UK Recruiting

UK might need brand new frontcourt after this season. Calipari has options.

James Wiseman, left, and Vernon Carey are arguably the top two prospects in the recruiting class of 2019.
James Wiseman, left, and Vernon Carey are arguably the top two prospects in the recruiting class of 2019.

As John Calipari gears up for another Kentucky basketball season with realistic national championship expectations, he and his coaching staff are also trying to figure out their frontcourt situation on the recruiting trail.

It’s possible that UK might have to replace every post player on the 2018-19 roster.

Graduate transfer Reid Travis will be out of eligibility and obviously gone after his first and only season in Lexington. PJ Washington is widely expected to leave in the NBA Draft following his upcoming sophomore year. Those connected to UK’s current frontcourt recruiting targets are also being told that the Wildcats are expecting sophomore center Nick Richards, who turns 21 years old in November, to head off to the pros after this season.

That leaves freshman power forward EJ Montgomery, who has definite one-and-done potential this season and was UK’s top-ranked signee in the 2018 recruiting class.

It seems likely that Calipari will have at least two, probably three and maybe even more spots to fill in the frontcourt after this season. Luckily for the Cats, there are plenty of options.

UK’s coaches hit the recruiting trail Sunday for the start of the fall recruiting period, and they’ll be visiting with several post players over the next few weeks. A few have already established themselves as major UK targets. Here’s how those players might fit in at the next level:

James Wiseman

The No. 1 overall recruit in the 247Sports composite rankings and the longtime No. 1 player on Calipari’s 2019 wishlist wrapped up his official visit to Lexington on Sunday, and he’s expected to make a decision — likely between UK and Memphis — sometime in the spring.

Wiseman — a 7-footer with a 7-5 wingspan — might have more long-term upside than any player in high school basketball. He moves well for his size and could be a dynamic post defender at the college level. Wiseman uses his elite athleticism to cover a lot of ground quickly, and that can deceive opponents into taking ill-advised shots that end up getting blocked or deflected.

UK’s coaches have compared Wiseman to former UK star of stars Anthony Davis, who the 17-year-old recruit has acknowledged he patterns his game after.

Like Davis, he remains a work in progress offensively at this stage in his development, but those skills are progressing. Wiseman can score from the block or facing the rim, and he obviously has one more season of high school ball to continue to hone those skills.

“He’s a unicorn,” 247Sports’ Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader earlier this year. “The physical gifts are there, across the board. Whether it’s the length or the athleticism or the mobility, he’s the full package in terms of the physical gifts.

“And when you throw in how skilled he’s becoming, it’s impressive.”

Vernon Carey

The No. 2 prospect in the frontcourt rankings for 2019 and Wiseman’s top competition in the class the past couple of years, Carey is a much different player.

Measuring at 6-10 and 265 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Carey often uses sheer force to get himself past post defenders. He can overpower pretty much all of his current competition in the paint and is dominant on the boards. That said, he’s also highly skilled on the offensive end and has more athleticism than he’s usually given credit for.

Carey can score in a variety of ways — creating from the block by going at the rim, hitting turnarounds and hook shots, taking slower defenders off the dribble, and hitting jumpers past mid-range — and he has great scoring touch from all areas.

He doesn’t have the same defensive presence as Wiseman and some others on this list, but there might not be a better offensive post prospect in the 2019 class.

Carey comes to UK for Big Blue Madness next month and is also considering Duke, Miami, Michigan State and North Carolina.

Wiseman and Carey have said they’re open to playing alongside of each other at UK, and — while that would be tough to pull off, recruiting-wise — their games certainly complement each other.

“They can play together, for sure,” Daniels told us in July.

Matthew Hurt

The third player on this list that has been a UK priority for more than a year now. Hurt is, at the risk of being repetitive, yet another player with a very different skill set.

Like Carey, he’s highly skilled for an offensive post player. Those skills, however, extend all the way to the three-point line and beyond.

Measuring at 6-9 and 215 pounds at USA Basketball camp in June, the Minnesota native uses his instincts and athleticism to get good looks and score from creative angles around the basket, but he has also been honing his perimeter game in recent years.

Hurt was a 48 percent three-point shooter in Adidas pool play over the summer, and he had a confident and good-looking stroke from outside — often well behind the three-point line — when the Herald-Leader observed him at USA camp in June.

Defensively, Hurt is obviously thinner than Carey and (with a 6-9 wingspan) doesn’t possess the length of either he or Wiseman, but his versatility, especially offensively, makes him one of the top recruits in the class (No. 6 nationally, according to the 247Sports composite rankings).

UK will battle Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and several others for his commitment.

Oscar Tshiebwe

Quickly emerging as a major UK recruiting target in this class, Tshiebwe measures at 6-9 and 250 pounds, but what he lacks in height at the center position, he makes up for in strength, athleticism and pure grit.

“He is a tough, physical specimen. He plays with endless energy,” Daniels told the Herald-Leader after the summer evaluation period. “He competes. … I’ll be honest with you, I think Oscar plays as hard as any player I’ve ever evaluated.”

