Now that Reid Travis has announced he will transfer to UK for the upcoming basketball season, John Calipari’s latest roster appears to be complete.
As it stands, the Cats will have 10 scholarship players — Travis, a graduate transfer with immediate eligibility, is the only upperclassman among them — as well as three walk-ons.
There’s been talk of a possible return to Calipari’s “platoon” system of the 2014-15 season, but that seems highly unlikely. Though this might end up being the UK coach’s first team in 10 seasons in Lexington without an NBA lottery pick, he still has plenty of talent, and several of these players will deserve substantial minutes on the court.
So, who will UK’s starting five be now that Travis is officially in the mix?
Going into the summer — and the team’s upcoming preseason trip to the Bahamas — a compelling case could be made for a starting rotation of freshman guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, freshman wing Keldon Johnson, sophomore forward PJ Washington, and Travis, an all-Pac-12 first-teamer last season at Stanford.
Such a lineup would give Calipari plenty of versatility from the opening tip to go along with a band of reserves that would include two starters from last season’s team, an incoming McDonald’s All-American, and a pair of high-upside backcourt players.
Hagans, a 6-foot-4 recruit who last week announced that he would reclassify to 2018 and arrived on UK’s campus two days later, is, at least for now, the worst outside shooter of the five guards on the Cats’ 2018-19 roster, but he’s a dynamic playmaker who checks every other box that Calipari looks for in a point guard.
The Georgia native is a long, athletic, physical player who gets to the basket with ease and has the ability to finish at the rim or dish off to teammates. His team-first approach — 10.7 assists per game in high school this past season — makes him an optimal choice to run Calipari’s squad, which will feature several other five-star players capable of scoring at a high level.
Hagans’ bulldog demeanor — along with that size, length and athleticism — should bring UK a versatile defender capable of guarding multiple positions. His outside shooting needs work, but it’ll be tough for Calipari to keep him off the court.
Quickley — also a 6-4 point guard — isn’t as physical and doesn’t have the explosiveness to the basket that Hagans possesses, but he is a much better three-point shooter and shares a lot of the other traits on both ends of the floor. He also projects as an above-average defender at the next level and looks to distribute first on the offensive end, though he’s a capable scorer from all three levels.
Starting the freshman duo of Hagans and Quickley would likely leave sophomore point guard Quade Green, the Cats’ starter at that position at the beginning of last season, on the bench.
Green can shoot — 37.6 percent on threes as a freshman — and he came to UK with the reputation as an elite team manager, but he struggled at times and his defense was often questioned. He’s also listed at four inches shorter than Hagans and Quickley, and Calipari has made it clear how much he values length and athleticism in his backcourt players.
Johnson appears to be a perfect candidate to be the starting ‘3’ in UK’s lineup.
At 6-6, he’s another physical, high-motor player who — even at a young age — should bring some leadership to the Wildcats’ team. Offensively, he can take wings off the dribble and finish at the basket, though his outside shot has also improved in recent months. Defensively, he’s a tenacious competitor who doesn’t back down from a challenge and can be used to guard a wide array of opponents.
Green could still play major minutes off the bench, and the Cats should see contributions from incoming freshman Tyler Herro and the returning Jemarl Baker, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. All three of those players are threats from long range, and UK’s ability to stretch the floor this season should yield plenty of open looks.
It’ll be a versatile bunch in the UK backcourt.
“You have three legitimate point guards, but being able to handle the ball, Keldon Johnson, he could also be a point guard,” Calipari said earlier this week. “He could be that big guard who starts your offense because of how he plays. But you’re also skilled with Jemarl, skilled with Tyler, and the other thing I’m hoping is that we will be the kind of three-point-shooting team we’ve been in the past, where it’s a true weapon — we can shoot it in transition, can shoot it off ball screens.
“We just weren’t able to (shoot last season). … It just wasn’t what our strength was.”
Washington — a 6-7 forward who backed out of the NBA Draft pool last month — is a virtual shoo-in to hold a spot in UK’s starting lineup as a sophomore. He could end up being the Wildcats’ best player as he looks to raise his draft stock this season.
Forced into more of a ‘5’ role toward the end of this past season — a position he thrived in — the addition of Travis and EJ Montgomery, along with the continued progression of Nick Richards, should allow Washington to explore and hone some of the more versatile aspects of his game.
Travis, the only upperclassman on the team, stepped away from the basket more often in his most recent season at Stanford, but he’s best — at the college level, at least — as a bully around the rim, and that’s where UK can use him most.
The 6-9 forward averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game as a junior — both ranked third in the Pac 12 — and you don’t bring a player like that in as a grad transfer without having a prominent spot for him.
“I think if you’re playing him at the ‘4’ you’re probably doing yourself a disservice, especially with the way basketball is going nowadays,” NBA analyst Mike Schmitz told the Herald-Leader recently. “I would use him as a ‘5’, a little bit like they used PJ Washington at times this year. He’s physical. He can straight-line drive and kind of take slower guys off the bounce. But just his physicality is going to be a major factor right when he gets there.”
The duo of Washington and Travis would make for a formidable, physical frontcourt and allow Calipari to mix and match their styles with Montgomery and Richards off the bench.
Richards is the only returning player who started all 37 games for Kentucky last season, but his minutes dwindled as the Cats’ season progressed. His still-developing skill set — Richards didn’t start playing basketball until high school, remember — needs more time to grow, and bringing him in as a reserve, who should still play major minutes, might alleviate some of the pressure of last season.
Montgomery is UK’s highest-ranked incoming recruit, so it’s a bit strange to project him as a bench player. It’s also difficult to slot him ahead of either Washington or Travis, however, and it seems unlikely Calipari would start all three of those frontcourt players with so many talented backcourt options.
Travis’ addition — and Richards’ return — could allow Montgomery more time in the ‘4’ role, a spot he’s clearly more comfortable playing. The freshman is at his best facing the basket and making offensive decisions from there – he’s a pure shooter and also a great passer for a big man — though he does have the ability to contribute on the block, and the Cats should be able to rely on his rebounding no matter what role he plays.
That’s 10 talented players who could play prominent roles on this season’s team, including three returning Cats with starting experience and a new addition who’s been a star player at a high level and will be 23 years old by the start of league play.
The thought of it all had Calipari licking his chops in a conference call with reporters earlier this week.
“We’ll be a much different team than we were a year ago.”