The Kentucky Wildcats basketball team is in the Bahamas, ready for their 2018-19 preseason tune-up. The Cats will play four professional teams over the course of eight days in preparation of what Big Blue Nation hopes will be another championship year in the bluegrass.
As always, John Calipari has a loaded freshman class filled with talented, young stars. Add to that three returning sophomores from last year’s squad, and Coach Cal has the makings of a special team, primed for a shot at the National Championship.
Before the Cats tip off against the Bahama’s national team on Wednesday night, let’s take a look at the three Kentucky players that need to step up the most, and prove that they’re ready for the upcoming season.
1. Nick Richards, Sophomore, Center
When it comes to showing improvement, it should come as no shock to anyone in BBN that Nick Richards tops that list. Richards was quite the disappointment last season for the Wildcats. The former five-star recruit started every game for the Wildcats during the 2017-18 season, but averaged only 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
Richards, at 6’11”, is the tallest player on Kentucky’s squad for the second consecutive season. While size doesn’t always equal success in the game of basketball, it’s definitely a benefit. Richards appeared out of position multiple times and had several defensive lapses during the Wildcats’ struggles in conference play last season.
While Richards did start every game for Kentucky, he averaged less than 15 minutes per game, and over the Cats’ last 10 games of the season, he was virtually nonexistent, playing only 8.4 minutes and averaging 1.1 points per game.
Nick Richards needs to show growth from last season to where he is now. He constantly let balls slip through his hands, and appeared timid and lackadaisical at times throughout the season. Whether he starts or not is irrelevant, as are the number of minutes he plays during Kentucky’s time in Atlantis. The most telling aspect of Richards’ game would be his confidence.
If he’s strong with the ball, fights through contact and rotates on defense, that will be the improvement that Coach Cal is looking for. If Richards can provide UK with those types of intangibles, the stats will come, because he will no longer be a liability on the court.
2. Jemarl Baker, Redshirt Freshman, Guard
Jemarl Baker may be the forgotten man in Kentucky’s backcourt. So much focus has been given to five-star recruits Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Tyler Herro, that Baker seems to be lost in the shuffle.
Baker was sorely missed last season by the Wildcats. He came to campus with the reputation of being a knockdown three-point shooter, which is something Kentucky was lacking last season. The Cats launched only 546 three-pointers last season. That ranks near the bottom of the NCAA in three-point attempts.
The 546 attempts ranks 327th out of 351 Division-I schools in 2017-18. Their three-point makes aren’t much better at 195, which ranks 309th. Kentucky was 35.7% (136 in the NCAA) during the season and 33% (9th in the SEC) during conference play from behind the arc. That won’t get it done.
Baker, along with Herro and Quade Green, are probably Kentucky’s best perimeter threats this coming season. Baker is likely to be overshadowed by UK’s talented freshmen, so when he gets his opportunities to showcase his talents, he better make the most of them.
The problem is Baker has had some swelling in his knee recently and may not play in the Bahamas. If that happens, it would be a serious blow to his chances of cracking the rotation this coming season. He needs to show he can stay healthy and knock down shots for this team, or else he’ll be the 10th man for a team that has only 10 scholarship players.
3. Immanuel Quickley, Freshman, Guard
Immanuel Quickley was supposed to be in the mix for the starting point guard position this season at Kentucky. What a difference a year makes, huh? Quade Green returned for his sophomore season and Ashton Hagans, the No. 1 point guard prospect in the country, reclassified and joined the Wildcats this past spring.
That likely puts Quickley coming off the bench this season for the Wildcats, as Keldon Johnson, PJ Washington and either Reid Travis, Nick Richards or EJ Montgomery will fill out the starting lineup for Kentucky.
It will be interesting to see where Quickley fits in with this group of players. He has the physical tools (6’3”, 185-pounds) that coaches look for and should be solid on the defensive end with a 6’7” wingspan. He can knock down perimeter shots and is great in transition.
However, there are some holes in his game. Unlike last year’s freshman sensation Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Quickley is not very adept at finishing close to the rim. His game is much more perimeter-oriented. He’s also not necessarily a playmaking point guard in the form of Tyler Ulis.
Quickley appears to have the type of game where he does everything well, but nothing spectacular. He’ll be a player to watch during the Cats’ four-game stretch in the Bahamas, if for no other reason, to see where he fits with this year’s talented backcourt.