Sidelines with John Clay

The one player Kentucky basketball needed to return is returning

Going strictly by the numbers, Kentucky basketball went 1-for-3 Wednesday night. Actually, the Cats did much, much better than that.

The player they most needed to yank his name from the NBA draft list and return for the 2018-19 college campaign did exactly that when sophomore-to-be PJ Washington posted to Instagram and Twitter a celebration video with the happy inscription of “I’m back.”

Teammates Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt chose different paths. Gabriel, a rising junior, and Vanderbilt, a sophomore-to-be, indicated their UK days are done despite the fact their chances of being selected come June 21 are iffy at best.

In fact, the 6-foot-7 Washington, who averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds a game last season, had a much better chance of hearing his name called. Yet the Texan had indicated that without a strong feeling he would be a first-round selection, he would return to Lexington for another year of John Calipari’s coaching. Despite Washington’s impressive showing at the NBA Draft Combine a couple of weeks back, no first-round guarantees surfaced. And PJ proved true to his word.

Washington’s announcement came after the unexpected news flash that star Stanford forward Reid Travis would not just withdraw his name from the draft but leave The Cardinal as a graduate transfer. And Kentucky is the favorite for his services.

The 6-foot-8 Reid averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds for Stanford a season ago. A native of Minneapolis, he chose Stanford over Duke in 2014 when Johnny Dawkins was The Cardinal coach. After averaging 6.2 points as a freshman, Travis received a medical redshirt when an injury ended his 2015-16 season after eight games. He averaged 17.4 points and 8.9 rebounds in 2016-17.

[Kentucky basketball 2017-18 individual game-by-game stats]

Adding the talented Travis would solidify a Cat frontcourt that will also welcome E.J. Montgomery, a highly-regarded freshman power forward/center who had committed to Auburn before reopening his recruitment and pledging this allegiance to Kentucky. More of a low-post player, Montgomery’s presence should allow Washington to expand his game. With freshman center Nick Richards slow to develop last year, Washington was forced to play closer to the basket as UK’s five-man when Calipari opted for a smaller lineup. Montgomery, an improved Richards, and the possible addition of Travis, should allow Washington to polish his perimeter skills.

Meanwhile, the career decisions made by Gabriel and Vanderbilt were hardly total surprises. Even if they returned to campus, both faced uncertain futures.

Gabriel would have been fighting for playing time next season. He seemed eager to get to his next chapter, even if that means starting his professional aspirations overseas. Vanderbilt clinched the title as the most mysterious and fleeting presence of the Calipari Era. A foot injury delayed his college debut until mid-January. An ankle injury scrapped his entire post-season and kept him from participating in the NBA Combine. He (and his advisors) apparently concluded he couldn’t take the chance of returning to Lexington only to be injured again.

The final head count shows Kentucky losing seven players off last season’s Sweet 16 team – Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Gabriel and Vanderbilt, plus transfers Sacha Killeya-Jones (North Carolina State) and Tai Wynyard (Santa Clara).

Four scholarship players are returning – Washington, Richards, Quade Green and Jemarl Baker. Washngton, Richards and Green all started games last season. Baker has yet to play at UK, however, after sitting out last season thanks to two knee surgeries.

[UK basketball recruiting news and links at Next Cats]

Then there is Calipari’s usual group of highly-regarded freshman recruits – Montgomery, Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and the distinct possibility that Class of 2019 commit Ashton Hagans will reclassify this summer and join the 2018-19 Cats in the fall. Rivals rankings: the 6-10 Montgomery is at No. 19; the 6-6 Johnson is at No. 13; the 6-4 Quickley is at No. 20; the 6-5 Herro is at No. 34.

The possible Travis addition prompted plenty of speculation Wednesday the Cats could find themselves as national championship favorites. For that to be true, however, one piece had to fall into place.

With Washington’s announcement, it did.

Kentucky basketball roster 2018-19

Jemarl Baker6.04So

Brad Calipari6.00Jr0.30.20.1
Jonny David6.02Sr000
Tyler Herro6.05Fr

Quade Green6.00So9.31.82.7
Keldon Johnson6.06Fr

EJ Montgomery6.10Fr

Zan Payne6.05Fr

Immanuel Quickley6.03Fr

Nick Richards6.11So5.14.40.2
PJ Washington6.07So10.85.71.5
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