I know it's been three days. But yes, I'm still hurting, too. The good news about sports is the old adage: there's always next year. As has become the norm under head coach John Calipari, the Kentucky Wildcats won't be rebuilding, they'll be reloading. Kentucky will add four McDonald's All-Americans--Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, and Tyler Ulis--onto next year's roster.
I chatted recently with Jonathan Tjarks, a former SB Nation editor. He currently writes for RealGM and recently started his own blog, The Pattern of Basketball. He was fortunate enough to attend the McDonald's All-American game and its preceding practices, and I asked him a few questions about what he witnessed after scouting Kentucky's incoming class.
JC: Although Coach Cal brings in another bumper crop of McDonald's All-Americans, there isn't as much hype surrounding this year's class as there was last year's. However, you're on record stating that you think Kentucky's 2014 class might be even better than 2013's. Let's start with Karl Towns, who you state has a chance to be the #1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. What makes you think that, especially since he will be fighting for minutes at the 5 with (likely) returnees Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee?
JT: Towns is a tools guy - he probably has more pure tools than anyone who has come to Kentucky since Anthony Davis. He's a more complete big man than Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein or Nerlens Noel - Towns projects as a high-level player on offense and defense. He's so fluid he doesn't get enough credit for how athletic he is - this is a 7'0 250 guy who did a windmill blindfolded at the dunk contest. He may not be quite as athletic as Cauley-Stein or Noel, but he's on a whole different level in terms of shooting ability and feel for the game. I don't know what his production level is going to be in college given the number of big men Kentucky is bringing back, but I look at the draft more from a tools perspective.
JC: I thought Trey Lyles had a very quiet performance in the McDonald's All-American game, but he surprised me by ending the night with 8 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 assists in the box score. With Julius Randle the surest bet of the starting five to declare for the NBA Draft, how does Lyles fit on this team in tandem with Alex Poythress? How does Lyles' skill set differ from Randle's?
JT: For whatever reason, Lyles is the one guy I didn't get a great feel for his game in Chicago. I saw in the media guide he compared himself to a mix of Carmelo Anthony and Tim Duncan, which is probably a little ambitious. From what I did see, he seems more natural playing on the perimeter than Randle - I think that's going to be his main role next season, bringing his man out on the perimeter and opening up space for the other big men.
JC: Aside from Aaron Harrison's late game heroics in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky really struggled shooting the ball from the perimeter this year. scouting report pegs him as a dead-eye shooter, and he hit two of three 3-point attempts in the McDonald's All-American game. Will Booker provide that much needed shooting touch to next year's team? And if the Harrison twins leave (as currently projected), does Booker have enough of an all-around game to step in as a positively contributing starting 2 guard?
JT: Booker's shot certainly looked good in the practices - he was nailing 25-footers pretty easily, from what I can remember. How that translates over the course of the season, I don't know, but he certainly looked the part of a shooter. For the most part, it seemed like a down year for the wings in comparison to 2014, with more of the offense being run through the big men at the practices. It's hard for me to comment too much on Booker's all-around game - he should provide value as an athletic shooter either way.
JC: I was stoked by Tyler Ulis' performance in the McDonald's All-American game. He had just 5 points and 3 assists, but he penetrated into the paint at will, exhibited requisite peskiness on defense, and dished a few more nifty passes that ended in missed open looks. Obviously regarding Ulis, size is the biggest concern. Considering his skill set and stature, what does Ulis need to do to become Coach Cal's next great point guard?
JT: The comparison I heard a lot with Ulis was Ryan Boatright, another undersized guard from Chicago, although most people said Ulis was a little ahead of Boatright in terms of their all-around game at this stage in their careers. He did a decent enough job ball-pressuring in the practices, and that's something he's going to have bring to the table as a freshman, given his size. With small guards that's always the big concern - how they will hold up defensively. It's hard to see a scenario where he's a one-and-done player, but I was impressed with his all-around game. I think ideally at least one of the Harrisons would come back to take some of the pressure off Ulis as a freshman. It's not too different from last season - Kentucky has the big men, the question will be whether the guards can take care of the ball and spread the floor for them.
Many thanks to Jonathan for his answers.