John Clay

With late push, John Calipari has Kentucky basketball loaded again

The key is to keep knocking on that door. Sometimes, as it did for four of John Calipari’s first six years as Kentucky’s basketball coach, the door opens to a Final Four and possible national title. Sometimes, as it has the past four years, the door remains locked. Still, you’ve gotta keep knocking.

Next year, Kentucky will be knocking again. Friday all but made it so. Johnny Juzang, a 6-foot-6 wing from the Los Angeles area signed with UK just three weeks after Calipari made his in-home visit and Juzang announced his intention to re-classify in order to play the 2019-20 season.

A four-star prospect — Juzang had been rated as a five-star in the class of 2020 before he re-classified — the 6-foot-6 scorer pushed the Cats back to the top spot in 247Sports recruiting rankings for the class of 2019, the seventh time in 11 years Calipari has claimed the top spot.

Having four players in the top 35, plus one just outside the top 100 will do that for you. Let’s call the roll: No. 10 Tyrese Maxey, 6-3 guard from Texas; No. 12 Kahlil Whitney, 6-6 wing from New Jersey; No. 23 Keion Brooks, 6-7 forward from Indiana; No. 32 Juzang from California; No. 103 Allen, the 6-6 wing from Pendleton County.

And how about a fifth player in the top 30? Well that could be Jaden McDaniels, the 6-10 power forward from Federal Way, Wash., who reportedly is now leaning toward the Cats and could announce his decision this week. Holding the No. 8 spot on 247Sports’ board, McDaniels would be Kentucky’s highest-ranked freshman if he indeed signs with UK.

It’s another stirring comeback for Calipari, who hit a couple of early bumps in the recruiting road when No. 1 prospect James Wiseman and former UK commit DJ Jeffries picked Memphis. Duke swept up Vernon Carey, the 6-10 center from Miami, and Matthew Hurt, the 6-9 forward from Minnesota, after both considered the Cats.

Then when former UK freshmen Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro both surprisingly announced they would remain in the NBA Draft — you expected one to go, but not both — the Cats were slipping in those meaningless but entertaining way-too-early preseason rankings for the next campaign.

Problem solved. On the assumption that McDaniels joins the party, CBS Sports Gary Parrish has moved UK up to No. 3 in his preseason rankings behind Michigan State and Duke and ahead of Louisville and Kansas. And why not? Calipari now has (potentially) five highly rated freshmen and walk-on Brennan Canada, plus 6-9 graduate transfer Nate Sestina, to go with holdovers Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards.

We know, Montgomery and Richards have both put their names into the draft. Yet surely both did so to gather NBA intel for future decision-making situations. Neither was among the 66 names invited to this week’s NBA Combine in Chicago. Both would be greater served by returning to school for another year of development with the added bonus of being a part of something special.

That’s where Juzang’s worldwide recruitment and signing comes into play. He’s a shooter who, in Calipari’s words, can “score the basketball.” And mainly because of Johnson and Herro moving on, Kentucky is losing 73 percent (158) of its 215 made three-pointers from last season.

“Had Johnny Juzang at Adidas Hoops All-American Camp,” former Virginia Tech coach and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg tweeted Friday. “He took no plays off. We had three sessions of sill and concept work and he was like a sponge. Skilled with incredible passion for getting better.”

Yes, same as ever under Calipari, Kentucky will be a team that relies heavily on rookies in 2019-20. And, same as ever, it will be a terribly talented team that come March should once again be knocking on that door.

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