UK Men's Basketball

‘It just got scary’: Five-star power forward EJ Montgomery commits to Kentucky

The buzz at the McDonald’s All-American Game a couple of weeks ago indicated that the coaches pursuing star basketball recruit EJ Montgomery might be waiting a while for his college decision.

Montgomery, who decommitted from Auburn last fall, had taken a few unofficial visits in February but — in the days leading up to the McDonald’s Game — said he planned several more recruiting trips before making a commitment.

Turns out, he didn’t need to wait that long.

Montgomery — a 6-foot-11 power forward from Marietta, Ga. — hosted UK Coach John Calipari for an in-home visit Sunday, and his mind was made up by the end of the meeting. By Monday morning, word was out that Montgomery would be a Kentucky Wildcat.

Duke had emerged as the perceived leader in Montgomery’s recruitment over the past few weeks — and the Blue Devils hosted him for an unofficial visit toward the end of their season — but the five-star post player chose not to join the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country.

North Carolina also hosted Montgomery for a visit in February, and the Tar Heels were seen as legitimate contenders. Vanderbilt, which already has commitments from two McDonald’s All-Americans and is pursuing another in Romeo Langford, was seen as a darkhorse in the recruitment.

It was Kentucky that won out, however, closing their case with one last visit Sunday after hosting Montgomery for a game at Rupp Arena in late February.

The timing was a surprise. The destination, not so much.

“I’m not surprised it was Kentucky at all,” said 247Sports national analyst Evan Daniels, who broke the news of Montgomery’s commitment. “They really made a push for him over the past couple of weeks and did a really good job recruiting him late. I knew he was going to decide sometime in April — didn’t know it was going to be now. But not surprised by the choice at all.”

Daniels spoke to Montgomery, who has largely shied away from the attention surrounding his recruitment, by phone Sunday night. Considered the No. 6 overall player in the 247Sports rankings for the 2018 class, Montgomery said UK’s history of sending post players to the pros played a big part in his decision.

When he and his parents visited Lexington for the UK-Missouri game toward the end of this past season, the three sat courtside with assistant coach Kenny Payne, who has the reputation as the Wildcats’ expert developer of frontcourt players, and talked about Montgomery’s possible role on next season’s team.

“One of the things that EJ has always said to me throughout this process is that he wanted to go to a place that’s known for developing their players and a place that has had success with putting guys in the NBA,” Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “That’s something that he stressed in our conversation last night about his decision. He also cited the relationship that he has with Calipari and Kenny Payne.”

Montgomery averaged 25.6 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game for Wheeler High (Ga.) as a senior this past season.

Calipari will add him to a frontcourt that is still in flux as UK’s current players decide what their next step will be.

Freshman forward PJ Washington has already declared for the NBA Draft — though he has not yet hired an agent and could still return to UK — and fellow freshman Jarred Vanderbilt is also weighing his NBA Draft options, though neither of those players is projected as a first-round pick. Freshman center Nick Richards and sophomore forwards Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel could also return next season.

No matter who comes back, Montgomery should find a place — possibly a starting role — as a versatile frontcourt option who excels offensively.

“He’s got a great set of hands,” Daniels said. “He’s got really good touch. And he’s got tools on the block that make you believe he’s going to be a really good scorer long-term. He can go over either shoulder. He can face up defenders and drive them from the high post. He can catch it, and he uses pretty impressive vision and passing to put the ball in the right spot.

“On that end of the floor, he has impressive versatility and an impressive ability to score, and it’s one of the reasons I like him so much.”

Montgomery also joins a recruiting class that is now ranked No. 2 in the country behind Duke’s group, which includes the top three players in the class — forwards R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson — as well as No. 1 point guard Tre Jones.

UK has already signed five-star point guard Immanuel Quickley, five-star small forward Keldon Johnson and highly touted shooting guard Tyler Herro. Montgomery will be able to officially sign with the Cats on Wednesday.

“As a whole, it’s a really good group,” Daniels said. “It’s a group with quality pieces that fit. You’ve got a point guard (Quickley) with really good feel that can run a team. You’ve got a ‘2’ guard — Tyler Herro — that can really shoot the ball, but he’s also much more of a scorer than he is a shooter. Keldon Johnson is the athletic, tough, physical wing.

“Now you’ve got a skilled ‘4’ man to go with this group. And I don’t think they’re done.”

The Cats are still looking at other options for the backcourt, and class of 2019 point guard Ashton Hagans has emerged as the top target there as he considers a move to the 2018 class.

UK’s three early signees were all familiar with Montgomery’s game, and Quickley and Johnson were both in his ear during McDonald’s week, trying to convince him to join them at Kentucky.

“He’s really getting better,” Quickley told the Herald-Leader. “He’s obviously 6-11, and you can never teach size. He’s a really versatile forward. He can step out and shoot it — make shots. And he can get to the rim and rebound.”

Johnson called him a “smooth lefty” and predicted at the McDonald’s Game that Montgomery would eventually pick Kentucky.

Once he did, Herro had a message for UK’s future opponents.

“It just got scary,” he tweeted Monday morning.

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