Some will stay, some will go, and recent history indicates that some will make surprising decisions over the next few weeks.
With UK’s season now finished, Wildcats fans will be on NBA Draft decision watch, and a few players on the current roster have some interesting choices to make.
One thing is sure: graduate transfer Reid Travis has played his final college basketball game, and UK will have a big void to fill with his absence in the frontcourt next season. Nearly sure-things: Keldon Johnson and PJ Washington have been projected as safe first-round picks — and possible lottery picks — for much of the season. It would be a major surprise if either player returned to Kentucky for another season.
After that, things get interesting.
Freshman shooting guard Tyler Herro — not considered a likely one-and-done before the season — has worked his way into the first round of various mock drafts. Herro scored 14.0 points per game, shot 35.5 percent from three-point range and made some big baskets for the Cats this season. ESPN ranks Herro at No. 17 overall on its latest Top 100 prospects list.
“People like that he’s a very confident kid, and he’s not afraid of the moment,” ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz told the Herald-Leader. “And, also, just watching the NBA and certain guys that have had success in the league — I think, the way that Landry Shamet has played at the NBA level as a guy who’s sprinting off screens, playing these quick actions — you can really see how Herro could potentially fill that type of role. And Tyler’s doing it at a way younger age than Landry ever did.”
Shamet, a former standout player at Wichita State, worked his way into the first round of last year’s draft and has turned into a 20-plus-minute-per-game player as a rookie.
Schmitz said Herro has solidified his first-round status, if he chooses to come out this year.
“I also think he has a little bit more on-ball stuff than we’ve seen,” he said. “Prior to college, he showed some more of that. So I think there’s still some potential there. … And then there’s his fight defensively. I think the thought coming in was, ‘OK, he doesn’t have the best body. He’s not super long.’ But then you see him and he’s super competitive. He’s around the ball, always. He has really good instincts. So, I think, seeing him more than survive on the defensive end has opened peoples’ eyes a little bit, too.”
It should be noted that neither Herro nor anyone else in UK’s locker room made any commitments one way or the other after the Cats’ Elite Eight loss to Auburn on Sunday. Among those who said they would need to explore the process and talk to their inner circle was Ashton Hagans, the freshman point guard who reclassified to play college basketball this season. He showed flashes along the way, but struggled toward the end of the season.
Hagans had 11 turnovers and just four assists over UK’s two games in Kansas City, Mo., last weekend. He also shot just 27.5 percent from three-point range and often looked uncomfortable on the offensive end. ESPN ranks him as the No. 61 prospect in the draft — about 20 spots lower than he was ranked late in the regular season.
“I think shooting the ball is the biggest thing for him,” Schmitz said. “Obviously, he has the length and can really defend. But showing that he can make enough shots to keep the defense honest, because there will be questions about his ability to score in the halfcourt against a set defense.
“And then also showing his ability to play pick and roll and make other guys better. I think he can make the simple pass, but just continuing to evolve as a point guard (is important). I think if he stayed in he could hear his name called, but there are still some areas where he needs to improve.”
Schmitz said a return to UK could result in a rise to first-round status, given what Hagans accomplished at other points in the season: “He’s had some really nice moments this year. So, I think, just continuing to build on that.”
Over the past two seasons, Isaiah Briscoe, Isaac Humphries and Wenyen Gabriel have all left school early and gone undrafted. There have also been a few transfers, as well as players who left early as second-round picks.
Current frontcourt players Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery were both mentioned as possible early entrants heading into the season, but neither Wildcat is ranked among ESPN’s Top 100 prospects in this draft, and both played sparingly last weekend.
Schmitz said “it’s more unlikely than likely” that either would be drafted if they chose to leave college right now.
“They still need to prove themselves. The NBA isn’t exactly clamoring for bigs right now,” he said. “And so, for Nick, just continuing to play with a consistent motor and separating himself as one of these rim-runner, shot-blocker, lob-catcher types, and just doing it every night.
“And then, EJ, kind of finding out who he is. He can do a little bit of everything. He’s always been an intriguing talent. But just fine-tuning his game overall. I think both of those guys still need some time.”
UK’s other two scholarship players — Jemarl Baker and Immanuel Quickley — have not been considered early entrant candidates this season. Any Kentucky players testing the NBA Draft waters will have until May 29 to withdraw their names from consideration and return to college.