Expectations around the UK basketball program are as lofty as ever, and — though the Cats will be able to rely on several veteran players this season — Coach John Calipari’s five incoming freshmen are a big reason another Final Four campaign appears well within reach.
Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, EJ Montgomery and Immanuel Quickley were all highly touted prospects coming out of high school, and all five are expected to play major minutes this season in Lexington.
Of course, there’s still plenty of room for growth in each of their games.
With the Cats’ first exhibition set for Friday night, here’s a look at one area worth watching for each of UK’s incoming freshmen, based on evaluations before they got to Lexington along with early impressions from the Bahamas trip and Sunday night’s Blue-White Game:
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The praise has been plentiful for Kentucky’s incoming 6-foot-3 point guard.
Of Hagans’ defense, Calipari said: “Ashton is a pit bull mauler on the ball.”
Of his offense, Quade Green said: “How strong he is — he can get to the rim anytime he wants.”
The speed, defensive tenacity, ability (and unselfishness) to find the open teammate and knack for finishing at the basket are all there.
The area that recruiting analysts and college coaches have long pointed to as one where Hagans needs to improve is with his outside shooting.
In high school, he could take just about anyone off the dribble just about anytime he wanted. He should still excel at that in college, but he’ll likely find it to be more difficult. Having the threat of an outside shot would make it easier.
Hagans took just two three-pointers (missing both) in 86 minutes of action in the Bahamas, and he was 1-for-4 from deep in Sunday’s scrimmage, hesitating to take a wide-open three on a couple of occasions.
He does everything else well enough that he’ll be on the court for a majority of the time this season — and he’s good enough in those areas that a lackluster three-point shot won’t hurt him too badly — but if he can improve in that area, he’ll be an even bigger handful for defenders.
Calipari has talked about Herro’s shot selection and “finding the balance” between when to drive and shoot this fall — the UK coach did it again Sunday after Herro went 12-for-16 from the floor — but offense won’t be a problem for the 6-5 shooting guard.
He was the Cats’ leading scorer in the Bahamas (17.3 points per game), the leading scorer in the Blue-White Game (34 points) and looks like he might be UK’s best offensive threat.
How he defends at the college level will dictate how (and when) Calipari plays him.
So far, the results have been better than many expected.
The feedback from scouts and analysts regarding Herro’s defensive ability during the player’s late high school years ranged from, “He’s better than you think” to “Needs a lot of work.”
At UK’s media day last week, Calipari said his early impressions leaned toward the former.
“Tyler is better than I thought defensively,” he said. “I thought Keldon (Johnson) would be better than Tyler defensively. I’m not sure of that.”
Herro said Sunday night that there’s still a ways to go.
“I can do a lot better defensively,” he said. “Cal says I’ve been doing real well, though, just moving my feet and stuff like that. Main focus is just keeping my guy in front of me — straight-line drives, so they can come and block the shots.”
He led the team with four steals in Sunday’s scrimmage, several times filling lanes to pick off lackadaisical passes that led to fast-break points on the other end. He also overplayed some balls in similar situations, leading to points against his team.
Herro has the athleticism and effort level to stay with guys on defense. Combining that with a disciplined approach will be a key for him in the early going. Matching up with Johnson in practice all summer and fall certainly won’t hurt his development.
“That helps me tremendously. He can score the ball at all three levels,” Herro said. “So just being able to stay in front of someone like him — he’s one of the best players in the country — to be able to stay in front of him, that improves my defense every day.”
Outside shooting was the knock on Johnson — an ultra-competitive, 6-6 wing — midway through his high school career, but he’s shown strides in that area over the past couple of years. (He was also 4-for-9 from three in the Bahamas and 2-for-4 on Sunday night).
A more interesting area to watch will be Johnson’s ability to finish at the basket against much bigger and stronger defenders than he’s used to seeing.
Johnson’s knack for getting to the rim and getting points was the best part of his offensive game in high school, but he didn’t have to finish against college-aged players pushing 7 feet tall. Once he gets past that first defender, will he be able to power his way through the rim protectors he’ll face in league play and against UK’s talented non-conference opponents? Will he find the right angles to score or pass around such players? It will be worth watching.
Johnson should be fine on defense, and he rebounded his position as well as anyone in the 2018 recruiting class. There’s no questioning his desire on the court, and no one who has followed his young career expects him to back down from any challenge. He’s definitely not afraid to take the ball at guys offensively. The guys waiting for him this season will be much more formidable. It’ll be fun to follow.
“I’m going after everybody,” Johnson told the Herald-Leader this fall, “because my passion for basketball is just showing people what I can do.”
Calipari has been implying a shortcoming of practice effort on Montgomery’s part all month, pointing out Sunday night that his best performances have been at the program’s combine for NBA scouts and then at the Blue-White Game.
“Oh, so when there are people in the seats and there are scouts in the seats you just take it up a notch. Really?” Calipari said Sunday.
That’ll work itself out.
What will be more interesting to see is how Montgomery uses his tremendous skill set in his freshman season.
In the Blue-White Game alone, he put the ball on the floor and finished with an emphatic dunk, put the ball on the floor, jump-stopped, and drew an and-one, and showed off his ability (and willingness) to knock down mid-range jumpers.
That’s what he’s most comfortable doing, but … is he willing he play offensively in the post?
Montgomery — listed at 6-10 and 225 pounds — has impressive post skills, and he showed those off during the usually competitive McDonald’s All-American Game practices last spring. He had to be pushed down on the block by the court coaches in those sessions, however, after spending his earlier practice time facing up offensively.
UK might not need him to become a post force this season — with Nick Richards, Reid Travis and PJ Washington all capable inside players — but it certainly wouldn’t hurt the Cats if they can rely on Montgomery to play some minutes in that role, and it would also be beneficial to the freshman’s long-term development.
“I’ve been doing that a lot,” Montgomery told the Herald-Leader recently. “Especially against these big guys, they’ve been teaching me a lot of stuff. They’re teaching me to round up my all-around game, because I have to come at the players different with Nick and Reid and PJ. They all have different styles of play.”
Richards said Sunday that Montgomery has been impressing more away from the basket in practice, hinting that he was still a bit tentative on the block.
“It’s there … At some point this season, I think he’ll display that,” Richards said.
He can play defense. He can shoot from outside. He’s shown the ability to run a team and make smart decisions. “He’s more of a traditional point guard,” Rivals.com national analyst Eric Bossi told the Herald-Leader of Quickley this year.
Calipari, who previously coached Quickley with his USA Basketball squad last summer, has taken some issue with the way the 6-3 freshman goes about running things.
“I want him to be a little more aggressive, take more chances,” Calipari said at his preseason roundtable last month. “He’s learning that.”
Fast forward to Sunday night, after the Blue-White Game: “Immanuel still doesn’t get rid of it quick enough. … Held the ball too much. Get rid of it or drive it,” Calipari said.
The UK coach started his Sunday press conference by saying he had just received a text message from former Wildcats guard Isaiah Briscoe, who had been watching and said he’d overheard Calipari yelling at his players to “quit bouncing the ball, get where you’re trying to get to.” Calipari relayed that Briscoe, now in his rookie season with the Orlando Magic, said it was the best advice the UK coach had ever given him.
It’s clear Quickley has spent his first several weeks in Lexington hearing some variation on that advice, and that’s where Calipari will be looking for him to improve this season.
“Playing the point guard position is a lot different from high school than college, so I’m just working on everything,” Quickley said last week.
Transylvania at Kentucky
What: Preseason exhibition game
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1