UK Recruiting

Kentucky struck out with top-five recruits again in 2019. Will 2020 end the skid?

Major UK recruit grew up watching John Wall and the Cats

Five-star basketball recruit Jalen Johnson says Kentucky was his dream school growing up, starting with John Wall, the star player on John Calipari's first team in Lexington.
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Five-star basketball recruit Jalen Johnson says Kentucky was his dream school growing up, starting with John Wall, the star player on John Calipari's first team in Lexington.

In each of his first seven recruiting cycles at the helm of the Kentucky basketball program, John Calipari landed at least one of the top five high school prospects in the recruiting rankings.

For the fourth consecutive cycle — wrapping up with No. 5 recruit RJ Hampton’s decision last week to skip college and play professionally overseas — Calipari has struck out with the nation’s top five recruits.

A little more than a year ago, this 2019 cycle appeared to be the one that would break Calipari’s top-five slump. James Wiseman — then and now the No. 1 player in the class — would have almost certainly ended up at Kentucky had Memphis not hired his former high school and Nike league coach, Penny Hardaway, to lead the Tigers’ program.

But Memphis did just that, and that’s where Wiseman will play his one season of college basketball.

The No. 2 overall player in the 247Sports composite rankings — Atlanta area guard Anthony Edwards — had UK on his final list, but the Cats were never seen as a realistic destination, and Edwards will play for home-state Georgia next season.

The two other guards in the top five — Cole Anthony at No. 4 and Hampton at No. 5 — also had UK on their lists at various points. The Cats stopped recruiting Anthony months ago, however, and the thinking inside the program was that they’d already landed a better player and better fit in Tyrese Maxey (the No. 10 recruit in the final rankings). Anthony picked North Carolina.

Hampton listed UK in his final four as recently as a couple of weeks ago, but the glut of backcourt talent on next season’s roster made Lexington a highly unlikely destination, even if he hadn’t decided to sign with a team based in New Zealand. (Hampton has said he would have chosen Kansas had he stayed in the States).

The Cats couldn’t have done anything more to woo Wiseman — the ties to Hardaway proved too much to overcome — so Isaiah Stewart, the No. 3 player in this year’s rankings, is likely to end up as the biggest “what-if?” prospect in the class.

Stewart — a dominant post player and perhaps the most college-ready prospect in the country — didn’t land a UK scholarship offer until relatively late in the recruiting process, and he told the Herald-Leader this spring that the tardiness of that offer hurt the Wildcats’ chances.

Washington Coach Mike Hopkins, whose recruitment of Stewart dates back to his days as a Syracuse assistant, ended up landing his commitment.

So, the top-five skid continues for UK, which hasn’t landed a prospect in that range since the ultimately underwhelming Skal Labissiere — ranked No. 2 in 2015 — chose the Cats.

Will the 2020 class finally be the one that produces a top-five commitment for Calipari?

First, a quick recap of the other three cycles where everyone in the top five went elsewhere:

The 2018 class: No. 1 RJ Barrett (Duke), No. 2 Nassir Little (UNC), No. 3 Cameron Reddish (Duke), No. 4 Bol Bol (Oregon), No. 5 Zion Williamson (Duke). … UK heavily pursued Barrett, Reddish and Williamson, and the Cats recruited Bol, though they had cooled on him by the time he made his college announcement.

The 2017 class: No. 1 Marvin Bagley (Duke), No. 2 Michael Porter Jr. (Missouri), No. 3 Mohamed Bamba (Texas), No. 4 DeAndre Ayton (Arizona), No. 5 Collin Sexton (Alabama). … Bamba was the biggest UK target on this list. Bagley was pursued by UK, but he focused on others at the end of his recruitment. Porter followed his father (an assistant coach) to Missouri. UK was never in serious pursuit for Ayton (despite the Cats being on his final list) or Sexton.

The 2016 class: No. 1 Josh Jackson (Kansas), No. 2 Harry Giles (Duke), No. 3 Lonzo Ball (UCLA), No. 4 Jayson Tatum (Duke), No. 5 Markelle Fultz (Washington). … UK was in hot pursuit of Giles and Tatum, and the Cats extended an offer to Fultz. They were never in serious contention for Jackson or Ball.


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The next group

As of now, the top five players in the 247Sports composite rankings for the class of 2020 are, in order, California post player Evan Mobley, California shooting guard Jalen Green, Wisconsin forward Jalen Johnson, Florida wing Scottie Barnes, and Texas forward Greg Brown.

UK has extended scholarship offers to Green, Johnson and Barnes. The top-ranked Mobley is the son of a Southern Cal assistant coach and widely expected to end up there, while Brown has not yet been linked to the Wildcats.

That’s also highly unlikely to be the final order when the 2020 cycle ends this time next year.

