UK Recruiting

Kentucky target makes case for No. 1 ranking (and other basketball recruiting notes)

It was difficult to ignore Jabari Smith at USA Basketball minicamp.

The 16-year-old power forward — a top-five recruit in the 2021 class — did a little bit of everything on the court, earning public praise from the recruiting analysts in attendance and raised eyebrows from the NBA scouts who showed up for the last two days of camp in Colorado Springs, Colo, recently.

“I thought he was tremendous,” 247Sports national analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “Honestly, it’s as well as I’ve seen him play. He was active. He was aggressive. He was a confident shooter, and he scored it around the goal. He protected the rim. He rebounded. He rim-ran. There wasn’t much he didn’t do.”

Daniels placed Smith — the No. 5 overall player in the 247Sports composite rankings — among his 10 top standouts at the USA camp, which attracted dozens of the best high school prospects from around the country.

Smith’s continued progression on the court could lead to an even higher ranking in the future.

“I thought he put himself in the conversation for a guy that could be considered the No. 1 player in the class one day,” Daniels said. “There’s obviously some really good guys at the top, but … he made a lasting impact.”

Smith — from Tyrone, Ga. — emerged as a Kentucky recruiting target over the summer and hosted UK assistant coach Joel Justus for a recruiting visit this fall. Louisiana State, where his father once played, has been seen as a possible early favorite, and Smith also listed Auburn, Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and Mississippi as programs that have made him a major priority this fall.

Kentucky is expected to ramp up its interest as the 2021 recruiting cycle continues, however, and Smith sounds interested.

“You always gotta consider Kentucky — a blue blood,” he told the Herald-Leader. “They’ve sent a number of guys to the NBA. They’re up there with the most players in the NBA. They’re known for developing guys, known for making guys better. That’s a good program.”

Though he’s already established himself as one of the best current players in the 2021 class, Smith retains high upside, and his versatile game seems perfectly suited for the evolving “4” position.

He doesn’t turn 17 years old until next May, making him young for his class. He also continues to grow. Listed at 6-8 and 190 pounds on the USA Basketball roster at the camp, Smith is probably closer to 6-10. He has grown at least an inch since July.

“He’s been on a steady climb,” Daniels said. “His game has grown. Physically, he’s grown. And his skill set has gotten better. So, all the way around, he’s continuing to progress — and progress at a good rate. And he might not be done growing. His dad is every bit of 6-10, so there’s a lot to like there.”

Devin Askew fan

Count the father of five-star recruit Greg Brown among those enamored with point guard Devin Askew’s playing style.

Greg Brown II — a former NFL linebacker — told the Herald-Leader during the camp that his son — a top-10 recruit in the 2020 class — will hold off on a college decision until the spring. A major part of their decision-making process will revolve around what rosters look like after this upcoming season. The 6-foot-9 forward has narrowed his choices to Kentucky, Auburn, Memphis, North Carolina and Texas, the hometown school.

“Another huge thing is guard play,” Brown II said. “We want to play with some guards who can move the ball around a little bit and don’t have to shoot it every time they touch it. That means a lot to us as well. You know as well as I know: you’re only as good as your guards.”

Brown and top UK target Cade Cunningham — the No. 1 point guard in the 2020 class — were Nike league teammates this past summer, and Brown and his father spoke highly of Cunningham’s game and leadership skills.

While Brown II was talking about Cunningham at the USA Basketball minicamp, he noticed Askew sitting a few feet away, and nodded in his direction.

“Devin Askew is another guy that we love — very unselfish player that plays well,” he said.

UK could have both Cunningham and Askew on next season’s team.

Askew announced his commitment to Kentucky last week, and he’s leaving open the possibility of a reclassification to 2020.

Cunningham is expected to announce a college decision in the next couple of weeks, and UK and Oklahoma State are considered the favorites in his recruitment.


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Recruit vs. Steph Curry

The most viral moment on the recruiting trail this summer might have been when 7-footer Chet Holmgren crossed up NBA star Steph Curry at his own camp, then drove past him for a two-handed dunk.

Two separate videos featuring the move have a combined total of more than 1 million views on YouTube over the past couple of months.

“It got a lot of attention,” Holmgren told the Herald-Leader. “It’s like every kid’s dream to play against Steph Curry and play well. But I try not to think about it too much. It’s just one play. It doesn’t define my career. It doesn’t define who I am as a basketball player. … I’m not focused on it too much.”

How did Curry react?

“He was super cool about it. He’s a super cool dude,” Holmgren said. “There probably aren’t many people that are more genuine of a human being than he is.”

The 17-year-old recruit said he was getting his photo with Curry after the scrimmage, and the Golden State Warriors star gave him a big smile. “You got me on that one!” Curry told him.

Holmgren — a top-five recruit in the 2021 class — smiled at the memory.

“But then he came right back down at got me on the next play,” he said.

Rival recruits

There were plenty of Kentucky recruiting targets at the USA Basketball minicamp in Colorado Springs, but the prospective Wildcats weren’t the only ones turning heads.

A couple of highly touted players in the class of 2020 that will be playing for two of UK’s traditional rivals were among the standouts at USA camp.

Tennessee commitment Keon Johnson — a 6-foot-4 guard from Bell Buckle, Tenn. — was particularly impressive.

Johnson has elite athleticism, which he showed off several times in the scrimmage portion of the camp — flying high for dunks, rebounds and blocked shots against bigger opponents. He also displayed a good shooting touch from outside and projects as a high-level perimeter defender at the next level.

Kentucky fans will probably hope that he only sticks with the Volunteers for one season before heading off to the NBA, because he’s likely to give the Cats fits next year. ESPN projects Johnson to be the No. 13 overall pick in the 2021 draft, placing his future stock ahead of his current recruiting ranking: No. 23 in the class of 2020.

North Carolina commitment Day’Ron Sharpe was equally as impressive, in a much different way.

Listed at 6-10 and 246 pounds, Sharpe was one of the biggest prospects at the USA camp, and he played like it. The Greenville, N.C., native — who is teammates with Cade Cunningham at Montverde (Fla.) Academy — was an imposing force in the paint, snatching up rebounds, throwing down dunks, and contesting shots at a high level.

Sharpe’s combined talent and motor make him a handful at the high school level, and that should translate well to college, where few opposing teams will have an answer for his size and ability in the post.

ESPN had multiple NBA Draft analysts in Colorado Springs, but Sharpe did not make the website’s 2021 mock draft, which was released after the camp. Kentucky could be seeing him on the other side of the court in the future, possibly in a postseason situation.


Georgetown College at Kentucky

What: Preseason exhibition game

When: 5 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

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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