The next UK basketball season will be shaped as much — probably more — by the decisions of players already on the Wildcats’ roster than the choices of the high school recruits who are still considering joining the program.
Prospects such as E.J. Montgomery, the top available post player in the 2018 class, and Ashton Hagans and James Wiseman, two top-10 juniors who might still reclassify to 2018, would certainly help UK tremendously.
But it’ll be players like Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, P.J. Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt, Nick Richards and Wenyen Gabriel, who have all been on NBA Draft prospect lists during the season, who will decide how realistic the expectations for next season’s team will be.
If a few of those current Cats stick around, build on the progress they made this past season and provide some veteran leadership for the new group of UK players, it should make for another Final Four contender.
If most of those players leave — especially the ones not currently projected near first-round territory — it’ll likely be another season filled with frustration and growing pains.
As we wait on these Cats’ stay-or-go decisions, here’s a look at five other players from the John Calipari era whose choices to leave UK early shaped the next season’s team, and what might have been if they had decided to return.
Daniel Orton (2010)
One of the Billy Gillispie recruiting holdovers that decided to stick with UK when Calipari got the job, Orton was overshadowed by Cal recruit DeMarcus Cousins in his first and only college season. Orton averaged 3.4 points, 3.3 rebounds (and blocked 53 shots) while playing 13.2 minutes per game for the Wildcats before entering the NBA Draft.
Orton was still selected in the first round — No. 29 overall — but he played just 51 games in the NBA, for three different teams over three seasons. Still just 27 years old, he most recently played for a Japanese league team after years of shuffling around the NBA’s developmental league and spending time with several international clubs.
Had Orton returned for another season at UK, it would have been interesting.
The projected starting center that season was top-10 recruit Enes Kanter, who was ruled ineligible to play college ball and spent his time in Lexington as a folk-hero practice player.
Kanter’s status meant that Josh Harrellson — little used in his first two UK seasons — started all 38 of Kentucky’s games at center. Harrellson averaged 7.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in 28.5 minutes for the Cats, but he was the only real option at the “5” spot in a season that ended with a trip to the Final Four. Eloy Vargas played just 7.7 minutes per game off the bench, and the Cats basically used a six-man rotation.
An Orton return would have given UK another five-star option in the post, lessened the load on Harrellson and (perhaps?) helped the Cats win a couple more games in their first Final Four postseason in 13 years.
Marquis Teague (2012)
The starting point guard on UK’s 2012 national title team — the only one of the Calipari era so far — actually led that squad in minutes played, orchestrating the run toward a national championship and showing marked improvement along the way.
Teague was a top-10 recruit out of high school, but he wasn’t seen as a sure-thing, one-and-done NBA prospect. Nevertheless, he decided to enter the draft after his freshman season and was selected with the No. 29 pick in the draft.
The what-ifs that came in UK’s following season were many, with the torn ACL suffered by Nerlens Noel, who sustained the injury trying to hustle back on defense, chief among them. Had Noel not been injured, the Cats probably wouldn’t have missed the NCAA Tournament — the only time that’s happened in nine seasons under Calipari — and might have had a magical run left for March.
What if Teague had come back for a sophomore season?
He could have been one of the best point guards in the country, and it would have meant much-lesser roles for transfer Ryan Harrow, who started 24 games at point guard, and walk-on Jarrod Polson, who played 13.8 minutes off the bench.
Teague’s presence also would have allowed Archie Goodwin, the Cats’ much-maligned shooting guard who often tried to do too much, to play a little more controlled brand of basketball, while lessening the load on Noel, a 7-footer who played 31.9 minutes per game and had to do a little of everything for the Cats.
It might not have made UK a national title contender, but it would have been a much better team. Teague played in just two NBA seasons (though he did get a 10-day contract from the Memphis Grizzlies last week).
Kyle Wiltjer (2013)
Wiltjer — a former McDonald’s All-American — left Kentucky after two seasons, not for the NBA but as a transfer to Gonzaga.
He made 88 threes and shot 38.1 percent from long range in his two years with Kentucky, and that could have been a big help for the Cats in the season after he left.
The 2013-14 UK team did a lot of things well — and found their stride at the right time, advancing all the way to the NCAA title game — but outside shooting was not one of them.
That team made just 5.08 three-pointers per game (the worst of the Calipari era) and hit just 33.2 percent of its outside shots, second-worst only to Calipari’s first UK team, which made 33.1 percent of its three-pointers.
A shooter like Wiltjer, who excelled in his spot-up role with the 2012 title team, would have given UK an added threat on the perimeter for the 2013-14 season and likely spaced the floor a little better for the offensive drivers that dominated the scoring that year.
Wiltjer ended up being a two-year starter at Gonzaga, making 158 threes and shooting 44.9 percent from long range. He went undrafted last year and played 14 games last season with the Houston Rockets.
Wiltjer played this season in Greece.
Dakari Johnson (2015)
Johnson started 18 games as a freshman, then averaged 6.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as the Cats’ backup center on the “platoon” team that went 38-1 three years ago. He, along with most of the other UK players that season, declared for the NBA Draft and was selected with the No. 48 overall pick.
It turns out he was exactly what the following season’s UK team needed.
That squad got great guard play from All-America sophomore Tyler Ulis, freshman lottery pick Jamal Murray and fellow freshman Isaiah Briscoe, and some versatility from forwards Alex Poythress and Derek Willis. What it was missing was an inside threat.
Top recruit Skal Labissiere was supposed to be the Cats’ top frontcourt option, but he never settled into his post role and saw his playing time decrease as the season went on. Junior forward Marcus Lee started 20 games and led the team in rebounds, but he wasn’t the inside presence that Johnson — listed at 3 inches taller and 35 pounds heavier the year before — would have been.
Johnson undoubtedly would have made that 2015-16 team — one that won the SEC and was given a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament — better. The Cats lost that season to Indiana in the second round, Calipari’s earliest NCAA Tournament exit at UK.
Johnson spent two years in the developmental league before making his NBA debut this season, playing sparingly for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Charles Matthews (2016)
Some UK fans have played the what-if game with junior Isaiah Briscoe on this past season’s team, but his departure to the NBA Draft after last year’s run to the Elite Eight was completely expected, despite not being projected as a draft pick.
What was surprising was the decision of Briscoe’s former teammate and fellow class of 2015 recruit, Charles Matthews, who decided to transfer after just one season at UK following the 2015-16 season.
Matthews was the first commitment in Calipari’s 2015 class, and — though his recruiting ranking slipped in the months after that pledge — he was still seen as a multi-year player who might make an immediate impact.
The 6-6 guard was still finding his game when he came to Lexington. He started three games and played in all 36, but he averaged just 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds in 10.3 minutes per game.
Matthews decided to transfer to Michigan after that year, sat out last season, then became one of the Wolverines’ best players, helping lead the team to a Big Ten Tournament title, a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a trip to the Final Four.
He was named the most outstanding player of the West Region after leading the Wolverines in Saturday night’s Elite Eight game.
If he had stayed at Kentucky, it’s unclear what his role would have been on last year’s team, but he probably would have played a big role as a junior this season.
Matthews would have been the only scholarship upperclassman on the team, giving the most recent Cats a veteran presence they clearly and sorely lacked. He also could have been another scoring option for UK, something it needed badly at times this past season, especially in Thursday night’s NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas State.