While discussing the new commitment of EJ Montgomery and explaining how the five-star prospect fits into UK’s recruiting class for next season, college basketball analyst Evan Daniels said something that should have Kentucky fans excited.
“It’s a group with quality pieces that fit,” Daniels told the Herald-Leader.
That last word — “fit” — is an important switch from this past season’s group of Wildcats.
Even before the 2017-18 season began, recruiting analysts and college basketball observers were wondering just how John Calipari would make it work this time.
The UK coach had plenty of talent, sure. Nine of his 11 scholarship players had been rated as a five-star prospect by at least one major recruiting service.
But how would they play together?
For much of the season, the answer to that question was, “Not so great.”
In late January, while discussing the one-and-done chances of UK’s latest wave of star freshmen, ESPN analyst Jonathan Givony said the 2017-18 roster construction made those Cats particularly difficult to evaluate.
“I always thought that Kentucky’s roster was going to be weird,” he told the Herald-Leader then. “The way that the roster was constructed — it makes it hard for anybody to look good, honestly.”
A little while later, he said simply: “They can’t shoot.”
That was certainly one major problem for UK during much of this past season, which finished with just 195 made three-pointers (second lowest in the Calipari era) and the end of the program’s record 1,047 games with at least one make from long range.
The Cats’ star-studded 2017 recruiting classes consisted of several long, athletic players who played similar styles in high school. They could do many things — disrupt and defend the perimeter, for one — but high-volume shooting was not their forte.
The point guard play was lacking at times. Original starter Quade Green was injured early in the season and played hurt for a little while after that, throwing a hurdle in front of his first college season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was arguably UK’s best player by the end of the campaign, but the 6-6 freshman was also still learning how to be an effective point guard.
The Cats’ post presence — reliant on inexperienced freshman Nick Richards and lightly experienced sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones — was lacking, too, and 6-7 PJ Washington proved to be the team’s best inside threat by the end of the season.
In the middle were a bunch of talented players who took a while to find their roles, a delay exacerbated by the preseason injury to Jarred Vanderbilt.
Even if everyone had been healthy from the start, the setup would have necessitated plenty of mixing and matching from Calipari.
“They probably haven’t lived up to the talent that they have,” Daniels told the Herald-Leader in February. “I’ve kind of always thought this: I don’t know that the pieces fit on this team. They’ve got a lot of the same type of guys.”
Around that same time, Calipari and UK’s players thought they had found something. “You would hope you would have that earlier, but it took us time,” Calipari said of the chemistry.
Roles were better defined. The victories started piling up again. But about a month later, the Cats’ season was over, two wins short of the Final Four.
Next year’s ultimate goal of playing on the season’s final weekend will be the same. What UK puts on the floor should look a lot different.
Though there are still some stay-or-go decisions to be made over the next few weeks, it’s looking like the Cats should have a much more well-rounded roster when they tip off the 2018-19 season against Duke on Nov. 6.
Green is expected back at point guard, and he’ll be joined at that position by five-star recruit Immanuel Quickley, who Calipari coached with his USA Basketball U19 team over the summer. Green and Quickley can both shoot and pass. They can both play off the ball or on. And they’re both fine in either role.
“If they’re playing screen and roll, you’re going to have to really think hard about going underneath that screen, because (Quickley) can pull up at the top of it,” Rivals.com analyst Eric Bossi told the Herald-Leader recently. “With him and Green, that’ll be something that they’ll both be able to do, so it’ll be kind of interesting to have that dynamic. This year, with Shai, most guys are going to go under the screen, because he wants to get to the rim. Next year, you’re going to have those guys who have that chance to pull it or make something else happen.”
At shooting guard — assuming Hamidou Diallo heads to the NBA Draft — the Cats will have incoming recruit Tyler Herro, who has been working his way up the rankings in recent months and is known as a deadeye shooter and a prolific scorer from all three levels. UK should also return Jemarl Baker, a highly touted 6-4 shooter who missed his entire freshman season with a knee injury.
Kentucky is still looking to add to that backcourt, and five-star point guard Ashton Hagans announced his commitment to the Cats on Tuesday morning. He’s currently in the class of 2019 but is widely expected to reclassify to 2018 this summer, a move that would make him eligible to play college basketball next season.
Hagans is not a great outside shooter, but he’s terrific at getting to the basket, he’s a willing passer (averaging 10.7 assists per game for his high school team this season) and, at 6-4, can defend multiple positions.
“Ashton is the type of kid that can get along with anybody,” his travel coach, Chris Williams, told the Herald-Leader. “Whether it’s Quade or Immanuel or whoever else is there, he’s just looking to bring what he can bring to the table and complement everybody else’s game.”
The frontcourt could see the return of Washington, who is testing the NBA Draft waters but is not projected as a first-round pick and might still return to UK next season. Also coming back could be energetic rebounder Jarred Vanderbilt, ever-improving forward Wenyen Gabriel, who shot 40 percent from three-point range last season and was second only to Vanderbilt in terms of rebounds per minute, and 7-footer Nick Richards, the Cats’ starting center whose playing time dwindled as the season came to a close but still possesses high upside on both ends of the floor.
Added to that group will be a couple of things the Cats have been missing.
Oak Hill Academy star Keldon Johnson — a 6-6 wing — can get to the basket at will but is also a willing and able passer who makes smart decisions with the ball. Johnson has improved into a serviceable outside shooter, rebounds well for his position and possesses the athleticism and hustle to be an effective and versatile college defender from Day 1.
Montgomery has shown marked ability as a post scorer — “He’s turned into a dominant force in the paint,” Daniels said — but is even more comfortable stepping out and hitting 15-foot jump shots. He can rebound. He can run the floor. He can defend on the block. And — a common trait with this recruiting class — he’s a willing passer and unselfish offensive player.
“As a whole, it’s a really good group,” Daniels said Monday.
It could end up as one of Calipari’s most balanced teams yet.