Throughout John Calipari’s relatively brief recruitment of five-star post player EJ Montgomery, the UK coach stressed that he wanted — actually, needed — Montgomery’s commitment no matter who came back from this past season’s team.
The reason: UK didn’t have anybody quite like Montgomery.
A common theme throughout the Wildcats’ 2017-18 season that ended two wins away from another trip to the Final Four was the lack of a consistent offensive presence in the post.
That’s something that Montgomery, who committed to UK on Monday and can officially sign with the Cats on Wednesday, can provide right away next season.
The 6-foot-11 power forward from Marietta, Ga., is ranked No. 6 overall in the 2018 class by 247Sports, and he has the ability to be one of the best offensive frontcourt players in the country.
“I like him because of his versatility,” 247Sports national analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader on Monday. “And I think he’s a guy who — over the past year — has made a lot of strides with his game. Not only from a skill standpoint, but just his effort level. I think he’s done a really good job of improving the way he plays. And what I mean by that is, this is a guy who has spent a lot of time on the perimeter in some parts of his career, and he’s turned into a dominant force in the paint from a rebounding standpoint and from a scoring standpoint.
“I’ve been really impressed with EJ Montgomery’s development. I think he’s continuing to make strides, continuing to improve and he’s doing that at the right time in his career.”
Nick Richards, the Cats’ starting center as a freshman this past season, didn’t begin playing basketball until high school and is still learning the finer points of the game. He struggled offensively — averaging 5.1 points in 14.4 minutes per game — and saw his playing time decrease as the season came to an end, playing single-digit minutes in all seven of the Wildcats’ postseason games.
His primary backup, sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones, saw his minutes go up as Richards’ fell off, but he never emerged as the offensive force UK was lacking in the post, scoring just two points and attempting just two shots in 25 minutes of play during the Cats’ final two NCAA Tournament games.
Killeya-Jones averaged 3.3 points per game this past season. He announced Monday that he would be exploring transfer possibilities and has asked UK for his release.
Freshman forward PJ Washington — at 6-7 — was Kentucky’s best post scorer down the stretch, and he announced last week that he’ll explore his NBA options this spring. Montgomery is listed at 6-11 and could team up with Washington (if he returns for a sophomore year) to develop into a formidable post duo next season.
“He’s got better size for the position, and he’s a guy who can play the ‘4’ or the ‘5.’ He has the versatility to play both of those spots,” Daniels said of Montgomery. “He’s probably a better post scorer than what they had this past season. PJ is pretty good on the block, but PJ is 6-7. EJ Montgomery is 6-10, 6-11.”
Montgomery averaged 25.6 points and 13.6 rebounds per game for Wheeler (Ga.) as a senior and also averaged a double-double on the Adidas circuit last summer.
He showed his offensive ability during the practices leading up to the McDonald’s All-American Game in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago, running the floor with five-star guards and regularly hitting mid-range jumpers. He still tended to float some toward the perimeter, but he was impressive once he settled in on the block. And he was doing it against some of the best post players in the country.
“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.
“I think, 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’s size and versatility will be an asset for Calipari no matter who decides to return off this past season’s team.
At 6-11, he plays with energy and can be a starting “5” if the UK coach decides that Richards needs more time to develop into that role. That would allow Montgomery to play alongside other versatile players like Washington and Wenyen Gabriel. The new UK commitment would also pair nicely with elite rebounder Jarred Vanderbilt, should he return to Lexington for a sophomore season.
Montgomery could also play with Richards to form a “twin towers” frontcourt. Daniels noted that Montgomery, who averaged 4.3 assists per game as a high school senior, is an unselfish player and called him a “tremendous passer” who has good feel distributing the ball from the block and from the high post.
In the McDonald’s practices, he showed a willingness to look for open teammates, even sprinkling in some no-look passes from the perimeter and kick-outs for open looks while driving to the basket.
Defensively, Montgomery should hold his own as a freshman.
“Where he’s valuable is from a rebounding standpoint,” Daniels said. “He’s a really good rebounder. He plays with energy. I think as a post defender, he’s good. He’s going to need to get stronger so he can play a little more physical. But the tools are there for him to be fine on that end.
“He’ll block some shots and he’ll rebound his area.”