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Kentucky Basketball Preview: EJ Montgomery ready to make his mark in loaded frontcourt

Kentucky has one of the best front-courts in America and EJ Montgomery is a major reason why.

Drew Brown - A Sea of Blue

Who are we talking about?

EJ Montgomery, Power Forward, Freshman

There is absolutely no debate that Kentucky will boast one of the most talented front-courts in all of college basketball this season. Not only will the Cats be loaded with skilled bigs but the 2018-2019 squad will also even have some rare experience at it’s disposal.

Reid Travis, Nick Richards, and P.J. Washington all have logged meaningful division 1 minutes in their careers. Travis playing at Stanford for 4 years, with Richards and Washington returning to UK for their sophomore seasons.

With all of that star power in the paint it can be somewhat easy to forget about 6’10 freshman power forward EJ Montgomery. Back spasms sidelined Montgomery for most of the Big Blue Bahamas trip, creating a missed opportunity for fans to get an idea of who he is as a player. He did score 8 points and grab 6 rebounds in only 19 total minutes of play against the Bahamas National Team before missing the final three games because of the minor back injury.

The solid play of the other three bigs during the trip left very little to be desired, so the thought of adding yet another NBA type talent to an already loaded front-court gives you an idea of just how good Kentucky can be this season. Montgomery even has the versatility to potentially play the 3 spot for UK, which would open the door for Coach Calipari to play him alongside two other power forwards.

Can you imagine trying to block out a line up that included EJ Montgomery, P.J. Washington and Reid Travis all on the floor at the same time?

Where did he come from?

Even more great news for UK is that EJ Montgomery is no stranger to playing with other gifted players. As a matter of fact, he has played for some of the nation’s best high school programs and was even teammates with Ben Simmons at one point before finally making his way to Lexington.

Montgomery is originally from Fort Pierce, Florida and his real name is actually, Efrem, but he goes by E.J. It comes to no surprise that Montgomery comes from athletic blood lines, both of his parents and two sisters played college basketball. He began is high school career at Lincoln Park Academy before transferring to powerhouse Montverde Academy where he was coached by one of the nations best, Kevin Boyle.

If you are a basketball fan, you should really take some time and learn about the Montverde program. I will go as far to say that it’s the closest thing to Kentucky at the high school level and that their head coach, Kevin Boyle, is the closest high school equivalent to John Calipari.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dakari Johnson, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, R.J. Barrett, and DeAngelo Russell are just a few players who have played under coach Kevin Boyle. As you can imagine, not only has Montverde produced some incredible players but they have also built a dynasty program.

EJ Montgomery won the 2015 Dick’s High School National Championship while a freshman at Montverde, the same year that he was teammates with Ben Simmons. I had the chance to see his Montverde team play in 2015 and vividly remember how I could not believe that Montgomery was only a freshman based off his length and ability to play at such a high level only being in 9th grade.

After three years playing at Montverde, Montgomery elected to transfer to Wheeler in Marietta, GA for his senior year, the same school that Jaylen Brown attended. Montgomery thrived in his one season at Wheeler where averaged 25.6 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game earning him 5 star status and a McDonald’s All-American selection.

Along with winning a high school national championship he was also named first team all state and Florida player of the year during his decorated high school career.

Ben Simmons and EJ Montgomery pose for a team photo in 2014 while teammates at Montverde Academy

EJ Montgomery has been conditioned to fit right in right away at Kentucky. Unlike many other kids his age he does have experience practicing against similarly talented players and also knows what it takes to win championships. I am a big Kevin Boyle fan and firmly believe that Montgomery’s time spent under Boyle will tremendously help him transition into SEC basketball and eventually the NBA.

At Kentucky Basketball Media Day, I was able to ask EJ Montgomery how playing at Montverde compares to his time in Lexington so far. He wasted no time by saying there is nothing that measures up to the University of Kentucky.

“Um, (big smile) I wouldn’t compare anything to Kentucky. We really work hard over here. Not to say that Montverde doesn’t, we work hard there, but Kentucky is another level.” Montgomery told me.

It is always great when Kentucky signs a player from an elite program like Montverde, Oak Hill, or Findlay Prep. It’s usually evident that those players have already been integrated into the lifestyle of a college athlete before they even arrive on campus.

The travel, off-site schooling, and practice schedule should be something they are already accustom to. I expect Montgomery’s background to serve him well in his freshman season at Kentucky.

