UK Men's Basketball

Next season’s Kentucky team anchored by ‘one of the best’ on-ball defenders

Calipari says 2019 will be a breakout year for returning players

Kentucky men's basketball head coach John Calipari responds to the return of Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards, and EJ Montgomery to the team.
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Kentucky men's basketball head coach John Calipari responds to the return of Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards, and EJ Montgomery to the team.

Ashton Hagans’ decision to play another college season gives Kentucky what can be considered a foundation for a quality defense: an elite on-ball disruptor/defender. That’s how ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas saw the potential impact of Hagans’ return.

“One of the best defenders in the country last year,” Bilas said Monday on a teleconference promoting ESPN’s telecast of Thursday’s NBA Draft. “And, certainly, I’d put him among the two or three best on-ball defenders at the point guard position.”

Bilas put Tre Jones of Duke in that same category. “You know, he’s relentless,” he said of the Hagans-Jones analogy.

In working to improve his stock for the 2020 NBA Draft, Hagans must get better as a perimeter shooter, Bilas said. Hagans made 14 of 51 three-point shots last season (27.5 percent). That included two-for-11 shooting from beyond the arc in UK’s last six games. Bilas said he believed Hagans was capable of making marked improvement as a perimeter shooter.

“I think he’s got a ways to go to become a finished product,” Bilas said. “That’s not a knock on him (as a NBA prospect). Look how well it went for PJ Washington at the same school. That’s certainly a very good blueprint.”

The hour-long teleconference repeatedly returned to the improvement Washington made as a sophomore. The most obvious upgrade came as a three-point shooter, which was part of the feedback he received in the pre-draft process in 2018. As a freshman, he made only five of 21 three-point shots (23.8 percent). Last season he made 33 of 78 shots from beyond the arc (42.3 percent). Bilas suggested this was just the visible tip of the metaphorical iceberg that was Washington’s improvement as a sophomore.

“You could tell he was more assertive, more confident and impacted the game in far more ways than he did as a freshman …,” Bilas said. “He improved in every conceivable way. … You certainly can’t argue with his decision (to return to UK for a sophomore season).”

Not surprisingly, Bilas saw Washington being the first UK player picked in this year’s NBA Draft. “PJ Washington is going to be a good player for a long time in the league,” Bilas said. “He’s just solid. Do I see him being a star in the NBA, an All-Star? Probably not. But do I see him being a starter in the league? I do. I think he has the opportunity to play a long, long time.”

Bilas stopped well short of advocating that other players follow Washington’s example of returning to college. There’s nothing wrong with using the G League or playing overseas as a stepping-stone to the NBA, he said. Nor is a professional career overseas to be looked down upon, he added.

“If you want to go, and you’re satisfied that you are prepared to be a pro, and accept the consequences of leaving college early when you might not be as prepared to step in right away, but you want to do your developing as a pro and get paid for it, I have zero problem with that …,” Bilas said. “There is no rule book or road map for this. … If any player is ready to be a pro, irrespective of where they’re drafted, I say go.”

Washington will probably be the first former Kentucky player picked in this year’s draft, Bilas said before adding, “Then my guess is Tyler Herro right after that.” Herro is one of the best shooters in the draft, Bilas said, and “really improved” as a defender last season.

Bilas said Herro was “a little bit confounding” as a draft prospect. “I don’t remember a guy who’s arms were shorter than his height … that I ranked in the top 20.” Bilas said he ranked Herro as the 18th-best player in this year’s draft.

As for the third UK player likely to be drafted, Bilas said, “I like Keldon Johnson a lot.” The ESPN analyst described Johnson as a “hard-nosed, physical player who can guard people. I think as a defender, that’s where he shows the most promise.”

He must improve as a shooter, Bilas said, while also saying Johnson was a “very solid” three-point shooter as a freshman (45 of 118, for 38.1-percent accuracy).

“He’s got a lot of ability,” Bilas said. “It just needs to be refined.”

Bilas assessed the three likely first-round picks from Kentucky as “not as spectacular as some of the Kentucky players that have come out in recent years. But all very, very solid.”

UK production line?

In the NBA drafts during John Calipari’s time as coach, Kentucky has had 35 players selected. Of those, 26 were first-round selections and 19 were lottery picks.

Not for the first time, Bilas pooh-poohed the notion that such a track record should be interpreted as testament to how well a college program develops NBA-caliber players.

“I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘what NBA team produces the most All-Stars?’” the ESPN analyst said. “They don’t say that.

“It’s some sort of idea that’s taken hold in college that programs produce pros. I just don’t see it that way. I think it’s more they recruit them.”

College coaches might help players realize NBA potential, Bilas said.

“They have NBA talent,” Bilas said of such players. “And they’re going to have to improve it a lot from here to be really good NBA players, in my humble judgment.”

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