There’s more questions than answers when it comes to Kentucky even during this current winning streak following the Evansville debacle to old friend Walter McCarty before the holiday schedule kicks into high gear, but Saturday felt like quite a confidence-building performance for one EJ Montgomery.
Look, let’s preface this with the proper context and say that this game was over at halftime because Fairleigh Dickinson was ... not very good and that’s being more than friendly.
25 points and nine rebounds against them doesn’t hold even remotely the same value it would against say, Utah, Ohio State or that other team in the state of Kentucky, but for Montgomery, confidence and consistency have both been an issue.
Saturday’s performance brought Montgomery’s career high in points (25), shots made (12) and attempted (16), along with nine rebounds and a block to help Kentucky extend their winning streak to five games.
I’ve personally been a truther of EJ Montgomery and his game since his arrival in Lexington before last season because he’s not like the bigs of the past in the John Calipari era. He’s not from the bulky, beastly big man tree of Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins, and even with a slimmer frame, he’s nowhere near the caliber of Anthony Davis (and to be fair to him, he probably never will because AD’s a generational talent).
But, he has versatility in terms of his lateral movement defensively, a problem in transition as we saw this past Saturday, the threat of shooting from the perimeter (even if the percentages aren’t favorable up to this point) and a long, long frame to assist on making the added play for the Cats. (More on the latter subject in a bit.)
With some massive season-defining matchups coming up for the Cats to close their non-conference schedule before the turn of the new year, Montgomery provided a glance into what could be a bright future this season for him.
Some perfect examples of EJ Montgomery up to this point in his career
I thought this play summed up Montgomery’s career in Lexington so far.
The 'Cats did a great job half-court trapping after Richards' tough and-one on the other end with Hagans and Montgomery, but, like ... EJ, what even is this?— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 10, 2019
(TBF, he kept the play alive and Maxey hit Hagans with an easy backdoor look for two.) pic.twitter.com/RbdBv7hjFS
Ashton Hagans, one of the country’s toughest on-ball defenders, and Montgomery did exactly what you want out of a half-court trap defensively and that’s force a turnover.
The latter part of this sequence was the part that makes you scratch your head with Montgomery. He gets what turns into a 2-on-1 break for the Cats off the steal and instead of drawing a shooting foul, scoring or dishing off for a potential assist, Montgomery goes up rather softly and gets his shot attempt blocked. (The nice thing here is that he did keep the possession alive.)
Montgomery was busy on the game’s opening possession setting/flipping to set screens.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 10, 2019
He ends up getting a good look for 3 when he pops out from a screen, but this is the look he ends up taking: pic.twitter.com/bmHJQZj0zf
This was during the opening possession for the Cats and Montgomery was quite active on the perimeter setting and flipping screens for the guards. Hagans drew a double team on a pick-and-pop look from he and Montgomery, which provided a wide-open look for Montgomery to shoot.
Instead, he drove the lane and fired up a contested floater that missed. In some instances, that might have been the right play, but with that open of a look, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world to shoot that (even if his percentages aren’t where they should be for him).
Montogmery slid over to hedge the PnR look from FD, gets back over to his man, but got bodied a bit on the downhill drive for two. His positioning was fine on the recovery ... just good, strong offense from Bishop. pic.twitter.com/IT5isvanWk— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 10, 2019
On the possession following that miss, another one of Montgomery’s concerns was on display. He does everything right for the most part on this possession in hedging the pick-and-roll look and rotating back out to his man.
But, when Kaleb Bishop drove the lane, Montgomery’s lack of sturdiness and strength when Bishop attacked his body on the drive and drove right into him for the bucket. He’s got great length and can really alter shots defensively, but he’s not exactly Reid Travis or PJ Washington in terms of how strong he is.
Then, there was this, which ... big-to-big passing was a big part of this offense last year, EJ. (No pun intended.)
In favorable matchups like this one was, paint touches are something Calipari will want to see, especially with how well Nick Richards has played so far this season. Maxey pops out to keep the play rolling, but with this look, send in down low and get an easy two.
There’s fair critiques of Montgomery, but it’s not all bad
One thing that helped Montgomery get on the floor a season ago was his ability to keep possessions alive for Big Blue. He played in just 558 minutes, compared to 914 for Travis and over 1,000 for Washington, but grabbed 62 offensive rebounds. Washington was second with 81 and Travis led the way with 87, but it’s a trait that Kentucky will need when the perimeter guys aren’t getting shots to fall.
This is something that Montgomery has done in the past to stay on the floor and something that makes him so important.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 10, 2019
FD extended their D pressure, Juzang finds Richards and off the block at the rim, EJ cleans up. Little plays like this will be important this month and beyond. pic.twitter.com/rszMAbl04C
I love this for Montgomery. Not everything has to be flashy and pop out on the tape. Just make the little plays that ended up making a big difference in the overall outlook for this team and he’ll be just fine. He crashes hard with Johnny Juzang getting his shot blocked at the rim and gets rewarded with the board and an easy deuce.
Montgomery has such soft touch around the rim.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 10, 2019
You'd like to see him get a little stronger and play up to his size on these scrappy plays, but again, he gets an extra chance for Kentucky and makes the most of it. pic.twitter.com/NqyHFyUhUV
I really liked this play from Montgomery on the offensive glass too because of his awareness to read the missed shot attempt and get to the spot for the board and a putback. Watch his eyes when the shot goes up. He tracks the ball well and uses his length to grab it and show off that soft touch for the bucket.
The hilarious part of this transition flush from Montgomery: as soon as Hagans crossed half-court, you could hear FD personnel yelling, "Stop ball!"— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 10, 2019
Spoiler: they didn't and it looked like a scrimmage transition run. pic.twitter.com/GvjdL2bRTT
Despite the rather hilarious shot attempt in the rim in transition earlier, Montgomery was really good on the run against an atrocious Fairleigh Dickinson defense. He used those long strides and got rewarded on multiple occasions for some easy buckets.
Case and point, this.
Fairleigh Dickinson's transition defense was basically if you walked into a Family Video in 2019. (Another great look from Hagans, though.) pic.twitter.com/X4cxIglEgw— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 10, 2019
He’s good as the trailer, too.
Ah, yes. One of my favorite plays. The good ol' "TRAILER!" pic.twitter.com/F0aPMoKyUO— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) December 10, 2019
Despite him technically being a “veteran” on this current roster, you’re going to get some good and some bad with Montgomery. He hasn’t made that substantial leap, but his confidence is growing at the right time of the year.
Big Blue Nation wants their season defined in March/April, not December, but when teams like Utah, Ohio State and Louisville are all on the horizon, you’re going to need all hands on deck when you’re short-handed like the Cats are without Nate Sestina.
This is Montgomery’s chance to take that next step and become a key component of this rotation, especially when he’s making fun plays like this one.