EJ could have been a Blue Devil

Coach Cal has pulled off some improbable commitments and EJ Montgomery is a another great example. He was believed to be a heavy Duke lean, so much so that his final 247 crystal ball predictions had an overwhelming 82% of the picks siding with the Blue Devils.

There was always a glimmer of hope that Calipari would work his magic and get Montgomery to commit, but I most people believed it be a long shot. There were also rumors that Montgomery possibly didn’t get have the best experience with the Duke commits at the McDonald’s All-America game.

TJ Walker from Kentucky Sports Radio reported that there was potentially some tension between the Kentucky guys and Duke guys at the event, and seemingly Montgomery sided with UK.

During an one on one interview at the Joe Craft Center, Walker asked Montgomery if there was any truths to this theory. After some tugging for a response, Montgomery reluctantly said this:

“Nothing happened, I had fun at McDonald’s All-American. There was nothing that happened. It was a regular McDonald’s All-American game.” he said uncomfortably while laughing and looking away.

There clearly was part of the story that was being left unsaid. But if it got EJ Montgomery to Kentucky than I can be spared the details. Besides, who doesn’t want a little Kentucky/Duke beef?

You can check out TJ Walker’s full interview here.

What type of player is Montgomery?

With only 19 total minutes logged on the Big Blue Bahamas tour it left fans with more questions than answers about Montgomery’s style of play and tendencies on the court. So what type of player is EJ Montgomery?

In April of 2017, he was asked by USA Basketball who his game compared most to. Montgomery’s response was NBA superstar and Golden State Warrior, Kevin Durant. From a length and versatility standpoint I believe that to be accurate, although Montgomery is left-handed.

Not many people in the world can shoot the basketball like Kevin Durant, but Montgomery does have the ability to knock down an outside shot with his shot left-handed release. I would especially keep an eye on him inbounding the ball this season and trailing the play for an open three at the top of the key. He can dribble well for a guy that is 6-10, but I wouldn’t expect to see him get much action as a primary ball-handler or anything.

Montgomery’s biggest strength will be hitting the offensive glass and playing with his back to the basket from 8 feet and in. Watching tape of him in high school it became clear that Montgomery is lethal with a jump hook around the paint, he is just so long that it is tough for opposing players to contest. He also demonstrates his athleticism by being able to contort his body when attacking the basket in traffic. I do not expect him to have many shots blocked this season for that reason.

In summary, there is not a lot, if anything, that Montgomery cannot do on a basketball court. In addition to all of his great offensive capabilities he should also be able to guard all 5 positions on the floor at any given time. This will really allow Coach Cal a chance to experiment with lineups, knowing that when Montgomery is in the game, he can switch all screens and not have to worry about a guard blowing by for an easy layup.

It may take him a while to understand all of the principles of defense at the college level. One opportunity for EJ to improve will be adding consistency to his motor and intensity. At times he can play a bit “sleepy” and seemingly with less than 100% of his energy. With Kentucky being loaded at Montgomery’s position I wouldn’t expect this to be a problem if he wants to play, and I know he does.

EJ Montgomery may have a higher ceiling than other player on the roster for 2018-2019. He is the type of guy that Coach Calipari will not have to run any plays for, except maybe the occasional back-door lob. Montgomery will thrive on the offensive glass and cleaning up around the rim. He has a wiry frame and can get off of the floor very quickly.

At 6’10 and only 225 pounds it will be a priority to put on some muscle during his time at Kentucky. I am confident that strength coach, Rob Harris, is already executing a plan to help Montgomery put on some weight. John Calipari has mentioned that he is looking for this team to start blocking more shots, Cal has said that all of his best teams block a ton of shots and for this team to be great they must improve in that area.

Montgomery can absolutely be a player that steps up and can get the Cats a block a game, possibly more. He even has the ability to lead the team in blocks depending on how many minutes he earns in the rotation.

Here are the teams measurements from October 7th’s Pro Day, including EJ Montgomery. As you can see he is the second tallest player on the team and also boasts one of the longest reaches.

Make no mistake about it, EJ Montgomery, is talented enough to be a lottery pick one day. He has the size and skill to make an impact in every facet of a basketball game. I would not be surprised to see him start this season and average nearly a double double.

With all of Kentucky’s talent on offense it will be tough for opponents to focus on one player, I expect Montgomery to live on the offensive glass and keep possessions alive for the Cats. He may not stand out quite like Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, and others but he will be a crucial piece for Kentucky on their quest to #9.