UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky basketball’s recruiting misses of 2015, and how they fared as freshmen

Top recruit Malik Newman struggled in his freshman season at Mississippi State, and he withdrew his name from the NBA Draft earlier this week.
Top recruit Malik Newman struggled in his freshman season at Mississippi State, and he withdrew his name from the NBA Draft earlier this week. AP

NBA Draft decisions have been finalized, and two of UK’s top freshmen from the recruiting class of 2015 are headed to the pros, while another will be back in Lexington for a sophomore season.

Isaiah Briscoe announced Wednesday that he’s returning to the Wildcats for a second year, but the program will lose five-star freshmen Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray, who announced their intentions to go to the NBA weeks ago.

What about some of the other highly touted players from the class of 2015?

That group turned out to be a bit of a headache for UK Coach John Calipari, who extended more than a dozen scholarship offers but missed on an uncharacteristically large number of his top targets.

Different decisions by those players obviously would have changed the make-up of the 2015-16 season, and possibly future seasons, for the Wildcats.

Another signee or two could have given UK more firepower last season, maybe another veteran on next season’s team. More additions also could have negatively impacted UK’s 2015-16 season.

Would an earlier commitment from Malik Newman have caused Jamal Murray to look elsewhere, for instance? If UK had landed a player like Ivan Rabb or Caleb Swanigan, would the Cats have pushed for Isaac Humphries, who could be a key contributor down the road?

We’ll never know the answers to those questions, but we do know how UK’s top targets from the class of 2015 fared in their freshman seasons, and what they’ll be doing next.

Here’s a quick look back at 10 of those players:

Antonio Blakeney, Louisiana State

His freshman season: UK showed varying degrees of interest throughout the recruitment of Blakeney, who originally committed to Louisville before ending up at LSU. He was the Tigers’ third-leading scorer with 12.6 points per game and shot 33.5 percent from three-point range.

Postseason: LSU did not make the NCAA Tournament.

What’s next?: Blakeney will return to LSU for his sophomore season. He is not projected as a draft pick in 2017.

Jaylen Brown, California

His freshman season: Brown was the 2015 cycle’s Marques Bolden — a relatively quiet recruitment that seemingly would never end. He surprisingly committed to Cal in early May, when many saw him as the missing piece for UK’s 2015-16 roster. Brown had an up-and-down season for the Bears but ended up averaging 14.6 points and 5.4 rebounds to earn freshman all-America honors. He was a 29.4 percent three-point shooter.

Postseason: Brown had four points, seven turnovers and fouled out in 17 minutes in Cal’s first-round loss to 13-seeded Hawaii in the NCAA Tournament.

What’s next?: Brown kept his name in the NBA Draft and is projected as the No. 4 overall pick by DraftExpress.com.

Thomas Bryant, Indiana

His freshman season: UK cooled on Bryant late in his recruitment, which also included “hometown” school Syracuse and Missouri, where his former high school coach was an assistant. Bryant started every game for the Hoosiers and outperformed expectations, averaging 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds.

Postseason: Bryant was a key player in Indiana’s second-round victory over Kentucky, going for 19 points and five rebounds. That was his best statistical game of the tournament, and IU lost in the next round to North Carolina.

What’s next?: Bryant will return to Indiana for his sophomore season and is expected to be one of the best big men in college basketball. DraftExpress.com projects him as the No. 7 overall pick in next year’s draft, making him the top-rated American non-freshman on the board.

Cheick Diallo, Kansas

His freshman season: UK also cooled on Diallo late in his recruiting process amid rumors of potential NCAA troubles for the talented big man. Those issues ended up sidelining the top-five recruit for the first five games of the season, and he struggled to adjust to the college game. Diallo’s season stats: 3.0 points and 2.5 rebounds in 7.5 minutes per game.

Postseason: Diallo played in just one of Kansas’ four tournament games, going for nine points and four rebounds in seven minutes of a first-round rout of Austin Peay.

What’s next?: Despite his lackluster freshman year, Diallo kept his name in the draft and is projected as the No. 25 overall pick by DraftExpress.com.

Brandon Ingram, Duke

His freshman season: UK always seemed to be a bit of a long shot for Ingram, who surprised no one when he committed to Duke late in the process. After a slow start, Ingram ended up averaging 17.3 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 41.0 percent from three-point range. He was on the court for 34.6 minutes per game.

Postseason: Ingram scored at least 20 points in each of Duke’s three tournament games. The Blue Devils lost to Oregon in the Sweet 16.

What’s next?: Ingram is projected as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft by DraftExpress.com and seems certain to fall no lower than No. 2.

Luke Kennard, Duke

His freshman season: Long seen as a near-lock to UK — the school he grew up rooting for — Kennard instead picked Duke before his senior season. The Ohio native turned out to be the Blue Devils’ third-leading scorer at 11.8 points in 26.7 minutes per game. Billed as a sharp-shooting guard, he made just 32.0 percent of his three-point attempts.

Postseason: Kennard averaged 10.3 points and 7.3 rebounds , making five of his 15 three-point attempts over three games.

What’s next?: Kennard will return to Duke for his sophomore season and should be a key cog on a team that will start the season with the No. 1 ranking. He is not projected as a draft pick in 2017.

Malik Newman, Mississippi State

His freshman season: For a while, Newman was seen as UK’s top recruiting target, and the Cats looked to be in good shape with him before he ultimately chose Mississippi State, his father’s alma mater. Newman struggled for the Bulldogs, averaging 11.6 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He shot 39.8 percent from the floor and 38.2 percent from three-point range.

Postseason: Mississippi State did not make the NCAA Tournament.

What’s next?: Newman will return to college, though there are still questions about whether he will be with Mississippi State next season. He’s been the subject of transfer rumors. (For the record: It’s highly unlikely Mississippi State would allow him to transfer within the conference to UK). Newman was projected as the No. 52 overall pick in this year’s draft before his recent decision to withdraw his name.

Ivan Rabb, California

His freshman season: Aside from possible No. 1 pick Ingram, Kentucky arguably could have used Rabb last season more than any other player on this list, but he opted for home-state Cal instead. The 6-foot-11, 220-pounder averaged 12.5 points and 8.6 rebounds in 28.7 minutes for the Bears, starting all 34 of their contests.

Postseason: Rabb had 13 points and 12 rebounds in Cal’s first-round loss to Hawaii.

What’s next?: Rabb announced that he will return to Cal for his sophomore season. He’s projected as the No. 13 pick in the 2017 draft.

Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

His freshman season: Swanigan had a topsy-turvy recruitment, committing to Michigan State in April before backing off that pledge a month later and signing with Purdue. Another big body UK could have used in the post, Swanigan averaged 10.2 points and 8.3 rebounds for the Boilermakers, though he shot just 46.1 percent from the floor.

Postseason: Swanigan had six points and 10 rebounds in Purdue’s first-round, two-OT loss to Arkansas-Little Rock in the NCAA Tournament.

What’s next?: Swanigan announced Wednesday that he will return to Purdue for his sophomore season. He’s projected as the No. 26 pick in the 2017 draft.

Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV

His freshman season: Zimmerman was another player many thought was favoring UK throughout his recruitment, but he chose hometown UNLV instead. He averaged 10.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 26.2 minutes for the Rebels, who fired Coach Dave Rice in the middle of the season.

Postseason: UNLV did not make the NCAA Tournament.

What’s next?: Zimmerman kept his name in the NBA Draft and is projected as the No. 35 overall pick by DraftExpress.com, putting him in the second round.

Ben Roberts: 859-231-3216, @NextCats

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