UK Men's Basketball

Who is EJ Montgomery? Search for basketball identity to continue as UK sophomore.

John Calipari: EJ Montgomery was the difference against Florida

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari compliments the play of reserve forward EJ Montgomery in the Cats’ 65-54 win at Florida on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Montgomery grabbed key rebounds as UK won its eighth straight game.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari compliments the play of reserve forward EJ Montgomery in the Cats’ 65-54 win at Florida on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Montgomery grabbed key rebounds as UK won its eighth straight game.

EJ Montgomery, who is perceived to be a basketball player in search of an on-court identity, will continue that coming-of-age process as a sophomore for Kentucky.

“I enjoyed putting on a Kentucky uniform with my brothers and playing in front of the best fans in the nation,” Montgomery said in a UK news release announcing his decision to stay in Lexington, in which he also thanked his coaches for pushing him to be the best player he can be. “I got to compete against the best of the best every day in practice. We had a good season on the court because of our love for the grind. I’m proud of what we accomplished together.

“BBN, I’m back. Year 2.”

A five-star prospect from Fort Pierce, Fla., Montgomery did not blossom as a freshman. In UK’s season-ending loss to Auburn in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region finals, he played eight scoreless minutes. He scored double-digit points in two games (one after Nov. 9) and grabbed double-digit rebounds twice.

Montgomery entered this year’s NBA Draft, but left open the option of playing another college season. His decision came on the day the NCAA set as the deadline for a player to withdraw from this year’s NBA Draft and retain college eligibility. On Tuesday, Nick Richards announced he would return to UK next season.

Mike Schmitz, an NBA Draft analyst for ESPN, said earlier this month that Montgomery was something of an unknown quantity as a NBA prospect.

“It’s kind of finding his identity,” Schmitz said. “He can do a lot of different things. He’s unique because he’s 6-10 and he can step out a little bit on the perimeter.”

The areas of his game that Montgomery needed to improve included “getting tougher,” Schmitz said. “Finding his identity and try to figure out how he fits into all this because he doesn’t quite have an elite skill now.”

Ryan Blake, a consultant for NBA teams in player evaluation, also said Montgomery was something of a mystery. “We still don’t know a whole lot about EJ,” he said.

Former UK player Mike Pratt, who provides commentary on radio broadcasts of games, saw validity in Schmitz’s assessment of Montgomery.

“I think that’s pretty fair,” Pratt said. “Who is he? Some guys like to say, who does he play like? The answer to that is you stay another year. You show who you are.”

Pratt described Montgomery as a “typical freshman” who had to adapt to a faster-paced, more intense college game than previously experienced.

Barry Booker, a former Vanderbilt player who provides commentary on the SEC Network, said Montgomery had NBA-level mobility as a big guy. But Booker also saw Montgomery as a player who had to establish an identity.

“I think that’s it,” he said. “I think that’s where he is right now. You can look at him. You can see the athleticism. You can see the potential.”

But Montgomery needs to improve as a perimeter shooter and as a finisher around the basket, Booker said.

Neither Montgomery nor Richards was invited to the NBA Combine or G League Elite Camp held earlier this month. Bobby Marks, an ESPN Insider for NBA front office matters, saw that as an unspoken commentary on those players.

“That’s a strong indication you should go back to school,” Marks said. “That would be my advice to either player.”

Former UK player Tony Delk has acted as a consultant for Montgomery.

“I’d love to see him go back” to UK, Delk said earlier this month. “If he goes back, I think he’ll be much better next year. He has a lot of skills he can improve upon.

“But also with his athleticism, he brings a lot to the table, too, looking at his potential.”

Kentucky Coach John Calipari said in the news release that he’s “thrilled to be able to continue to coach EJ.

“He has a special skill set and he’s only begun to scratch the surface of his potential. EJ knows how hard this is going to be, and I know he’s ready to embrace the grind and do everything he can for this team while continuing to develop into the best version of himself.”

Calipari also explained Montgomery’s taking his decision down to the final hours.

“I told EJ he had my full support no matter what he decided,” the UK coach said. “I know this was a tough decision for EJ and his family because of the positive feedback he received throughout this process. EJ improved so much during the season and I know how much he wants to show our fans what he can do with another year.”

Montgomery’s numbers as a freshman this past season were similar to those of Daniel Orton. The latter played a reserve role as a freshman in 2009-10 before deciding to stay in the 2010 NBA Draft. He was taken by the Orlando Magic with the next-to-last pick of the first round.

Montgomery, who is also 6-foot-10, averaged 15.1 minutes, 3.8 points and 4.1 rebounds this past season. Orton, a 6-10 player from Oklahoma City, Okla., averaged 13.2 minutes, 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in his freshman season for UK.

Kentucky is losing three underclassmen to this year’s NBA Draft: sophomore PJ Washington and freshmen Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro.

2019-20 UK roster

After Wednesday’s announcement by EJ Montgomery, here is how Kentucky’s roster for next season now looks:

Dontaie Allen, 6-6 freshman forward

Keion Brooks, 6-7 freshman forward

Brad Calipari, 6-0 redshirt junior guard

Brennan Canada, 6-7 freshman forward

Ashton Hagans, 6-3 sophomore guard

Johnny Juzang, 6-6 freshman forward

Tyrese Maxey, 6-3 freshman guard

EJ Montgomery, 6-10 sophomore forward

Zan Payne, 6-4 redshirt freshman guard/forward

Immanuel Quickley, 6-3 sophomore guard

Nick Richards, 6-11 junior forward

Nate Sestina, 6-9 graduate transfer forward/center

Kahlil Whitney, 6-7 freshman forward