Calipari says 2019 will be a breakout year for returning players
Ashton Hagans will have a “break-through year.” There are expectations for much the same from Nick Richards. Ditto Immanuel Quickley. EJ Montgomery has a “ridiculous” upside that puts his potential beyond all but a handful of players in the just completed star-studded decade for Kentucky.
At a news conference Tuesday, UK Coach John Calipari painted a pretty picture of what the 2019-20 basketball season can look like.
“Got a good core group,” he said. “And it should be interesting again.” The presumption in the Memorial Coliseum media room was that “interesting” could be defined as a national championship contender.
Of course, the decisions by Montgomery and Richards to withdraw their names from this year’s NBA Draft and play for Kentucky next season helped fuel such optimism.
NBA officials have said that Montgomery needs to find an on-court identity. Calipari suggested what that might look like.
“He’ll be a difference-maker on both ends,” the UK coach said. “He can block shots. He’s quick to the ball. He’s got to get physically stronger (and) mentally a little tougher. Got to be in some wars. . . . But the upside for him is ridiculous.”
Playing behind two “grown men” last season — PJ Washington and Reid Travis — was a reason for Montgomery averaging 15.1 minutes last season, Calipari said.
“I told him, ‘This thing is on you, now,’” the UK coach said. “‘What’s happened for PJ, and the changes he made for (himself) and our team, I expect the same, if not more, from you.’”
Washington entered his name in the 2018 NBA Draft, then decided to return to UK for his sophomore season. He showed dramatic improvement as a shooter and is projected as a possible lottery pick in the June 20 NBA Draft.
As for Montgomery’s potential, Calipari said, “I’ve had about four or five guys, maybe, I would say were beyond where he is. But there’s not many that have the upside like he has.”
As for Richards, Calipari cited a late start to playing basketball (at age 14) as a reason for relatively slow progression as a UK player. In this regard, Calipari likened Richards to Willie Cauley-Stein.
“I fully expect this to be his breakout year (because of) the opportunity, the minutes, where he is maturity-wise and physically . . . ,” Calipari said of Richards. “You know, he only started playing basketball when he was 14. He wasn’t like these other guys playing since he was 8 or 9.”
As for his history of having a quick hook with Richards, Calipari suggested that approach will continue. All UK players are subject to the same treatment because of mistakes or lack of competitiveness, Calipari said.
“Now he’s got the opportunity in front of him,” Calipari said. “He’s going to have to go take it. . . . It’s his job to go take it. I believe he will. I believed in the kid probably in the first two years more than he believed in himself.
“And I’m not the only one. I think a lot of people are saying with his size and length, who is like him in the country? There is nobody.”
Hagans will have a break-through year “because he gets it now,” Calipari said. “He’s going to be more focused.”
The UK coach also voiced great expectations for Quickley.
“I expect him to have a breakout year,” Calipari said. “I mean, he did some really good stuff last year. . . . One of the great teammates. Got so much better defensively. He’s getting a better feel for this.”
The UK coach did not rule out adding more players this off-season. “Recruiting never ends here,” he said.
But Calipari sounded content with the allotment of players currently expected to be at his disposal.
The Wildcats of 2019-20 could make up “one of the longest teams I’ve coached . . . ,” Calipari said. “Really happy with where we are right now.” He added that he would consider adding another player if the UK team and the player could benefit.
2019-20 UK roster
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