Justus: Kentucky a place where you get better and play around great players
For the second consecutive season, the Kentucky basketball team will have a graduate transfer on the court.
Bucknell star Nate Sestina announced Thursday that he had committed to play his final season of college for John Calipari and the Wildcats, choosing to transfer to UK after visiting Lexington earlier in the week.
The 6-foot-9, 245-pound power forward from Emporium, Pa., averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game for the Bison this past season. He also made 41 of 108 three-point attempts (38.0 percent) and shot 81.8 percent from the foul line.
Sestina has played in two NCAA Tournament games and had a lot of success for one of the Patriot League’s top programs, but when the folks back in Emporium — with a population of around 2,000 — found out UK might be an option, it raised some eyebrows.
“When we heard it was Kentucky, we got extremely excited,” said Jon Songer, who was Sestina’s high school coach at Cameron County. “You think of Kentucky and you think of Coach Calipari and Rick Pitino and national championships. All those former players — you can just rattle off NBA player after NBA player. For Nate to have the opportunity to be in that same type of environment with those guys, it’s just awesome. It’s surreal. And I’m just so excited for him.
“I feel like when Nate gets to Kentucky — and he’s going to be surrounded by NBA-type talent, and he’s going to be playing with those guys and against those guys everyday in practice — I think it’s just going to take his game to another level.”
There could be ample playing time available for Sestina in UK’s frontcourt next season.
Reid Travis, of course, is out of college eligibility, and sophomore starter PJ Washington is almost certain to keep his name in the NBA Draft. The frontcourt backups from this past season — sophomore Nick Richards and freshman EJ Montgomery — both played sparingly toward the end of the NCAA Tournament and will be competing for minutes next season, should they both return. Sestina is an important addition to that group.
He averaged 27.7 minutes and scored in double figures in 27 of Bucknell’s 31 games this past season. He’s developed into a terrific shooter and has the versatility to help Kentucky inside or out, depending on the matchup.
“If Kentucky wants to spread the floor, I think that can be dangerous,” Songer said. “He has a really sweet shot, and that’s going to be something that teams are really going to have to game plan for. He’s really worked hard on his body. He’s in tremendous shape. He’s going to be great on the boards. ... And then, toward the end of the game, he’s a tremendous free throw shooter.”
It’ll be the second straight season that John Calipari adds a graduate transfer into the mix.
UK brought in Travis from Stanford last summer, and the veteran power forward averaged 11.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while also providing much-needed leadership for a young Wildcats team.
Travis’ teammates raved about what he added to the roster. So did Calipari, who said as recently as last week that UK would be looking at other graduate transfers in the future if he thought such a player would provide the right fit to the Kentucky program.
UK assistant coach Joel Justus talked to the Herald-Leader last weekend about the Wildcats’ philosophy when targeting players on the recruiting trail. One of the biggest traits they look for, Justus said, is who will be a good teammate, and their message — “If you want to be special and you want to be great, come here and test that every day” — is one that applies to anyone they add to the program, regardless of age or experience.
“It’s the same thing,” Justus said. “Any time that you’re bringing a young man into our program, into our team, into that locker room — they have to be driven. They have to want to be a great teammate. And they have to want to better themselves every single day. And they have to want to compete, whether it’s a high school guy or whether it’s a guy searching for a different option out of college.”
Sestina, who turns 22 years old next month, fits that description to a T, according to his former coach.
“Even dating back to high school, Nate’s always been a terrific teammate,” Songer said. “In high school, he probably could’ve scored 40 or 50 points a game, but it was never about that. It was always about, ‘How can the team be better? What can I do for the team to have the most success?’ And when he gets to Kentucky, there are going to be some 18-year-old, 19-year-old McDonald’s All-Americans, and I think those guys are going to look up to him. And I think he’s going to be a terrific role model for those guys.
“He will lead by example. He always has. If it’s a shooting drill, watching film, or in the community — he does things the right way and will be someone the young guys can look up to.”