UK Men's Basketball

This Kentucky basketball team has plenty of talent. What role will each Wildcat play?

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2019-20 College Basketball Preview

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This Kentucky basketball season brings another elite-level recruiting class, but it’s an incoming group of future UK stars that will be met by an inordinate amount of experience.

Four returning Wildcats — all contributors last season — join one graduate transfer and five freshmen on a Kentucky team that takes legitimate national title hopes into the 2019-20 season.

How will they all come together? And how will John Calipari utilize this talented, versatile group of Wildcats? That remains to be seen, but here’s a look at what to expect from the 10 scholarship players on UK’s roster:

Ashton Hagans

Tyrese Maxey might be UK’s most likely leading scorer and Nate Sestina might be its most vocal presence, but, make no mistake, this will be Hagans’ team to start the 2019-20 season.

It’s rare that Calipari gets back a starting point guard for a second season, and expectations for Hagans will be high in Year 2. He’s embracing that hype.

Hagans’ contributions to this Wildcats team will start by setting the tone defensively as one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball. The 6-foot-3 guard has a wingspan that measures at a little longer than 6-10 and a frenetic, in-your-face style of on-ball defending.

Offensively, he’ll need a steadier — less turnover-prone — hand as he runs the point. Some of last season’s playmaking pressure should be alleviated by the arrival of Maxey and the apparent emergence of Immanuel Quickley, and Hagans has the quickness, vision and creativity as a passer to be one of the best point guards in the country. Reports from UK’s preseason practices also indicate that he has improved as an outside shooter, and his confidence in that area has increased.

Hagans might be the most important player on this Kentucky team.

Immanuel Quickley

The annual Blue-White scrimmage can often be a false indication of what’s to come — as well as a source of unrealistic expectations for individual players — but Quickley’s performance at this year’s edition seemed like a true transformation and a confirmation of what was already being said about the second-year Wildcat.

Immanuel is not even the same player,” Calipari kept saying in the preseason. Quickley’s early play bore that out. Last season, the five-star point guard recruit demurred and deferred with the ball in his hands so often that Calipari moved him off it. The word from those who have seen Quickley play over the summer — both at UK and elsewhere — has been that he’s taking a much more active, attacking approach with the basketball, something that is surely to win over the UK coach if it carries into this season.

Quickley should also be one of the team’s best outside shooters. He was 37 percent from three-point range after league play began last season, and the possibility of a more spaced-out floor and more comfort with his role this season could see that number increase.

Defensively, he’s athletic and long (6-3 with a 6-10 wingspan) and should bring intensity to that end of the floor. A role player as a freshman, Quickley projects as a key contributor this season.

Tyrese Maxey

As previously mentioned, there’s not a better bet to lead the Wildcats in scoring this season than Maxey, a constantly-smiling combo guard and stone-cold killer with the basketball in his hands. The 6-3 freshman can score from all three levels, and he has the instinct and mentality of a player that will demand the ball in crucial, late-game offensive situations.

That mentality carries over to the defensive end, where Maxey will likely volunteer to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter player on a nightly basis. He’s certainly capable of that task. Nike named him the top defensive player on its highly competitive EYBL circuit last summer. Along with Hagans and Quickley, the Cats should have no shortage of intense on-ball defenders.

His genuine exuberance and positivity will make Maxey an instant fan favorite. His two-way talent and potential could make him the star of this Kentucky team and its highest NBA Draft pick a few months from now.

Johnny Juzang

By all accounts, UK’s preseason practices have confirmed what everyone already thought about Juzang: he can flat-out shoot the basketball. The freshman from California comes to UK with a reputation as one of the best shooters in the 2019 recruiting class, and the Cats will need his shot-making abilities, especially with the new, extended three-point line this season.

Like other wings on this squad, Juzang will need to show defensive aptitude to stay on the court for extended periods of time. Calipari has made it clear in past years that solid defense is the gateway to playing time, no matter how offensively gifted a player is. The 6-6 wing (with a 7-1 wingspan) has the length to be an effective defender, and he’ll need to match those measurables with intensity on that end.

Tyler Herro earned Calipari’s trust early last season with his work as a defender. Juzang is a different player, but he’s in a similar situation. If he can prove himself capable on defense, his undeniable offensive talents will make it difficult to keep him on the bench.

Kahlil Whitney

Whitney is an uber-athletic McDonald’s All-American wing that’s already being projected as a possible NBA lottery pick next year. His basketball skill set is also a little more raw than his fellow incoming freshmen, but his physical gifts are unmatched.

There will undoubtedly be an impulse for Whitney to prove himself to pro scouts as a versatile perimeter player, but he must focus on not trying to do too much on the offensive end. He can’t dribble himself into trouble or settle for bad, contested outside shots. Scoring opportunities will come more naturally, due to his elite athleticism and hard-playing style.

