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EJ Montgomery’s breakout has come at a pretty important time

After making 12 of his game (and career)-high 16 shots for 25 points with nine rebounds this past weekend in a rout of Fairleigh Dickinson, the springboard into stardom was built for EJ Montgomery. Now, it’s about launching off that board.

Fairleigh Dickinson v Kentucky
EJ Montgomery had a game to remember against lowly Fairleigh Dickinson. Can he continue to have performances like that one against better competition?
Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images

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.

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.)

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

He’s good as the trailer, too.

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.