A few months from now, that spot might belong to Jaden McDaniels.
The Seattle native — listed at 6-foot-10 and 200 pounds — has rocketed up the recruiting charts in recent weeks, and UK’s coaches are now among the many paying close attention.
Coming into this week’s Nike Peach Jam event, one of the major questions surrounding McDaniels’ recruitment was just how seriously the Wildcats were pursuing him. Relatively quiet about his basketball future, McDaniels told the Herald-Leader last month that he hadn’t heard from Kentucky, and he hadn’t confirmed since then that the Cats had shown any interest.
That changed Thursday, when he said someone from UK’s coaching staff reached out to his father recently to say that the Cats were indeed interested in recruiting the five-star prospect.
“It’s big-time,” he said of the UK program. “A lot of pros came out — like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, all of them — so it’s just exciting having a big-time offer … I mean, big-time interest like that.”
McDaniels corrected himself quickly on that offer comment. He doesn’t have one from the Cats yet, but that might not be the case for long. UK coaches were sitting courtside at each of his first two games at the Peach Jam, and there isn’t a more buzzed-about recruit in the 2019 class at the moment.
“I think it’s certainly fair to say he’s been one of the hottest recruits in the country,” 247Sports analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “He’s just improved significantly over the course of the past 18 months. And it hasn’t necessarily been one event where he was great — it’s just been kind of a strong, steady spring into the summer. This is a kid who is loaded with upside. He’s developing and adding to his skill set, and it’s turned into impressive production throughout the spring.”
Last week, McDaniels was named the “breakout performer” of the Nike regular season after averaging 19.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, leading his Seattle Rotary team to the Peach Jam playoffs for the first time in six years.
Rivals.com recently bumped him up to the No. 4 national ranking. 247Sports placed him No. 5. He could go even higher, if he keeps improving at the rate he has been.
“I don’t know if there’s anything that I would say is his biggest strength,” Daniels said. “When you look at him, you see his physical makeup. His size for the position. The length, the athleticism, how fluid he is. And then it’s the developing skill set that allows him to take guys off the dribble, that allows him to grab rebounds, that allows him to see the floor and make jump shots from mid-range out to three. I think he’s solid across the board.
“But if he turns into a knockdown shooter and continues to develop his footwork and offensive ability, we’re looking at a guy with the upside of a No. 1-type prospect in the class. I think his ceiling is that high. There’s a ways to go to reach that, but I think he has that level of talent.”
All of that was on display Thursday morning at the Peach Jam.
McDaniels — remember, he’s listed at 6-10 — was running the point for Seattle Rotary, bringing the ball up the floor, creating for himself off the dribble. He had the moves and quickness to get by opposing guards. He had the size and length to create space and shoot right over them.
One of those opposing guards was Tyrese Maxey, who is already committed to UK for 2019.
“He has a very versatile game,” Maxey said. “It almost reminds of, like, I wouldn’t want to say it, but (Kevin Durant). He has nice, long handles and he shoots right over defenders.”
Comparing a high school kid to the reigning two-time NBA Finals MVP might seem like a stretch — and, it is — but it does show the respect McDaniels is starting to earn among his peers.
“It’s been fun, just seeing (my ranking) go higher and higher,” he said. “I’m trying to get to the No. 1 spot. That’s my goal. So I’m just going to keep working until I get there.”
McDaniels mentioned Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington and San Diego State (where his brother is a star player) as some of the schools recruiting him hardest at the moment. He said distance from his hometown — UK is roughly 2,400 miles from Seattle — wouldn’t be a factor in his college decision, though he said his mom would like him to stay closer to home.
If the Cats do extend a scholarship offer, they’d likely jump to the top of his list.
Rivals.com national analyst Eric Bossi predicted UK would land him in a recent post on that website. His Rivals colleague, national analyst Corey Evans, picked Arizona, though he told the Herald-Leader he would change that prediction to UK “in a heartbeat” if the Cats offer.
Maxey said Thursday he’s spoken to McDaniels about the possibility and thinks Kentucky would have a good shot.
McDaniels smiled when asked if he had a “dream school” growing up.
“Yeah, I did,” he said. “But I don’t have one no more.”
Which school was that?
“It was Kentucky, because John Wall was my favorite player. So I wanted to go where he went.”