If there’s one thing that UK is known for in the John Calipari era, it’s the high-profile talent he lures to Lexington season after season.
Filled with four- and five-star players, these highly touted recruiting classes come to the Commonwealth to play for the Wildcats and prepare themselves for the next level inside Cal’s “NBA Draft Machine” of a program.
Each one comes with different strengths that they bring to the table, and it’s the coaching staff’s job to see where each of their pieces fit into the puzzle. Here’s what each newcomer needs to bring for this upcoming season:
The two-time First Team All PAC-12 power forward left Stanford for Kentucky over the summer, creating a situation that’s new in Coach Calipari’s time in Lexington. UK is used to bringing in the big-time young guys, but this is the first player to come here with the tenure in college basketball that he has. If there’s one thing he must bring to this group, it’s his experience and pure physicality.
At 19.5 ppg., 8.7 rpg. and 16 double-doubles, Travis is an accomplished beast in college. Kentucky’s best teams in this run have combined the influx of young talent with a handful of solid returning players, but Travis’ unmatched maturity will be invaluable for this team.
Baker was on the team last year, but he redshirted after a knee surgery, so many would classify him as a new addition. The 6-4 shooting guard from California may not have gotten to play, but he will have the advantage of having been with the team for a year in preparation, seeing how Coach Calipari runs things and how hard Kentucky’s schedule can be. As for what he brings, it’s obviously his shooting specialty.
Jemarl shot 44% from three as a junior and hit 94 threes as a senior in high school, so he is definitely a certified shooter. One thing past Kentucky teams have needed is shooting, and that’s the role Baker can play. He can make plays and facilitate with the ball in his hands, but I expect him to come off lots of screens and be spotting up for many shots around the arc where he can knock them down from deep range.
Ashton was committed to the Wildcats for next season as one of the top point guards in his class, but chose to reclassify and join this year’s squad instead. His biggest strengths are his physical tools in the form of his speed, quickness, and athleticism at his size from the point guard position (if you haven’t seen the video of him dunking on fellow Wildcat EJ Montgomery, look it up). He gets in the lane with ease and finishes well. Where he can make his mark, though, is on the defensive end.
In the Bahamas, he was picking up opposing guards full-court and forced some turnovers that led to buckets for he and his teammates on the fast-break. There are multiple scoring options on this team, so it’s hard to determine how many scoring opportunities he will get in the half-court offense. If that be the case, he can play the role as their best defender from the guard spot. If he uses his tools effectively on the defensive end, he gives himself and his teammates opportunities for run out plays in transition.
EJ remains a bit of a mystery to us because we only saw him play in Kentucky’s Bahamas trip for one game because of a lower back injury. In that singular appearance, EJ hit 4 of 6 shots to finish with 8 points and 6 rebounds. Something he can do is provide strong ball skills to the front court. I see PJ Washington and Reid Travis as bruisers in the paint. I see this in EJ Montgomery, but I also see a finesse and touch in his game that is an advantageous trait for a big man.
He can finish strong, but also has a soft touch, smooth jumper, and a solid passing game. Where he’ll be utilized best is at the free throw line and along the baseline. He gets the ball thrown into him, he surveys the defense and can decide whether to bull his way to a tough finish at the rim, shoot an easy fifteen foot jump shot or make a play for a teammate from the high post.
Kentucky was able to land Quickley, a consensus top three point guard in his class, relatively early in the recruiting process. Immanuel has gotten very familiar with Calipari as he got to play under him at the USA U19 World Cup Team in Cairo, Egypt. Quickley will have an opportunity to join the long-list of stud point guards at Kentucky, and I see a lot of Brandon Knight in his game.
What he needs to bring will be his play-making and shot creation, along with a little shot making of his own. During the Bahamas trip, Quickley averaged a line of 7 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists; what caught my eye, though, was his assist-turnover ratio at 18-2.
In his first time playing for Kentucky and against professional competition, that speaks volumes towards his ball protection and is relieving when we talk about a freshman point guard. The Maryland native also shot 42% from three in the Adidas Summer Championships and won the three-point contest at the McDonald’s All-American Game, so don’t be surprised or concerned when he hunts his own shot because that’s well within his arsenal.
Get used to the Tyler Herro-Devin Booker comparisons because they are coming and they will be echoed all season long. It can be seen in his long-list of high school tapes, where he averaged 33 points, and led the team in scoring at 17 ppg. during the Bahamas trip while coming off the bench (like Booker did in his Kentucky days). They call him “Boy Wonder” and this comes alive when he shoots the ball, which is exactly what he needs to bring to this group. It’s a killer instinct that’s bursting with confidence when he finds a shot, which is dangerous with a scorer of his caliber.
He hit threes, knocked down mid-range jumpers, and finished strong layups and dunks at the rim, so he has it all offensively. Herro will provide the scoring punch off the bench as the 6th man, and bench units should be put on notice now. As long as his defensive skills continue to grow to the college level, he’s going to be a high-impact player and one of the higher volume players in this group. Sorry not sorry, Wisconsin.
Johnson, the highest rated recruit from this Kentucky freshman class (#7 in the ESPN100), was still opening eyes and standing out throughout the week at this years McDonald’s All-American Game. The Oak Hill product averaged 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists as a senior, so the all-around talent is evident. Johnson is a high energy player, and this energy is what he needs to bring this season.
He made electric plays all trip long in the Bahamas and, as noticeable from the tape, he’s a bit of a trash talker on the floor. He will make a scoring impact as well because he was efficient all Bahamas long. He averaged 13 points on 52.5% from the field and 44.4% from three, which was very productive against pro-competition. His high-flying antics fired up the crowd and this team throughout the four games. If that’s the reaction of a small group of fans in Atlantis, imagine and buckle up for the reception in a sold-out Rupp Arena.