UK Recruiting

UK might need a frontcourt recruit for next season. And this might be the guy.

Justus: Goal is to identify players who see Kentucky as ultimate destination

Kentucky basketball assistant Joel Justus describes Wildcats' recruiting strategy and the landscape of basketball recruiting.
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Kentucky basketball assistant Joel Justus describes Wildcats' recruiting strategy and the landscape of basketball recruiting.

After offering his thoughts on each of UK’s four top remaining basketball targets for the class of 2019 earlier this week, Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Corey Evans concluded that the Cats probably shouldn’t be considered the frontrunners for Keion Brooks, Anthony Edwards, Matthew Hurt or Jaden McDaniels.

“They’re just not in the driver’s seat with any of these guys,” Evans told the Herald-Leader. “It’s a weird class, things are all over the place. And, honestly, none of the four guys check the main box that Kentucky is missing — or needs to fill — and that’s the ‘5’ spot.”

Indeed, those four 2019 targets all prefer to play on the perimeter, and the Cats should have plenty of options there with early commitments from point guard Tyrese Maxey and wings Kahlil Whitney and Dontaie Allen, plus the expected return of a few talented backcourt players from this season’s team.

What UK likely will need the most — especially if one or both of Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery decide to try the pro route after this season — is another body for the frontcourt.

That player could be Mali native N’Faly Dante, who is currently in the 2020 class but has for months been rumored to be a candidate to reclassify to 2019 and play college ball next season.

Dante — a 7-footer at Sunrise Christian (Kan.) — and versatile Florida prospect Scottie Barnes were the first two recruits in the 2020 class to land UK scholarship offers, and they’ll play against each other Friday at 8 p.m. in a game that will be televised on ESPN2.

Barnes — a 6-foot-8 prospect — is the No. 3 player in the Rivals.com junior rankings and remains a top UK recruiting priority, but he’s apparently nowhere close to a college decision.

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Scottie Barnes was the first player from the 2020 class to land a UK scholarship offer. Doug McSchooler

“He doesn’t care one bit, pays no attention to it. ... He just wants to ball” Evans said. “I would say that Florida State, Miami and Florida — the three in-state schools. Oregon was the dream school growing up. And Kentucky. Those are the five that I think are going to be the primary schools in it until the very end for him.”

Due to the reclassification possibilities, Dante is the player of more immediate interest to the Wildcats.

“He’s an elite shot-blocker. He has a 7-6 wingspan, 7-feet tall with great instincts,” Evans said. “But what’s really impressed me is the fact that he’s actually developed an offensive skill set. He’s not one-dimensional. He can pass the ball. He doesn’t make shots consistently yet, but the stroke is there. He has great touch.

“He was knocked for a shaky feel for the game early on. It’s vastly improved. He’s playing for a nationally acclaimed high school team at Sunrise, so he’s very, very well coached. He’s playing next to four high-major prospects. At worst, he’s an elite rim-protector and rebounder. And, at best, he could be an All-Star type of guy.”

Evans mentioned the possibility that Dante could reclassify in a column earlier this month, and that remains an option for the player ranked No. 7 nationally in the 2020 class by Rivals.com.

“I think it’s pretty realistic — if the grades are met and he decides it’s the route he wants to take,” Evans said.

The final uncommitted post player with a UK offer in the 2019 class, Isaiah Stewart, announced Sunday night that he will play his college ball at Washington, leaving no more options for the Cats with instant-impact big men in the senior class.

Reid Travis will be out of eligibility after this season, and sophomore PJ Washington is projected as a first-round draft pick and almost certain to head to the NBA. Sophomore Nick Richards and freshman EJ Montgomery aren’t among the top 100 NBA Draft prospects on ESPN’s board, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if one (or even both) of those players tries the professional route.

With no other elite 2019 post prospects to choose from and the graduate transfer market an uncertainty until late spring, Dante might be the Cats’ best option — if he does decide to reclassify.

Dante has already taken official visits to Louisiana State and Oregon, and both schools have predictions from prominent national recruiting experts on his 247Sports Crystal Ball page.

But a reclassification announcement could re-shape his entire recruitment, and John Calipari got in early with a scholarship offer. The UK coach more recently made a special trip to watch Dante and other prospects at a recruiting event in Texas in November.

With what Kentucky is already expected to have next season, Dante could flourish in Lexington as the instant-impact big man Calipari might be looking for following this season’s stay-or-go decisions.

“Yeah, I think so. Especially if you put scorers around him and ask him to just focus on rebounding, blocking shots, running the floor,” Evans said. “And that’s the situation at Kentucky. They know they’re going to have enough scorers. If they don’t add anyone else the rest of the year — they miss on all those (2019) guys — they still have a loaded crop.

“OK, well then all they need from their big man is to score the occasional drop-off or put-back. But really just block shots, rim protect, run the floor, and rebound. And that’s what N’Faly does best.”

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