Whitney’s primary contributions to this season’s team should come as an energetic competitor who causes havoc on the defensive end — he’s 6-6 but boasts a wingspan of more than 7 feet — and hits the boards hard on both ends. At the team’s NBA combine last month, Whitney scored a 42-inch vertical leap and was measured with 5.6-percent body fat (both were, by far, the best on the team). He has rare athletic gifts and looks perfect for a small-ball “4” spot, if Calipari elects to go with a more modern lineup at times.

Keion Brooks

An interesting talent with a great feel on the court, no one part of Brooks’ game jumps out as elite. He’s simply really good at basketball with an ability to impact games in multiple ways.

Calipari has tinkered with Brooks — nearly 6-8 with a 7-1 wingspan — in the small-ball “4” role this preseason, but he’ll need to play more physically than he has in the past to be effective in that position. He’s listed at 205 pounds and is a bit slight for that role. He could make up for any shortcomings there with underrated athleticism — his 37-inch vertical was bested only by Whitney on NBA combine day — and that knack he has for being in the right spot at the right time.

In the past, Brooks has played more like a big guard. He can shoot from outside. He can work his way to mid-range and make shots from there. He has shown a good eye for his surroundings, and that makes him an effective passer in half-court situations.

Where Brooks fits on this team might be the most intriguing positional question for Calipari at the start of this season. Wherever that is, he should be an effective player.

Dontaie Allen

Whatever production the Cats can get from Kentucky’s reigning Mr. Basketball should be seen as a bonus. Allen suffered a torn ACL in December and missed most of his senior season, along with summer and fall workouts. He still wasn’t cleared for full basketball activities to start the exhibition schedule, putting him behind his teammates at the crucial early point in this season.

That delayed start will make it difficult for Allen to carve out a substantial role in the rotation once he is cleared, but he has the skill set to do it. One of the best offensive players from Kentucky in years, Allen is a dynamic scorer at all three levels and projects as one of the best three-point shooters on this team. If he does get an opportunity, he’ll need to play defense to stay on the floor. His basketball IQ and length — a 7-2.5 wingspan; second longest on the team behind Nick Richards — should enable him to be effective on that end of the floor.

Allen has already earned the admiration and respect of his teammates with his hard work and positive attitude during this rehab period. Once he’s 100-percent healthy, he’ll need to prove to Calipari that he’s deserving of playing time alongside all these five-star players.

Nate Sestina

The oldest player on UK’s team — Sestina will turn 23 in May — is also new to this squad, but he already seems to be establishing himself as a leader, on the court and off. That will be important for a group of Wildcats that return four scholarship players from last season but will still be a young bunch overall.

Sestina looks the part of an effective stretch “4” who can step out and make threes — keeping defenders honest — but also has the willingness to bang for points and rebounds inside. Calipari has already praised the graduate transfer for his vocal leadership in practices, a positive sign for a newcomer. And his teammates have praised Sestina for his encouraging attitude off the court, a trait that should prove beneficial as the Cats encounter the inevitable bumps in the road over the course of the season.

After the final game of last season, younger UK players lined up on the court to thank grad transfer Reid Travis for his leadership. Though he’s a much different player — and not quite the post bruiser Travis was — Sestina could be a like-minded leader for this team, and he could have a more versatile game that allows Calipari to use him in different ways, depending on the situation.

EJ Montgomery

The recruiting analysts who followed Montgomery so closely in high school are expecting a major step forward for the Kentucky sophomore. Calipari kept saying last season that he needed to find more minutes for the top-ranked recruit in his 2018 class, but that was difficult. The UK coach couldn’t afford to take PJ Washington (his best player) or Reid Travis (his most effective post presence) off the court for any extended period of time, and Montgomery’s opportunities were limited as a result.

That shouldn’t be the case this year. Montgomery’s versatile offensive game should only be bolstered by the number of high-quality distributing guards on this UK team, and his blend of size and skill should make him a mismatch problem for opponents.

Montgomery — 6-10 with an 8-11 standing reach — showed signs of being an effective help defender last season, but he’ll likely need to play stronger in the post this season, and Calipari will need him to battle for rebounds, especially if he’s going to entertain the idea of smaller lineups. Montgomery did rebound at a higher rate — per minutes played — than both Travis and Washington last season.

Nick Richards

The question for Richards remains the same in Year 3 as it was in Year 1: can he finally turn all that raw potential into effective, consistent production? We won’t know the answer until the real games begin.

Richards should have a little more leeway to make mistakes and stay on the court this season than the previous two, but that will go only so far with Sestina proving himself to be a reliable, versatile player, UK expecting big things from Montgomery, and Calipari’s (seemingly) willingness to actually play a more modern, small-ball style with this roster.

The UK junior must limit mistakes, and he must mentally turn the page when those mistakes happen. If he can rebound strongly — keep that ball high — stay in the right spots defensively, and contest shots without fouling, he should be able to turn the corner.

One thing has become clear over the past couple of years: Richards is extremely well-liked by his coaches and teammates. Calipari’s repeated proclamations that “Nick is one of my favorite players of all time” are real. People around the program speak privately about how hard Richards works and how much they want to see him take that next step.

It’ll now be up to him to make it happen.

Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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