This week’s decision by five-star center N’Faly Dante to commit to Oregon over Kentucky for the upcoming basketball season makes John Calipari’s lineup decisions a little more interesting.
Had Dante chosen Kentucky, it would have given the Wildcats four players that could fit into the traditional roles of power forward or center. Instead, UK will have just three such players on its roster: junior center Nick Richards, sophomore power forward EJ Montgomery, and graduate transfer power forward Nate Sestina.
Calipari’s track record suggests that, had he landed Dante, he would have gone with a four-man rotation of bigs in those two spots, despite possessing a glut of talented guards and wings in a game that is increasingly focused on such players.
Without Dante, simple math suggests that Calipari will almost certainly need to play a little small ball — possibly a lot of small ball — during the 2019-20 season. Even if everyone stays healthy and no one gets into foul trouble, the trio of Richards, Montgomery and Sestina won’t be playing 80 minutes per game.
Enter Kahlil Whitney.
The incoming five-star McDonald’s All-American was listed as a small forward as a recruit, but his game — and Kentucky’s needs — might be better suited for the “4” role in Lexington.
Rivals.com national analyst Corey Evans closely followed Whitney’s high school career and evaluated him again at last week’s Nike Skills Academy showcase in California, and Evans thinks the Chicago native might be UK’s best bet to play the “4” this season.
Whitney, long known for his elite athleticism and tenacious style of play, measured at 6-foot-6 (without shoes) and 207 pounds at the camp, boasting a 7-foot wingspan.
“That’s a pretty strong, physical wing forward in my mind,” Evans told the Herald-Leader this week. “He showed the desire and the willingness to defend multiple positions. I think offensively, anymore, the ‘2’, ‘3’ and ‘4’ are basically the same in the more high-tempo, high-powered offenses. It’s more about who’s going to defend, who’s going to rebound? And I think that Kahlil, physically, he’s there. And I think his mental capacity, which he showed in California, it was there. He was guarding. He was being aggressive. He wasn’t settling for jump shots. I thought he made a lot of 50/50, high-energy, hustle plays that the small-ball ‘4’ route is perfect for.”
Calipari will need to find playing time for his guards (Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley), as well as the more perimeter-minded Johnny Juzang, and — if he can return to 100 percent health this season — possibly Mr. Basketball Dontaie Allen.
Fellow freshman Keion Brooks has also been mentioned as a possible small-ball “4” in UK’s lineup this season, but Evans said Whitney is “way ahead” of Brooks from a physicality standpoint.
Brooks is the more offensively polished player, and he should earn plenty of playing time as a freshman. “But, can he defend down low? Can he rebound in traffic? Can he do all that?” Evans asked of Brooks. “He’s quick off his feet. He does have good instincts, like Kahlil. But he’s way more accustomed to playing out on the perimeter and facing the basket than playing down low.”
ESPN analyst Jonathon Givony was also at the Nike Skills Academy and wrote this week that Whitney was “arguably the most impressive player in the first evening of scrimmages” against competition that included several older college players. Givony described Whitney’s showing as an “eye-opening weekend” and also praised his unique ability as a defender.
“He has the strength to put a body on almost any big man, but the length and mobility to slide with perimeter players using rangy strides affords him the type of multi-positional versatility NBA teams covet,” Givony wrote.
Evans had similar observations.
“He has great instincts as a defender,” he told the Herald-Leader. “The plus-6 wingspan is great. From a physicality perspective, he doesn’t have issues with contact or being willing to play through contact.”
“And he was guarding all three of those guys,” Evans said. “So you have legitimate wings, and a Stanley Johnson type — who was kind of similar to (Whitney); a guy who was that bigger ‘3’ man who could also be used as a ‘4’ man — and (Whitney) showed his ability to at least hold his ground against those NBA guys.”
Offensively, the UK freshman still has progress to make. He was a 37 percent three-point shooter on the Nike summer circuit last year but has struggled at times to make shots from deep. Those inconsistencies were on display again last week.
Evans said Whitney has good mechanics on his outside shot but needs to work on shot selection moving forward, something Kentucky’s coaches will surely drill into him this season. Whitney is better at getting buckets running the floor and attacking offensive mismatches, which he could find in abundance playing the “4” role.
And with so many other capable scorers on this Wildcats team, Whitney won’t be asked to carry the load on that end. Using him at the “4” would allow Calipari to get more of those players — like Maxey, Quickley, Juzang and Brooks — on the court at the same time.
Will the UK fans who have been clamoring for a more dynamic, modern approach get their wish from Calipari this time around? Evans noted that Montgomery and Sestina are already more than comfortable facing the basket, and Montgomery, in particular, prefers to play that style.
That leaves Richards, who has been wildly inconsistent in his first two seasons, in the post.
Evans also pointed within the Southeastern Conference to the success that Auburn and Tennessee have enjoyed playing a smaller brand of ball, adding that Florida would be heading in that direction this season.
Calipari has the personnel that would thrive in such a system. Now, he might not have any other choice.
“He has to do it, right? His hand is forced now,” Evans said. “And that’s the game that we’re in now. I think if Cal could have gotten Kerry Blackshear or N’Faly Dante, of course he’s going back to what he knows best. But, in keeping up with the times, this is the route to take.”
UK scholarship players for 2019-20
Dontaie Allen, 6-6 freshman forward
Keion Brooks, 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
Immanuel Quickley, 6-3 sophomore guard
Nick Richards, 6-11 junior forward
Nate Sestina, 6-9 graduate transfer forward
Kahlil Whitney, 6-7 freshman forward