UK Recruiting

Calipari’s first stop is to see nation’s best available recruit. Does UK have a chance?

The recruitment of Cade Cunningham — now the highest-ranked uncommitted basketball prospect in America — appeared to be pretty much finished back in late June.

That’s when Oklahoma State hired Cunningham’s older brother, Cannen, as an assistant on Mike Boynton’s coaching staff. It was a move that had long been rumored in national recruiting circles, and it was a move that was expected to all but end Cunningham’s recruitment.

That hasn’t happened.

On the first day of the fall recruiting period Monday, the first place that Kentucky Coach John Calipari visited was Montverde Academy in Florida, where Cunningham — a 6-foot-7, do-everything point guard in the 2020 class — is entering his senior season.

North Carolina’s Roy Williams was also at Montverde on Monday, and coaches from Florida and Washington — the other two schools on Cunningham’s list — were expected to visit, too.

The busy start to the fall recruiting period followed a summer of frank conversations between Cunningham and the college coaches recruiting him.

“I’ll be the first to tell you that when his brother got the job at Oklahoma State, I just assumed this thing was done. Cade is telling the schools involved that that is not the case,” 247Sports national analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “I know a couple of (schools) have kind of put his feet to the fire and basically said, ‘Don’t waste our time.’ And his communication with those schools has been very much that they have a realistic shot.”

Calipari, in particular, has grown increasingly wary of sticking with recruitments that he suspected might already be decided. The UK coaching staff has pulled the plug on a number of such pursuits in recent years.

That makes Calipari’s presence at Montverde on Monday all the more interesting.

“I don’t think John Calipari would have gone to Florida on the first day of the recruiting period and met with Cade Cunningham if he didn’t think there was a realistic shot at them getting him,” Daniels said. “John is too smart for that.”

Cunningham exits the summer ranked by 247Sports — and everyone else — as the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2020 class, behind only California post player Evan Mobley, who has already committed to Southern Cal, where his father is an assistant coach.

Mobley’s early commitment makes Cunningham the nation’s top-ranked available recruit. His play over the past few months has solidified his standing as one of the very best young prospects in the sport.

Cunningham was named the most valuable player of the highly competitive Nike travel circuit after averaging 25.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game during the regular season. He shot 55.7% from the floor, 73.3% on free throws, and 37.1% from three-point range, wowing observers with his steady, stellar play against the nation’s top competition.

As part of the USA Basketball U19 team, Cunningham started every game, averaging 11.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists while leading the Americans to a FIBA gold medal in Greece.

Last month, Sports Illustrated called him, “quite clearly the most NBA-ready American guard prospect to come along in quite some time,” and the early frontrunner to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, citing behind-the-scenes talk from league executives.

“Cade was tremendous all spring and summer,” Daniels said. “I think he was maybe the most impressive player throughout that time period. He’s incredibly versatile. He can play with the ball in his hands; he can play off of it. Although I think he’s most effective when he’s creating for others and facilitating — he can really pass. The other thing about Cade is he can guard, too. He’s an elite competitor. He moves well laterally. He can guard multiple spots.

“He just brings so much to the table across the board.”

This season, Cunningham will team up with fellow top-10 recruit Scottie Barnes — another UK target who Calipari checked in on Monday — as Montverde aims for a run at a high school national championship.

Cunningham’s recruitment will likely be finished before his senior season gets rolling.

He took his official visit to Oklahoma State this past weekend and has more recruiting trips scheduled to his other finalists over the next few weeks. The seven-day early signing period begins Nov. 13, and Cunningham is expected to make a college commitment official then.

A couple of hours after speaking to the Herald-Leader on Monday afternoon, Daniels changed his own Crystal Ball prediction from Oklahoma State to “undecided,” indicating a previously unexpected level of uncertainty in this recruitment.

“I think that North Carolina built a very strong relationship with him early on, and they’re certainly deep in there. And Kentucky is making a strong play at him, as well,” Daniels said. “Obviously, Florida and Washington are trying, too. It’s fascinating to me, because, historically, when a family member has been hired, that commitment follows suit. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.”

Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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