clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Kentucky Basketball Preview: Ashton Hagans returns to haunt point guards across the country

New, comment

Ashton Hagans’ freshman season ended in about as bad of a nightmare as you could have in the Elite Eight. But, if it wasn’t for him, who know where last year’s Cats would’ve been? He’s back and likely back with a vengeance this year.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Wofford vs Kentucky
Ashton Hagans and his ferocious defense is one of the key reasons Kentucky is primed for another deep NCAA Tournament run this season.
Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

Ashton Hagans

  • Position: Point guard
  • Class: Sophomore
  • Measurements: 6-3, 198 lbs.
  • Hometown: Cartersville, Georgia
  • School: Newton High school
  • Recruit Rankings: No. 12 nationally, No. 1 PG in 2018 via 247 Sports composite rankings

While transfer senior Reid Travis and all-american PJ Washington carried the load up front for Kentucky a season ago, it was Ashton Hagans’ defense that was one of the catalysts for the pre-January turnaround where the Cats lost one of the games of the season to Seton Hall in New York in overtime, then reeled off 12 wins in a 13-game stretch.

One of those victories came right before Christmas on Dec. 22 when the Cats upended North Carolina in Chicago for the CBS Sports Classic and Hagans arrived on the national scene with a seven-point, four-rebound, three-assist, eight-steal performance against the Tar Heels.

2018-19 statistics:

37 games (30 starts), 7.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists in 28.5 minutes per game on 46.7 percent shooting overall. Hagans shot 76.1 percent on 2.5 attempts per contest from the free-throw line.

His best performance from last season:

We’ve discussed the North Carolina game a few times when talking about Hagans and the Cats and for good reason, but let’s take a journey back to Jan. 15 when Kentucky traveled down to Athens to visit one of John Calipari’s old friends in Tom Crean and the Georgia Bulldogs.

Hagans’ story prior to coming to Lexington has been well-documented as a Georgia resident (Cartersville to be exact). Before reclassifying to last year’s class and joining the Cats, Hagans committed to the Dawgs in December 2017, but backed out of that commitment the following February prior to Mark Fox’s termination and went on to recommit to Kentucky in April.

So, let’s just say Georgia fans weren’t exactly happy to see him when the Cats came riding into town off back-to-back wins in SEC play.

Hagans was booed on every touch and it was about the only defense that might have had some sort of effect on the guard, because he balled out to the tune of 23 points on 9-of-18 shooting with five rebounds, four assists and four steals.

Kentucky’s going to play “smaller”, but nothing will be small about Hagans’ impact heading into his sophomore season

Turnovers were a problem for Hagans during his rookie season (2.5 per game) and if there’s a lasting image from Kentucky’s Elite Eight defeat to Auburn in the tournament a season ago, it’s likely one of Ashton Hagan’s seven turnovers on an afternoon where he scored 10 points, but shot just 2-of-8 from the field.

“We had a great season this year but I want more,” Hagans said in a story about his return on Kentucky’s official basketball site.

“I know I’ve only scratched the surface with my game and there’s so much more I want to accomplish at Kentucky. Coach Cal and the staff have challenged me since day one, and I know with another season at UK we can chase some special things with the same mindset. I can’t wait to get back to work with my brothers.”

Like Calipari taking in transfer seniors, including former Bucknell forward Nate Sestina for this upcoming season, starting guards coming back to Lexington doesn’t happen too often, but it’s been good news when they have. (Andrew and Aaron Harrison can attest to this notion.)

Hagans was voted as the Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year a season ago, along with being named a finalist for the Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year award and in the North Carolina win, tied Wayne Turner’s school record with those eight steals.

It’s no secret that Hagans will handcuff plenty of point guards on the Kentucky schedule again this season, but where the Cartersville native can really drive his draft stock arrow up is on the offensive end. Cutting down on the turnovers will be crucial to his and Kentucky’s development with a more unique personnel group this year compared to those of the past, but some growth with Hagans’ shooting could be massive for him and the Cats.

It’s not realistic to assume Hagans can become Tyler Herro from deep overnight — he shot just 14-of-51 from long range a season ago — but improving on that 27.5 percent would be a nice boost for the Kentucky offense.

A strong positive is Hagans’ FTr (free throw attempt rate/number of FT’s per FG attempt) of .430 last year. That mark is third on the team among guys who played at least 700 total minutes, trailing just Travis and Washington (obviously). His AST% (assist percentage) of 27 was miles ahead of Herro’s 15.0 percent among qualified players. (So, wipe out Quade Green’s 25.3 percent in 160 early-season minutes.)

Basically, Hagans does what you need a point guard to do in a few categories: defend his position well, get into the painted area to score and assist, get to the rim and the free-throw line (and make them), and share the basketball.

Hagans’ two big improvement areas will be taking better care of the basketball, which should be a bit easier with the shooting and spacing the Cats will have with this year’s unit, and shooting a better percentage from the field outside of 14-16 feet. If Hagans can keep defenses honest with his jumper out on the perimeter, that will open up much more of the floor for the Cats to operate.

For an example to give you more of an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at this three-frame sequence from the Kansas win.

PJ Washington fires a beautiful pass across the lane to the right free-throw line extended to Hagans in this half-court possession and instead of shooting a wide-open triple, Hagans tries to get into the lane (that’s already congested) to shoot an ugly contested two.

The secret’s not exactly a secret with the Cats under Calipari. Packing the paint nullifies much of what Kentucky will look to do in their dribble drive offensive attack in the half-court working the low blocks and dominating the glass with their size and strength.

But, with a guard that can not only get others involved, but create more of an offense for himself this season, it makes a dangerous Kentucky team even more dangerous, especially when it matters in March (and maybe April).