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Kentucky Wildcats Basketball: Stock Up, Stock Down

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A look at which Cats are trending up and who needs to step up.

NCAA Basketball: Troy at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The first five games of a player’s college career (or sophomore season) will, in the end, be a small chapter to a larger story. A season won’t be defined by how it starts. First impressions can be hard to shake, however, and each of the young Wildcats have altered their stock in some way — for better or for worse.

The couple of guys who have struggled out of the gate have plenty of time to turn things around. Nobody really knows how this team will end up, despite plenty of people writing them off after a rocky 4-1 start where they’ve shown no ability to consistently dominate lesser opponents. When it’s all said and done, there could be only a few players who leave for the draft, returning a strong foundation for another hopeful “super team.” It’s too early to say for sure, but let’s look at which Cats have helped (or hurt) their case.

Stock Up: Big Winners

Kevin Knox

Coach Cal had probably hoped that Knox would become the star of the team, and he has shown through five games that he’s up to the billing. Kentucky needs Knox to be a dynamic scorer who can get them a bucket when it’s most needed. Averaging 15.4 points per game and shooting over 40% from three, he looks to be a player that fits nicely with the direction that the NBA is trending to. Knox can be a mismatch wing who can stretch forwards out to the perimeter, while also use his size to overwhelm guards. He’s Kentucky’s best NBA prospect right now.

Prediction: One-and-done and lottery pick

Quade Green

There has been some disappointment regarding Green’s defensive (or lack thereof) performance so far through the season. Each game he seems a little better at containing his man to the perimeter, but it’s a work in progress. His ability to run an offense shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but his scoring ability? After a couple of games, Green has came into has own as a scoring threat and singlehandedly kept the Cats close in the first half against ETSU when everyone else sputtered through the gate. He’d like to improve his 2.6 assists per game (his calling in high school), but his 11.8 points per game have made up for it so far.

Prediction: Returns for sophomore season but squarely in the long-term NBA picture

Stock Up: Headed in Right Direction

Sacha Killeya-Jones

The sophomore has looked superior to his previous self in every single way this season. Where last year’s Sacha struggled to find a competitive energy on the glass, this year’s Sacha has been the second best rebounder on the team (of the main rotation) in terms of rebounds per 100 possessions. He’s flashed a pretty mid-range jumper and is finishing around the rim. SKJ is also blocking a shot-and-a-half per game, a product of his help-side activity on defense. He’s always been skilled, but now he’s playing with the effort needed to put everything together.

Prediction: Attends the NBA combine after the season, performs well causing rumors to circulate about his departure, but returns for a junior season

Hamidou Diallo

Diallo is what we thought he was. That isn’t to diminish him as a player; Diallo was a borderline top-10 recruit out of high school. He beats people to the basket with athleticism and toughness, competes on the glass and defensive end (10 rebounds Monday against Troy), and misses most of his jump shots. Diallo has shown glimpses of shooting potential, and NBA scouts usually view a jumper as one of the more fixable aspects of a player’s game. If all the other pieces are there, his draft stock will be fine and some team will try to mold him in the vision of a smaller, more athletic Kawhi Leonard.

Prediction: One-(and a half?)-and-done and first round pick

Troy v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Stock Down: Room to Improve

Shai Gilegous-Alexander

Shai has done a lot of things well this season. He’s been able to drive to the basket off of screens and finish with ease. He’s also the best perimeter defender on the Wildcats roster, by far, averaging 4.9 steals per 40 minutes (more than doubling the next best on the team). NBA scouts certainly love his tools and potential as a player. The problem with SGA right now is that he’s a basketball player and not a point guard. That can change, but he has one more turnover (17) than he does assists (16) through five games. Shai will have to improve at handling the ball and decision making if he wants to be a first round draft pick some day.

Prediction: Returns for sophomore season

Wenyen Gabriel

As Kentucky’s leading returning player (not saying much), Gabriel had high expectations this season. He hasn’t been bad this season—much better than last actually—but he hasn’t taken quite the step forward that some might have hoped. His biggest step forward has been on the defensive end, where he isn’t getting so easily blown past and has been the team’s best shot blocker. Gabriel is scoring at just a slightly higher pace than last season (15.5 points per 100 possesions compared to 13.9), but with less efficiency. His rebounding has stayed about the same, which is good considering there is more competition for rebounds this season. Gabriel still floats on offense hoping to get open three point attempts, and the NBA will want to see him show more ball skills if he’s to rise up the boards.

Prediction: Declares for the draft and is a late second round pick

Stock Down: Rough Start

PJ Washington

Watching the USA U19 World Cup team, Washington looked like he’d be the consistent heart of a talented but inexperienced Kentucky team. He’s known for playing with energy and toughness, rebounding, and scoring from the inside-out. So far, he’s only been consistent in turning the ball over (4.0 per game). Washington has been uncharacteristically passive on offense, looking kind of uninterested when he isn’t receiving the ball. When he’s at his best, he’s making opportunities for himself through hustle and offensive rebounding. Still, he’s shooting well from the field at 53.3%. I’m not worried about Washington in the long term; I think he is the third best player on the roster. That thing about first impressions, though? He has his work cut out for him if he wants to change that narrative.

Prediction: Tough guess, but returns for a sophomore season

NCAA Basketball: East Tennessee State at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Richards

With two pretty good games and three stinkers under his belt, Richards has been tough to figure out. The big man is rebounding well in the time he’s out there, but as a byproduct of his size and not necessarily his effort. He’s also committing 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes. He has some post potential, but isn’t playing the style of ball that would maximize his size and fluidity. Richards should play in the vein of a DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond. Not that he’s that good, but because they do things to help their teams that don’t require forced entry passes in post-up situations. It’s weird to me that we haven’t seen more put-back dunks or lob catches from him yet. Richards is still an NBA prospect because of his tools, but he lacks an understanding of the game that you might expect from someone who didn’t start hooping until high school.

Prediction: Returns for sophomore season