 21 small forwards ranked as Top 100 recruits last year has better stats in both categories. That’s UCLA’s Kris Wilkes, who has made 44 threes and is shooting 35.5 percent from outside, both numbers nearly identical to Knox’s.
Three players not on any of those lists would have made sense as UK recruits and could have helped the Cats this season. Calipari recruited one, took a look at another and didn’t show much interest in the third. Those players, respectively, are North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson, Western Kentucky’s Taveion Hollingsworth and N.C. State’s Braxton Beverly.
Johnson — a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh who got an offer from UK — has made 32 of 89 threes for UNC after missing several games to start the season due to injury. Johnson’s percentage (36.0) isn’t much better than Knox’s.
Hollingsworth and Beverly are both Kentucky natives and were well known — though not as highly ranked nationally — during the recruiting process. As mentioned early, Calipari has shown a willingness to stray from the Top 100 only when it comes to in-state recruits (Hawkins and Willis) but those players struggled to find playing time, especially immediately, at UK.
Willis barely played his first two seasons and Hawkins didn’t play more than nine minutes per game until his senior season.
Hollingsworth and Beverly have both excelled for their respective teams as freshmen, and both have been good outside shooters. Either of those players likely would have been able to make a contribution on this UK team, too, though such a scenario didn’t seem as likely until the season-ending injury to Baker and the injuries that have sidelined Green for a few games.
Like Hawkins and Willis before them, it seemed during the recruiting process that — had either Hollingsworth or Beverly ended up at UK — they likely would have been relegated to the bench for much of their early careers in Lexington.
Those UK fans hoping for more threes in the future can look forward to the arrival of Tyler Herro — one of the very best shooters in high school basketball — and Immanuel Quickley, an above-average shooter for an elite point guard, next season. The Cats should also have Green back for a sophomore season and a healthy Baker in the backcourt.
In the meantime, watching uber-athletic players disrupt opponents on the perimeter and drive wildly toward the basket offensively might not be as pretty as seeing Wildcats splashing threes, but it’s a formula that has typically worked out well for Calipari in the past.
Shooting guards in Top 100 rankings for 2017 class
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
Lonnie Walker, Miami
Gary Trent Jr., Duke
M.J. Walker, Florida State
John Petty, Alabama
Chaundee Brown, Wake Forest
Ethan Thompson, Oregon State
Brandon Randolph, Arizona
N. Alexander-Walker, Va Tech
Charles O'Bannon Jr., USC
Jordan Goodwin, Saint Louis
Josh Anderson, Western Kentucky
Jaylen Nowell, Washington
Alex O'Connell, Duke
Jemarl Baker, Kentucky
Mark Smith, Illinois
Jase Febres, Texas
Myles Cale, Seton Hall
Jordan Poole, Michigan
Mitchell Ballock, Creighton
Point guards in Top 100 rankings for 2017 class
Collin Sexton, Alabama
Trevon Duval, Duke
Jaylen Hands, UCLA
Trae Young, Oklahoma
Quade Green, Kentucky
Nick Weatherspoon, Miss State
Paul Scruggs, Xavier
Lindell Wigginton, Iowa State
M. Ashton-Langford, Providence
Tremont Waters, LSU
Matt Coleman, Texas
Davion Mitchell, Auburn
Isaiah Washington, Minnesota
Chris Lykes, Miami
Wabissa Bede, Virginia Tech
Darius Perry, Louisville
Alex Barcello, Arizona
Remy Martin, Arizona State
Victor Bailey, Oregon
Kellan Grady, Davidson
Lavar Batts, NC State
Combo guards in Top 100 rankings for 2017 class
Jalek Felton, North Carolina
Daejon Davis, Stanford
Marcus Garrett, Kansas
Darryl Morsell, Maryland
Note: Top 100 rankings are from 247Sports composite