Vernon Carey — now ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 1 basketball recruit in the class of 2019 — was a high school sophomore when he visited Lexington for Big Blue Madness a couple of years ago.
A 6-foot-10 power forward, Carey was already one of the best frontcourt prospects in the game. UK assistant coach Kenny Payne had some advice for Carey, at the time still just 15 years old.
“He told me to talk to Bam Adebayo,” Carey recalled Friday.
So he did.
“Ever since, we’ve been in contact,” Carey continued. “He tells me that Kentucky brings everything out of you. As a basketball player and as a man.”
Adebayo, at that time, was a freshman at UK and one of the most promising post players in the college ranks. He went on to have a successful season for the Cats, made the decision to enter the NBA Draft as a one-and-done player, and eventually became a lottery pick, playing nearly 20 minutes per game as a rookie with the Miami Heat this season.
The UK route worked out well for Adebayo, and he’s had nothing but good things to say about his time with the Wildcats. That could benefit John Calipari’s recruitment of Carey, who plays his high school ball about an hour from Miami and told the Herald-Leader on Friday that he’s planning to work out with Adebayo during the offseason.
Speaking of his next step, Carey made one thing clear.
“Everything’s wide open in my recruitment right now,” he said. “I don’t have a favorite.”
That runs counter to what the rumor mill has been churning up in recent months.
First, it was Miami — where his father, also named Vernon Carey, was a football star and first-round NFL Draft pick — that was often mentioned as the frontrunner.
Then, it was Duke, which has managed to land a series of top-five recruits in recent years, that took over perceived favorite status.
For a time, Michigan State, where Carey took his first official visit a couple of months ago, was seen by some as the most likely landing spot.
All three of those schools are still in it. So is Kentucky, as well as several others.
The fact that recruiting observers are having such a difficult time landing on a favorite indicates Carey is, indeed, still very much open to the process.
“It’s just one of those things,” his coach, Adrian Sosa, said of the process. “You hear that Roy Williams was down watching practice and the next thing you know it’s, ‘He’s going to Carolina.’ And then the next week, Coach K is coming down and, ‘Oh, he had a change of heart, he’s going to Duke.’
“He’s just going to take his time, see how everything plays out, and make sure he has the most information once it comes time.”
Carey told the Herald-Leader on Friday that he’s planning to trim his list to five schools after the summer season — possibly around early August — and then he’ll complete all five of his official visits before making a college decision.
UK’s coaches are doing what they can to remain on his list.
Calipari was in Fort Lauderdale earlier this month to meet with Carey and his family. Payne, the Cats’ expert on post players, made a return trip a week later.
“He just said I can come in and impact the team,” Carey said. “He was like, ‘If you want to be at Kentucky, you just have to come and play hard every time. Bring it every day.’ Nothing is going to be handed to you at Kentucky.”
Carey doesn’t need much handed to him. His credentials speak for themselves.
MaxPreps.com named him the national junior of the year after he led University School (Fla.) to a state championship this past season, then taking them to the finals of the GEICO national championships. He averaged 26.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game as a junior.
Carey was also the MVP for USA Basketball in its U16 gold medal run last summer. He’s one of the best players on the Nike circuit this summer, and he’s obviously one of the most coveted recruits in the country.
Over the past few months, Carey has transformed his body. He’s still around 255 pounds, but he’s replaced body fat with muscle, and that’s only helped his game.
“His game has just continued to develop in all facets,” said Sosa, who coaches Carey’s high school team and Nike squad. “This year, I think the biggest change was his efficiency with the ball in his hands. He’s a smart kid — on and off the court — with a high basketball IQ. So he knows, ‘OK, I need to get in the post.’ And there were times, like when we played Oak Hill, that everything was in the post. He knew, ‘OK, I need to be down here.’ Sometimes he would see teams where he could float a little bit and work on his perimeter game, and that was OK with us.”
Carey has a reputation as a beast on the block, but, as Sosa said, he’s plenty skilled away from it. He’s mentioned former UK players Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins as role models on the court. His coach pointed out some similarities to Adebayo and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Expect Calipari and Payne to remind Carey of those names as his recruitment continues.
“He shoots the ball at a high clip,” Sosa said. “And he just moves so well. He really is a mismatch nightmare. And he’s so unselfish. That’s the best part about him.”