Sidelines with John Clay

With Nick Richards returning, attention turns to EJ Montgomery

Now we wait on EJ Montgomery.

Kentucky basketball received the answer to one of its two important remaining questions for next season when 6-foot-11 center Nick Richards announced Tuesday he is withdrawing from the NBA Draft and returning this fall for his junior season.

Now the spotlight shifts to Montgomery, the 6-10 forward from Florida, who has until Wednesday to decide whether he will return for his sophomore season or remain eligible for the 2019 NBA Draft to be held June 20 in Brooklyn.

Though many assumed both Richards and Montgomery would be on John Calipari’s roster for 2019-20, former UK star Tony Delk cast some serious doubt on that prospect when he told the Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton he expects Montgomery to keep his name in the draft.

“I think he’s staying in, just from what I’ve been hearing,” Delk said of Montgomery, who was scheduled to play in the BDA Pro Day in California on Tuesday. “He’s already had a couple of workouts with teams. So I guess he’s got some good reports from GMs.”

This despite the fact neither Montgomery nor Richards was invited to the G League Combine or the NBA Draft Combine that followed in Chicago. Nor has Montgomery’s name been a presence in the numerous mock drafts or top prospects lists.

Consider that in last season’s most important game, UK’s 77-71 overtime loss to Auburn in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region finals, Montgomery played a mere eight of 45 minutes. He grabbed one rebound and did not score. (Richards played one minute.)

Draft Express’s Jonathan Givony wrote last week of Montgomery: “The former top 10 recruit hasn’t gained much traction in the pre-draft process, not being invited to either combine in Chicago, and it would likely be helpful to return to Kentucky for this season and possibly beyond.”

Montgomery’s teammate PJ Washington demonstrated last year that a player can use a second year of college basketball to improve his draft stock. That doesn’t mean, however, that one size fits all. And given his obvious skills, Montgomery may decide that he would be better served improving his body (stronger) and his skills by playing somewhere professionally.

If that’s the case, then Richards’ decision to return becomes absolutely crucial. Without the Kingston, Jamaica, native, Nate Sestina would be the lone potential post player on John Calipari’s roster. The grad transfer from Bucknell did average 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds last season for the Patriot League team, but he’s seen as more of a stretch four (power forward) than a back-to-the-basket five (center).

Much of the rest of Calipari’s roster fits nicely into the position-less category. There’s Kahlil Whitney, a 6-6 small forward from New Jersey, ranked 11th in the class of 2019 by 247Sports. There’s Keion Brooks, a 6-7 small forward from Indiana, ranked 14th by 247Sports. There’s Johnny Juzang, the 6-6 small forward from California, ranked 30th by 247Sports after reclassifying into the class of 2019. And there’s Dontaie Allen, the 6-7 small forward from Pendleton County, coming off a torn ACL.

Richards has struggled his first two seasons at UK. He started in just three of 37 games last season, averaging 12.1 minutes per game. He started all 37 games and averaged 14.7 minutes per game as a freshman. After averaging 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds as a freshman, Richards averaged 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds last season.

But Richards is still relatively new to the game. And he’s shown enough flashes of potential in the past — 19 rebounds last season against Southern Illinois; 19 points at Vanderbilt; 15 rebounds against Arkansas — to make one believe he just needs experience to finally break through and be a consistent force.

If Montgomery returns and develops, the duo should play a huge role in a probable deep March run for UK next season. If Montgomery doesn’t return, Richards will get his chance to shine.

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