John Clay

Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans puts the pressure squarely on himself

Get one thing straight: Ashton Hagans isn’t returning for his sophomore season just to return for his sophomore season.

“We’re going to have some great memories on the court,” Kentucky’s point guard predicted Friday. “Might be one of the best backcourts that you all ever see.”

To that we say this: Whoa!

“Ashton’s putting the pressure on,” said a smiling Immanuel Quickley, Hagans’ running mate, also back for his sophomore season.

Fact is, head coach John Calipari raised the bar during his annual state-of-the-program summer press conference Tuesday, flatly predicting Hagans “will have a breakthrough this year.”

“I feel real good about it,” said Hagans when asked about Calipari’s proclamation. “I’m just here to work.”

In the middle of last season it looked like young Mr. Hagans was already experiencing his breakthrough. He was disruptive defensively, causing havoc with his ball pressure, pulling off a ridiculous 26 steals in a stretch of six games. Offensively, he reached double figures in five consecutive games, culminating in a 23-point homecoming effort at Georgia.

Down the stretch, however, the player who re-classified to get a head start on his college career clearly hit a wall. Opponents were more careful with the ball around him, limiting Hagans’ steal opportunities. He had trouble finishing at the rim. He three-point shot never developed — he made just 27.5 percent of his threes on the season. He was too loose with the ball, credited with just five assists compared to 11 turnovers in UK’s two games in the Midwest Regional in Kansas City. In fact, after committing seven turnovers in the Cats’ Elite Eight overtime loss to Auburn, Hagans took the blame for the defeat. “I let the team down,” he said.

So when NBA Draft decision time rolled around, Hagans dispensed with the drama early. He talked with his family, his coaches, and declared himself a no-go. “I didn’t want the stress,” he said Friday, explaining he didn’t need pro scout evaluations when he trusted the opinions of his own coaches.

“Now that I know what to do,” he said, “I’ve just got to come in there and show the guys that I’m ready to be leader.”

What does he need to do? Get stronger, Hagans said. Work on being better around the basket. Get more explosive. Work on his outside shot. Show his leadership skills. He’ll get plenty of help with all that, of course, in the form of Craft Center competition. This is Kentucky, after all. New guys are always arriving at the station. Talented guys.

Tyrese Maxey is one. He’s a 6-foot-3 combo guard from Garland, Texas, who at No. 10 boasts the highest ranking on the 247Sports board of any of UK’s 2019-20 freshmen. “He’s a real good guard,” Hagans said. “Gonna be a nice guy to play with.”

How do your games complement each other?

“Tyrese does a lot with his game,” Hagans said. “I feel like I can do the same. He plays defense. That’s just something that’s going to be a scary sight for other teams. We’re just ready to go out and play with each other.”

So your “one of the best backcourts” comment was based on your combined defensive skills?

“We gonna see,” Hagans said.

Hagans and Quickley aren’t Cal’s only returnees. Last week’s local headlines revolved around Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery pulling their names out of draft consideration for a return to campus life. “My eyes got big,” said Hagans of when he first heard the big men were coming back.

Nor is Maxey UK’s only newbie. Fellow freshmen Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks, Johnny Juzang and Dontaie Allen are all big guard/small forward types who should allow Calipari plenty of mix-and-match flexibility. And at 6-9, grad transfer Nate Sestina from Bucknell can be a power forward who can shoot.

“Talent-wise I think we’ve got pieces,” Hagans said, “and we’re gonna do something real special.”

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