Editor’s note: With Ashton Hagans returning for his sophomore season, we decided to re-publish our breakdown of his breakout play in December.
It took 10 games for Kentucky to look like the team that many expected them to look like after their impressive Bahamas trip.
Instead, they were mollywhopped by Duke, struggled with Southern Illinois, almost lost to VMI (again) and lost to Seton Hall in Madison Square Garden in one of the best games of the young college hoop season.
But, Kentucky’s not the same team they were for any of those games for a number of reasons.
One of the main focal points of Kentucky’s turnaround in the last couple weeks that resulted in wins over North Carolina and
Little Brother Louisville? None other than Ashton Hagans.
Hagans provided quite the spark for the ‘Cats in the win over the Tar Heels in Chicago before Christmas, scoring seven points, grabbing four rebounds, dishing out three assists and swiping eight steals, tying a school record for a single game.
After his coming-out party against the Heels, Hagans followed that stellar performance up with an 11-point, three-assist, three-steal outing that saw the ‘Cats beat up on their rivals 80 miles west of Lexington for the 10th time in the last 12 overall meetings (even though one of those Louisville wins were vacated because you know, strippers, Rick Pitino and stuff).
It was PJ Washington and Reid Travis’ show against the Heels, but Hagans stole some headlines. Tyler Herro balled out against the Cards in his first Bluegrass showdown, but it was Hagans that remained a talking point afterwards because of his strong play.
This performance from Hagans was a bit different than the North Carolina victory. How so? Well, let’s take a look, shall we? Here’s a breakdown of some good (and bad) for Hagans in his second straight good performance for Kentucky.
It’s not just a Kentucky offensive look. If you can’t execute proper screen-and-roll looks in the half-court, you’re going to struggle during a basketball game in 2018 (and 2019 for that matter). Hagans did an excellent job in this screen-and-roll look with Reid Travis early on Saturday, rocking his defender to the right, crossing back over on his left hand, using the screen and delivering the proper (and pretty) pass back to Travis for an easy deuce.
When I watched this back, this play made me make a note to myself that said: “This is when Kentucky’s at their best.”
And, it is.
When Kentucky forces turnovers, gets out and run and everyone not only fills their lanes, but makes themselves available for a pass/lob, good things are going to happen.
PJ Washington had a fantastic game on Saturday, specifically on the defensive end, which got him going with some offensive activity also. He makes the strip here, finds his guard in Hagans, runs the floor and Hagans does an excellent job seeing the big fella fill the lane, which is rewarded with a perfect lob from Hagans to Washington for a big alley-oop slam.
This may not seem like much to many, especially less than three minutes to the game, but this right here helped set the tone for things to come. (I’ll elaborate on this a little later, too.)
In the last two games, Hagans has made life absolutely miserable for opposing guards and that includes before they even bring the ball up into the half-court.
Christen Cunningham found that out the hard way with Hagans on him like white on rice. Hagans is going to be such a pest for guards and that plays into Kentucky’s hands because as we found out later in the game, he’s going to frustrate guys when he’s engaged and making plays.
Saturday was the most aggressive that Hagans looked with the ball in his hands and this was one example of that. Hagans saw chopped liver in the form of Ryan McMahon and saw red (literally), which led to him drawing a foul call. This kind of aggressiveness will get him into trouble at times, but when you have a matchup in transition like this one, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. It’s smart basketball.
With Hagans, you’re going to get some good and some bad. It just comes with the territory of a player that plays as hard as he does.
The good: Hagans picks off a bad pass and quickly looks to turn defense to offense in transition.
The bad: Everything’s moving so fast (like him), but a bounce pass might not have been the best option, especially to a big man (Washington) running the floor. It’s not always the easiest pass for them to catch.
Hagans made a freshman mistake that led to an easy layup for the Cards during the second half. Putting him on the inbounder with his lengthy and craziness when guarding is perfectly fine, but on a (B)ase(L)ine (O)ut of (B)ounds set like this, you can’t give up the middle and that’s exactly what Hagans did here. It happens, but it can’t happen all the time, especially in big games.
Despite some mistakes, including one that sent John Calipari into a frenzy later, there’s plenty of things you gotta love about Hagans if you’re a member of Big Blue Nation watching this team, including him hitting perimeter jumpers.
This one in particular was massive. There’s a little over nine minutes to play in a nine-point game for Kentucky on the road against their biggest rival and the crowd was working their way back into the contest on a 7-0 run after Kentucky led by 15 points a couple minutes prior.
Hagans couldn’t get this jumper to fall from virtually the same exact spot as the previous one, but what he does next was just ridiculous.
Granted, this was just a lazy pass, but Hagans just snatched the ball out of midair like an adult grabbing a shot from an infant when they’re shooting on a rim in the driveway. Hagans might not be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in terms of his offense yet, but he certainly has the length.
(Bilas compared Hagans’ recent breakout to SGA’s last season and it makes sense when you think about it in the grand scheme of things. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to become a lottery pick, but you never know.)
This play right here with Kentucky standing on Louisville’s throats down the final stretch of the game was just one of those plays where you go, “Ohhhhhhhh!”
A little inside-out dribble, drive right past Cunningham and lay it off the glass without a worry in the world, which could sum up much of Kentucky’s day on Saturday.
On the very next possession, Hagans takes a Travis screen and this left-handed finish got everyone to realize that it was just Hagans’ day. What a finish with the left hand with a bit of contact.
And just for good measure, Hagans sends the Louisville crowd home even more pissed when he stole an inbound pass and threw the L’s down, making him a Kentucky legend and he’s only three months into his freshman season.
Side bar: These are the custom Kobe kicks that Hagans wore before the officials made him change them. If you didn’t catch the details, the shoestrings have the eight years where Kentucky won national titles, the words “NO MERCY”, the UK logo and L’s down on the shoe’s tongues. What a pair of shoes. Fantastic.