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Roundup of where the Wildcats stand in latest NBA Draft rankings

Here comes Junior Nick Richards and top-five prospect Tyrese Maxey.

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The Kentucky Wildcats have the potential to be one of college basketball’s best teams.

But while they were one of the numerous teams to hold the No. 1 spot, this team, especially against weaker opponents, have not quite performed to the level many expected, especially after they knocked off then-No. 1 Michigan State in Game 1.

Playing their talented freshmen to go along with sophomores EJ Montgomery and Ashton Hagans, as well as the emerging Nick Richards, the Wildcats have a slew of potential NBA players on their highly talented roster.

However, according to 247 Sports’ Evan Daniels, none of the multiple potential draftees are among the top 20 prospects in the upcoming NBA Draft. Daniels ranks Georgia’s Anthony Edwards as the top-overall prospect and Memphis’ James Wiseman second.

Tyrese Maxey is widely considered the best Wildcat prospect. He’s averaging the second-most points per game at 13.1 behind junior forward Nick Richards. In Bleacher Report’s first-round mock draft, Maxey is taken No. 13 overall, the only Wildcat in the first round.

Aside from Maxey, who came in as a five-star recruit, Lexington welcomed several other top-tier recruits this season. However, players like Keion Brooks Jr. and Kahlil Whitney have yet to perform at the level that would warrant even a second-round pick if the NBA Draft was today. Those two freshmen have averaged 6.6 and 5.8 points per game respectively.

Saying this, Whitney still has a world of upside that’s waiting to be tapped into, and several other outlets still think he’s a first-round prospect. That includes the latest draft prospect rankings from ESPN, which have Whitney checking in at No. 24, his highest ranking in any outlet.

In addition, ESPN has Maxey checking in at No. 8 and Hagans at No. 63. Hagans wasn’t a top scoring threat on last year’s team yet has developed into the team’s second-best offensive guard. He’s also leading the team with 7.0 assists per game.

Even Hagans’ defense has improved, yet draft gurus still don’t think highly of him. Hopefully, that will change if he keeps playing at the level we’ve seen in recent weeks.

The friendliest draft rankings for the Wildcats are from The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie. His latest big board has Maxey all the way up to No. 5 overall. Vecenie also offered up this summary of how he’s viewed as a pro prospect.

Some executives I’ve spoken with have the Kentucky guard around where I do, praising his pull-up game and on-ball defensive acumen in a modern NBA where both of those skills are vital for success. He’s also thought of as an elite-level kid who is intelligent and works really hard. But others think of him more as a top-20 guy because they worry about a lack of burst and consistent ability to gain separation, another skill tantamount to being an NBA lead guard.

Elsewhere, Vecenie has Hagans ranked No. 53, his highest ranking of any outlet. Whitney checks in at No. 26.

Perhaps the real story is Nick Richards checking in at No. 89 overall, making this the only draft ranking that includes Richards. Sure, 89 isn’t much to brag about, and that’s a range that suggests Richards would likely go undrafted, but it’s still progress.

After all, Richards had virtually zero NBA buzz coming into the season after two subpar years in Lexington. But it’s become clear that he’s made major strides in Year 3, as he’s arguably been Kentucky’s best player through eight games.

However, there was a brief stretch that distinction could have belonged to Immanuel Quickley, the team’s fifth-leading scorer and top three-point threat. He too has made big strides since his freshman season, yet it’s not translated to any NBA buzz.

And finally, none of these rankings have EJ Montgomery listed. While he was expected to have a breakout sophomore season that would propel him into the draft conversation, that hasn’t happened yet, though largely due to an ankle injury that sidelined him for three games.

Now that Montgomery is back and starting to find his groove, he’s starting to show why some thought he could be a first-round pick coming into the season. He’s coming off easily his best collegiate game, racking up 25 points on 12/16 shooting and nine boards in a win over Fairleigh Dickinson.

But for Montgomery to become a legitimate NBA prospect, he’ll need to start showing more consistency while also proving he can play at a high level vs. legitimate Power 5 opponents. Through his first two seasons, Montgomery has just one double-digit scoring output vs. a Power 5 foe (11 vs. South Carolina last season).

Overall, Kentucky will almost certainly have multiple selections in the 2020 draft, but based on these rankings, perhaps there will be more returners than most John Calipari teams have had in Lexington to go along with the No. 1 overall recruiting class.

Also, the Wildcats play Ohio State and Louisville in the next few weeks, so they’ll have some big opportunities to show what they’re made of and prove they can play with the nation’s best.