If there were a revolving door attached to an entrance to the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball program, it would have been whirling like a funnel cloud these past days.
The churn of players leaving and joining John Calipari’s 2018-19 roster has accelerated to a rapid pace:
Out: Forward Kevin Knox announced Friday he was turning pro.
In: Five-star forward EJ Montgomery, a 6-foot-11, five-star recruit from Marietta, Ga., announced Monday morning he had verbally committed to UK.
Out: Junior-to-be big man Sacha Killeya-Jones announced via Twitter on Monday afternoon that he planned to transfer from Kentucky.
Out: Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander announced on ESPN early Monday evening that he, too, is entering the NBA Draft.
In (potentially): If the recruiting geeks are right, UK will soon be getting a commitment from five-star point guard Ashton Hagans, a 6-4, five-star prospect, from Covington, Ga. The recruiting nerds believe Hagans, currently a class of 2019 prospect, will “re-classify” to 2018 and join the college of his choice next season.
At a time where the past three NCAA championships have been claimed by teams built around experienced players, what should we make of UK’s ever-churning roster?
Players leaving Kentucky to become first-round NBA draft picks — as Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander are all but certain to do — are not what keeps UK from from building a veteran core of capable college players of the type that have helped Villanova, North Carolina and Villanova, respectively, claim the last three NCAA titles
What hurts Kentucky are the departures of quality college players with remaining eligibility but no immediate path to the NBA who leave UK early anyway.
The 6-10 Killeya-Jones is the latest to join that growing list.
Now, Killeya-Jones has joined little-used sophomore forward Tai Wynyard in announcing plans to transfer from Kentucky since the end of the past season.
In the current era of college basketball, players leave schools early everywhere. Because UK has become so associated with being the quickest route to the NBA, however, the peer pressure to depart Kentucky early in a college career seems acute.
Since Calipari came to Kentucky, 19 Wildcats have been one-and-done freshmen taken in the first round of NBA drafts (that does not count Enes Kanter, who never played for UK).
Overall, 30 Calipari-era Kentucky players have been taken in NBA drafts. All but two of those, Josh Harrellson in 2011 and Darius Miller in 2012, had remaining college eligibility at the time they where chosen.
All that success sending players to the NBA helps Kentucky lure a constant stream of high-profile recruits as replacements for the departing pros. That’s a good thing, but it also means the rewards of staying in the UK program as a multiseason player are not the same as they are at other schools.
Matthews spent his freshman year playing 10.3 minutes a game behind a five-star Kentucky backcourt of Briscoe, Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. The Cats signed five-star guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox for the following season. So Matthews departed, ultimately, to develop into a standout this season at Michigan.
Briscoe never got to play his best position at Kentucky, point guard, because UK had more-skilled lead guards in Ulis and then Fox. Had Briscoe stayed beyond his sophomore year, there was no certainty he would have had a shot to run point.
Instead, he spent what would have been his junior year playing pro hoops in Estonia.
In the NCAA Tournament of their sophomore seasons, career backups Humphries (against North Carolina in 2017) and Killeya-Jones (Davidson this past year) both showed promise of a career breakthrough. Yet rather than stay at Kentucky and try to develop, each departed with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
Humphries played professionally this past season in Australia.
Killeya-Jones’ future college destination is unclear.
What is clear is that the dynamics of how Kentucky’s program operates make the idea of ever building a Villanova-style core of capable veterans at UK complex, maybe impossible.