Recruiting, oftentimes, comes down to relationships.
Five-star basketball prospect Isaiah Stewart became the latest example of that Sunday night, when he announced his commitment to Washington over fellow finalists — and more celebrated hoops powerhouses — Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Syracuse.
Washington head coach Mike Hopkins started recruiting Stewart — a Rochester, N.Y. native — when he was still the top assistant at nearby Syracuse, and that pursuit continued after Hopkins took the Huskies’ top job in 2017. Washington hosted Stewart for his first official visit back in the fall, and several national recruiting analysts logged online predictions in favor of the Huskies over the past few weeks.
“Me and Coach Hopkins go way back from when I was a freshman, and I’m a big relationship guy,” Stewart said on ESPN on Sunday night. “Relationships played a major role in my recruitment. And he’s a coach that I trust to push me harder, help me accomplish my goals. I’m looking forward to going there, winning games, being a sponge, soaking up everything, and just working my hardest.”
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Kentucky, meanwhile, waited until late September to extend a scholarship offer to Stewart, who recruiting analysts have called arguably the most college-ready post player in the 2019 class. The 6-foot-9 prospect — now playing for La Lumiere (Ind.) — outperformed fellow top-ranked post recruits James Wiseman and Vernon Carey on the Nike circuit this past summer and is the No. 6 overall player in the 2019 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.
His size and playing style — a hard-working frontcourt recruit who relishes contact and is among the best post scorers and rebounders in the class — was seemingly a perfect fit for what UK could need next season, especially if all or most of the Cats’ current frontcourt players leave for the pros this year. Still, John Calipari held off on a scholarship offer to Stewart while pursuing Wiseman and Carey, who ultimately committed to Memphis and Duke, respectively.
Stewart, who repeatedly talked about his relationship with coaching staffs being a major factor in his ultimate decision, said in July that he was still unsure of UK’s interest level, while his other finalists had long made him a top priority.
“Yeah, I mean, you guys know I’m about to move along and cut my list down, so it is what it is,” he said then. “If they jump in, they do. And if not, it doesn’t matter.”
Washington also recently landed former UK point guard Quade Green as a transfer, and the Huskies are one of the finalists — and possible the Wildcats’ top competition — for five-star recruit Jaden McDaniels, a Seattle native and one of the top 10 players in the 2019 class.
“Now, since I’m committed, I plan on going after Jaden McDaniels,” Stewart said on ESPN a couple of minutes after revealing his decision Sunday night.
Stewart was the last true big man on UK’s target list for the class of 2019. The Cats already have commitments from point guard Tyrese Maxey and wings Dontaie Allen and Kahlil Whitney, and they have scholarship offers out to shooting guard Anthony Edwards, and forwards Keion Brooks, Matthew Hurt and McDaniels — all players who prefer to play on the perimeter.
UK will lose graduate transfer Reid Travis after this season, and sophomore forward PJ Washington is projected as a first-round NBA Draft pick and is almost certain to head to the pros.
That leaves sophomore Nick Richards and freshman EJ Montgomery as possible frontcourt returnees. Neither of those players made ESPN’s most recent list of Top 100 NBA Draft prospects for 2019, but both have been mentioned as possibilities to turn pro after this season.
If one or both of those players departs Lexington — and with no more post options among the top recruits in the 2019 class — the Cats would likely have to look at graduate transfers or a possible reclassification from the 2020 class to fill a frontcourt hole next season.