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Kentucky Basketball Preview: Will EJ Montgomery have his breakout in Year 2?

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Despite seeing limited time on the floor during his freshman season, EJ Montgomery is set up to have an uptick in playing time and production.

North Carolina-Greensboro v Kentucky

EJ Montgomery

  • Position: Power forward
  • Class: Sophomore
  • Measurements: 6-10, 225 lbs.
  • Hometown: Fort Pierce, Florida
  • School: Wheeler
  • Recruit Rankings: No. 9 nationally, No. 2 PF in 2018 via 247 Sports composite rankings

Who are we talking about?

EJ Montgomery, sophomore forward

What did he do last season?

37 games (10 starts), 3.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 0.4 assists in 15.1 minutes per game on 48 percent shooting. He shot 56.7 percent from the line on 0.8 attempts per contest.

His best performance from last season:

Montgomery almost helped put Kentucky back in the SEC Tournament title game in one of the best games all season against Tennessee due to Reid Travis’ foul troubles, but the game where it truly felt like he would break out came back on Feb. 5 against South Carolina.

In 22 minutes of action against the Gamecocks, Montgomery scored a career-high 11 points with another career high of 13 rebounds, five of them coming on the offensive end of the floor during the 76-48 rout.

There’s no frontcourt cluster for EJ Montgomery in year two

During his freshman season at Kentucky, forward EJ Montgomery played in just 558 total minutes. That number is bigger than Nick Richards’ count by 112 minutes, but 356 minutes lesser than Reid Travis, who missed time with a knee injury late in the season.

Simply put, with two experienced and high-production players in front of him in the rotation, Montgomery never really got a true opportunity to showcase his abilities and when he did, it wasn’t enough to keep him on the floor for extended periods of time.

Montgomery only played more than 20 minutes in 10 of 37 contests this past season and four of those 10 games came before the month of December started before the Cats really got going. Five of the other six came after Travis’ knee injury that he suffered at Missouri on Feb. 19, including two of them in blowouts over Auburn and Abilene Christian.

Montgomery still proceeded to enter his name into the NBA draft process, rightfully withdrawing his name to improve his game, draft stock and Kentucky’s title-winning chances in the SEC and on the national scene this season with another elite-level crop of players arriving in Lexington right on schedule.

The discussions of Kentucky playing more “small-ball lineups” are real and beneficial in a plethora of situations, including for Montgomery.

Sure, Montgomery’s not exactly small at 6-foot-10, 228 pounds, but he has the ability to stretch the floor as a big man with his perimeter shooting abilities and soft touch on his jumpers; something that made PJ Washington so dangerous this past season even with he and Travis producing more from the blocks down low.

This is the EJ Montgomery that Kentucky will need this season. He shot just 2-of-10 from deep last year, but as you can see, it’s something he’s got the form to do with confidence.

Why Montgomery can have success on the offensive end

It’s happened in recent years a little more than the early years of the John Calipari era, but something that can help Montgomery’s progression is having not only a year under his belt, but playing with guards he’s familiar with that can help him get to where he needs to be on the floor to have success.

The lasting images of Ashton Hagans against Auburn from a year ago aren’t pretty, but don’t forget how vital Hagans was in Kentucky reaching the Elite Eight last season. Immanuel Quickley (the guard that feeds Montgomery in the clip above) is back for another go-around.

Oh, right. Then there’s some combo guard named Tyrese Maxey, who is already projected by a few different outlets as a late lottery pick in the 2020 draft. He’s going to be fun.

When you factor in Hagans, Quickley, Maxey, along with the likes of Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks Jr. and Johnny Juzang, that’s a lot of scoring blended with guys will look to drive the basketball constantly, especially in dribble-drive concepts that seemingly run Calipari’s offense.

That means Montgomery will not only play more with less experienced depth up front this season, but he’ll be expected to contribute in spacing the floor. Despite the arrival of Nate Sestina in the Reid Travis role this year and Calipari’s consistent desire to turn Nick Richards, a true back-to-the-basket player offensively, into a star, Montgomery still played almost three more total games more in minutes than Richards last season.

I know, I know. Calipari doesn’t want his big men shooting a ton of triples or perimeter shots. (Hell, he doesn’t want his guards and wings shooting a ton of them even when they’re shooting well.) But, Montgomery has shown that he has the groundwork to develop into a consistent jump-shooter.

(You have to leave the 20th century sometimes, Cal. You can’t just post up your bigs for 48 minutes night in and night out.)

And, it’s not just perimeter shooting with Montgomery. He’s shown the ability to put the ball on the deck at his size and drive into the lane. He’s got a smooth flow to his game when he’s playing with confidence.

I know. It’s just Transy, but still.

Where Montgomery has to improve to stay on the floor

Personally, the main concerns with Montgomery weren’t offensively. Of course, you’d like to see him hit more of those jumpers from 17-18 feet out and beyond, but it was little things defensively (and some offensively) that hurt Montgomery’s minutes count last season.

For example,

Block out, don’t try and block the shot, EJ.

But, there were good moments in this department, too.

That’s better.

What it all boils down to is this: if you don’t rebound and defend, you don’t play as a big man in Calipari’s rotation.

There was good moments for Montgomery, including in that double-double against the Gamecocks that showed his potential. He racked up 38 of Kentucky’s 176 blocks (9th in NCAA) a season ago. That tells you he, and also Richards with 47 blocks for that matter, have value on defense with their length as an anchor in the lane and a four-man who maneuvers around more on that end.

Get that garbage outta here.

Unfortunately for him and the Cats, there were too many brainfarts like these that hurt his case to stay on the floor more, which led to these kind of discussions on the sidelines with Calipari.

You can’t lose your man here, EJ.

No freshman has been perfect in Lexington. Not even Anthony Davis. Mistakes happen often, big and small.

The good thing for Montgomery is that he’s got a year under his belt with not only a strong freshman class coming in, but some fellow returners to build chemistry with even further. With no All-Americans in his way and a complementary big man that can play inside and out, the opportunity’s there for Montgomery’s taking to become a stud.