Tshiebwe — a native of Congo who now lives in Pennsylvania — might be the best rebounder in high school basketball, and his do-whatever-it-takes approach to the game immediately turned Calipari’s head toward the end of the summer recruiting season.

UK reached out to Tshiebwe in July, and the Cats are expected to make him a major priority in the run-up to his college decision, which is expected to come this fall and will likely end up in favor of Kentucky or West Virginia.

Offensively, Tshiebwe can be a force around the basket — power-dunking anything he can get his hands on — and is still working on the finer points of scoring. His overall basketball mentality is exactly what Calipari usually looks for in recruits, and he’d pair nicely with a more versatile frontcourt player as he continues to hone his game.

Aidan Igiehon

With UK scheduled to meet with Igiehon on Monday, it’s still unclear how hard the Cats are recruiting him.

He plays bigger and stronger than his 6-10, 215-pound listing, using his energy and super athleticism to wreak havoc in the paint. A native of Ireland who now attends a New York high school, Igiehon’s game is still a bit raw and he can play a little out of control at times, but the tools are certainly there for him to climb back up the class rankings after dropping 28 spots to No. 51 overall (according to 247Sports) following an uneven summer campaign on the Under Armour circuit.

Igiehon would likely need some more time to develop before he could make a major impact if he were to pick a program like Kentucky, though his energy and athleticism would make him a beneficial addition to any roster. Louisville looks to be the Cats’ top competition, and the Cards have made Igiehon a major priority for several months.

Zeke Nnaji

The newest addition to UK’s target list, Nnaji was Adidas league teammates with Matthew Hurt this past summer, and Calipari started the fall recruiting period by visiting Nnaji on Sunday night. That trip included a UK scholarship offer.

Like his travel league teammate, Nnaji is a versatile power forward prospect who should be able to help in a variety of ways at the college level. The Minnesota native is listed at 6-10, 215 pounds and was an even better outside shooter than Hurt on the Adidas circuit this summer, making 12 of 24 three-point attempts over 11 games.

Nnaji also excels on the defensive end.

“I love the progression that Nnaji has made within the past 12 months,” national analyst Corey Evans told the Herald-Leader over the weekend. “He has grown over three inches and his value as a frontcourt defender cannot be overstated. He has an above 7-foot wingspan, instincts, and excellent lateral skills in guarding far and close to the basket and, best of all, properly switching out top in defending the ball screen.

“Offensively, Nnaji can play the ‘4’ or the ‘5.’ He has to get stronger and tougher but the physical tangibles are all there. He can shoot … but also has a set of counters in the post. He can also play in bigger lineups as a high-low threat as a passer and shooter. In all, he is one of the better upside forward prospects in America.”

Nnaji will likely have a prominent spot in the updated rankings later this week, possibly working his way to five-star territory after making a big move to the No. 34 overall spot earlier this year.

While news of UK’s interest in Nnaji just recently became public, Wildcats assistant coach Joel Justus has actually be recruiting him for the past several weeks. The Herald-Leader was told over the weekend — before Nnaji received a scholarship offer — that UK is serious in its interest with the high-upside post prospect, the Cats should have a legitimate shot. Kansas and Arizona are among the many others that have extended offers.

More options

Seattle native Jaden McDaniels — a 6-10 power forward with a 7-foot wingspan — has the upside of a No. 1-ranked recruit, though he likes to play more away from the basket on the perimeter rather than muck it up in the paint. “He has a very versatile game,” UK point guard commitment Tyrese Maxey said after playing against McDaniels in July. “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.” UK still hasn’t extended a scholarship offer, so it will be interesting to see if McDaniels gets a visit from the Wildcats’ coaching staff during the fall recruiting period.

Five-star center Kofi Cockburn — listed at 6-10 and 255 pounds with a 7-3 wingspan — is an intimidating force in the paint and ranked No. 39 nationally by 247Sports. He’s a dominant rebounder and a physical offensive player around the basket who doesn’t have the pogo-stick athleticism of some elite post prospects defensively but can hold position in the lane. UK made his list of 12 schools a few weeks ago, but not much has been said about his recruitment since.

Five-star center Isaiah Stewart was incredibly impressive on the Nike circuit during the spring and summer, and UK expressed some interest in his recruitment, but he cut his list before getting a scholarship offer from the Wildcats.

Senegal native Doudou Gueye will play his sophomore season of college for Daytona State in the juco ranks, and the 6-9, 230-pounder is worth keeping an eye on this winter after a report of possible UK interest last week. It’s very early for Gueye, however, and it’s not yet clear if the Cats have any serious interest in his recruitment.

The only frontcourt player with a star ranking from 247Sports for the 2019 class is Dieonte Miles, who has already committed to Xavier, so it seems unlikely that any local post options will emerge in this cycle.

It’s always worth noting that other junior-college prospects could emerge as the season progresses. Graduate transfers (like Reid Travis) and reclassifications from 2020 are also possibilities, though any options in those categories likely wouldn’t become public until the spring.

Five-star basketball recruit Jaden McDaniels has blown up on the national scene this spring and summer, and UK is now among the many top schools paying attention.