UK Recruiting

'It's a blessing': Calipari extends rare scholarship offer to high school sophomore

University School basketball star Scottie Barnes (4) is one of the top players in the 2020 class.
University School basketball star Scottie Barnes (4) is one of the top players in the 2020 class. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

The text message from UK assistant coach Kenny Payne came in shortly after one of Nike Team Florida’s games during the first league weekend of the spring a few days ago.

Payne was telling one of the team’s coaches that he and John Calipari had been watching five-star recruit Scottie Barnes, and they’d seen enough.

Barnes, still just 16 years old and a sophomore in high school, had earned a scholarship offer from the University of Kentucky.

At his team’s shootaround Friday afternoon before this weekend’s Nike league games here, Barnes smiled when he talked to the Herald-Leader about the new offer and his budding recruitment.

“When you get an offer from one of those schools, it’s everybody’s dream,” he said. "It just shows how much work you put in to the game. It just shows what your success is bringing.”

Barnes — a 6-foot-8, 210-pound, self-described “point forward” — is the first player from the class of 2020 known to have a confirmed scholarship offer from Calipari, who usually waits until a prospect’s junior season — at the earliest — to extend the honor.

“I didn’t know I was the first one, if I am the first one,” Barnes said. “It’s a big thing to me, getting an offer from one of the best coaches that will ever coach. For him to offer me, it’s a blessing.”

Barnes finds himself in a unique spot because of his unique game.

He’s an athletic, high energy, team-first player — ranked No. 7 nationally in his recruiting class — that brings intensity every time he steps on the court.

“He looks like a Kentucky player,” his coach, Adrian Sosa, told the Herald-Leader. “His competitiveness, his energy — he doesn’t have a bad practice. Not in terms of makes or misses, but just in terms of his focus and his willingness to compete. It’s always there. There’s no on/off switch. It’s always on with him.

“And I think that’s what sets him apart from a lot of the other kids. He’s trying to win every game. That’s just who he is.”

Barnes is young, but he’s already enjoyed plenty of experience at the highest levels.

He played on the USA Basketball U16 squad that won a gold medal in Argentina last summer. This past high school season, he was named by as a first team all-sophomore nationally, and he helped lead University School (Fla.) to a state championship and a spot in the nationally televised finals of the GEICO national championships. Last weekend, he began his first run at the top level of Nike’s spring/summer league.

Vernon Carey — one of the top recruits in the 2019 class and a fellow UK target — has been Barnes’ teammate on all three teams.

“He’s an energy guy. He can do it all. He’s an all-around player, and he can do anything for a team that needs to be done,” Carey said. “Ever since USA, he’s progressively gotten better. … He brings the best out of you on the court.”

During Friday’s practice, Barnes showed off that energy. He was constantly talking, constantly active. When the practice broke and others took a seat on the bench, he shot around some more and played some teammates one-on-one.

Barnes agreed with Carey that his confidence has grown over the past year. He averaged 17 points and seven rebounds per game during the first weekend of Nike competition despite playing on a star-studded team. He also put up big numbers in high school, averaging 21.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in three games at the GEICO national tournament.

“Now, every time I step on the court, I just want to be a dog,” he said. “I want to play hard and try to win every game. When I come on the court, I play harder than everybody else and just try to make a statement.”

Calipari and other top coaches have clearly noticed.

Barnes also has early scholarship offers from Kansas, Syracuse, Florida, Miami, Florida State, Oregon, Maryland and others.

His 2020 class could be the first one to get a chance to jump straight to the NBA — if the league gets rid of its one-and-done rule — but Barnes isn’t looking past college. He said he wants to be ready for the pros when his time comes, and that could mean spending some time at a place like Kentucky first.

“I like watching college basketball. I feel like it’s more competitive than the NBA,” he said. “Everybody wants to win the game. Everybody’s locked into every game. … I feel like college will help me get ready for that next level.”