The current rankings don’t take this spring’s shoe-league performances into account, and there are still several high-profile tournaments and camps — not to mention a full season of high school basketball and the all-star events that follow — to be played before these rankings are finalized.

Here are seven players that could break Calipari’s top-five skid over the next year:

Jalen Green

Memphis has been pegged as the early favorite for Green, but he said this spring that his recruitment is still wide open and he’s not yet focused enough on the process to name any frontrunners. Despite Green being a West Coast prospect, Calipari has already visited him multiple times and watches him play at every opportunity. He’s long been ranked as the best guard in the 2020 class and will play his senior season at Prolific Prep, which has traveled to Kentucky for several games over the past few seasons.

Jalen Johnson

The versatile forward has already cut his list to four schools — Arizona, Duke, Kentucky and home-state Wisconsin — and he’s told the Herald-Leader that he could be ready to announce a college decision as early as next month. Johnson visited Lexington for each of the past two Big Blue Madness events and has called UK his “dream school” growing up. Duke has taken a massive lead on his 247Sports Crystal Ball page — to go along with predictions from national analysts Eric Bossi and Corey Evans — but there are always surprises on the recruiting trail.

Scottie Barnes

The first player in the 2020 class to land a UK scholarship, Barnes is still very much on the Wildcats’ wish list, though other schools — namely Miami and Oregon — have been getting more buzz in his recruitment over the past few months. The 6-8 wing has continued to make a solid case for top-five status this spring, and — if they do trail — the Cats still have some time to make a good impression. Barnes has said he doesn’t expect to make a fall decision.

Cade Cunningham

Arguably the best prospect in the country this spring, Cunningham is currently No. 7 in the 247Sports composite rankings but is likely to land inside the top five on the next update and is now in the conversation for No. 1 overall recruit in the 2020 class. He cut his list to 10 schools last week. Kentucky is on it, and Calipari is just now getting started with his recruitment. National analyst Evan Daniels logged a Crystal Ball pick in favor of Oklahoma State last week, a sign there’s still plenty of work for the Cats to do.

Five-star basketball recruit Cade Cunningham talks about his recruitment, his interest in Kentucky, other schools on his list, and more after the first day of action on the Nike EYBL circuit.

Brandon Boston

The long, talented scorer from the Atlanta area might be the most likely player on this list to end up at Kentucky. He’s narrowed his recruitment to UK, Duke, Auburn and Florida, and recruiting analysts are starting to side with the Wildcats over on his Crystal Ball page. He’s been compared to Brandon Ingram — the No. 3 recruit in the 2015 class — but Boston will need to continue to trend in that direction if he’s to achieve top-five status and end Kentucky’s drought. He’s currently the No. 8 prospect in the 2020 composite rankings.

Makur Maker

No recruit has seen his stock rise higher over the past six months than Maker, who is now No. 3 overall in the 247Sports in-house rankings and seems destined to end up in the top five of the composite rankings by the end of the cycle. The cousin of NBA player Thon Maker returned to the United States from Canada this past season and has been a terror on the Adidas circuit this spring. Calipari made a special trip to visit with the highly versatile 7-footer a few weeks ago, and Kentucky should remain in contention as more becomes known about his recruitment.

Terrence Clarke

Technically, Clarke — a 6-7 prospect from Massachusetts with potential point guard skills — is in the 2021 class. He’s No. 2 overall in the composite rankings for that group, but he also turns 18 in September, meaning he’ll be 20 years old when he plays his first college game … unless he moves to the 2020 class, something that’s been talked about in recruiting circles. UK has already extended a scholarship offer, and Calipari watched him plenty during the only spring evaluation period. If Clarke does move to 2020, he’d certainly contend for top-five status.

One more note

An interesting fact to ponder as UK’s drought with top-five national recruits continues: no prospect that finished with a top-five ranking in the classes of 2018, 2017, 2016 or 2015 made it to the Final Four with his college team. RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson advanced to the Elite Eight with Duke this past season, as did Marvin Bagley the year before that. No. 1 recruit Josh Jackson made it to the Elite Eight with Kansas two years ago. None of the other 15 top-five recruits from 2015-18 played beyond the Sweet 16 in college.

The most recent top-five recruits to make the Final Four were Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns, who were ranked No. 1 and 5, respectively, in the 2014 class and advanced to the next year’s Final Four, with Okafor and Duke winning it all that season.

With Hampton opting to play overseas next season, this skid can only end if Memphis, Georgia, Washington and/or North Carolina advances to the 2020 Final Four.

UK’s top 10 commitments since 2016

6De’Aaron Fox2016
9Bam Adebayo2016
9EJ Montgomery2018
10Hamidou Diallo2017
10Tyrese Maxey2019

Rankings: 247Sports composite