Lefty Kentucky forward EJ Montgomery forwent professional opportunities a year ago, deciding just hours before the official NBA Draft withdrawal deadline, an indicator that the choice to return to Lexington wasn’t an easy one.
Heading into his sophomore season and planning for a leap similar to his lottery pick sophomore teammate PJ Washington, it was Nick Richards who dominated the paint for Kentucky in 2020, a slot many assumed EJ could fill after a second season of immense Richards struggles and a decline in production from year one to two.
Alas, Nick authored the greatest turnaround of a Calipari player; from fumbling freshman and lost-cause sophomore to horrifying rim protector, prolific alley-oop finisher and First-Team All-SEC Center.
EJ watched Nick’s tremendous rise as the third-best power forward on his own team through non-conference play (aside from a hoaxy 25-point outburst vs. Fairleigh Dickinson). But by late February and March, Montgomery was the clear fifth fiddle alongside Richards and the Hagans-Maxey-Quickley perimeter triplet: an out-of-position but hustling rebounder and lean defender.
Montgomery did what Cal begs of every role playing forward: less. Says it constantly, just do less. Kahlil Whitney ignored the order and went on bricking his contested jumpers. Now he’s in basketball limbo, lost somewhere between the NBA Draft, Turkish leagues and the mystical transfer portal.
EJ was never selfishly assertive in the same way and second-guessed himself. You wonder if there was a calm down, here’s what you need to do chat between he and Calipari midway thru January (strangely in line with the Whitney departure) where Cal laid out the clear need for Montgomery as the rebounder and defensive post presence Sestina couldn’t be and Brooks wasn’t ready for. Not to mention a placeholder for Nick when he lost his mind foul-wise.
The EJ from January-on was spectacular I thought, given his role: again, the glass-cleaning near-Nick clone, just slightly smaller and slid one spot out of place at power forward.
In two games in SEC play, EJ made what I’d consider the game-winning play. Against Ole Miss, down 60-59 with a tad over a minute left, Maxey completely woofed on a 3 that landed in the lap of two Rebels.
As you see, EJ grabbed the ball and baseball slid to the ground the same way a younger cousin would in kill the carrier and dished it back to Maxey for a lead-taking layup. (It might’ve been my favorite play of the season and no I’m not joking).
And in Gainesville, EJ sprinted from beyond the arc and tipped in a missed layup to complete a Hagans-less, Quickley-less 18-point comeback that wound up sending these boys out for good, also giving us the iconic photo of the season.
Winning plays. Game-winning plays, no question.
I’m not worried about his pedestrian 6 & 5 season stat-line—I’m enthralled, instead, with his timely hustle to save games for Kentucky. Once you have the secret of basketball down, that it’s not about cool dunks, stats or personal stardom, and you make every decision on with a What-Is-Best-For-The-Team? mindset, the numbers will rise along with your professional profile. EJ has the selflessness down, and he always did. Now, he has the confidence.
Did you notice also how much happier the kid was in the second half of the year? Always the first one up out of his chair or turned to the sideline flashing his straight-armed flex and closed-eyes howl following huge baskets or defensive stops.
Yeah, I notice this stuff and I care about it. It’s cliche...but a flip switched in the second half of the year, emotionally more than anything. Nerds, his numbers went down as the season progressed and he played tremendously better and tremendously happier! Take THAT.
As a junior, he would finally play the correct position: center. Our 6-10 (oh, and former five-star) hustle-play hub with a sick left-hand jump-hook is going to be our 2021 front-court headliner? I’m IN.
Fellas, he hasn’t even touched his scoring potential, he avoided that portion of the mirror in favor of self-doubt and a hopeful NBA hyper-timeline along the lines of Calipari’s superstars.
He can flick that lefty hook over anyone up to his height and that one-dribble or step-in jumper looks slickly natural. Could he extend beyond the arc? Honestly, if Calipari let his big men out of their three-point chastity cages, I see no reason he couldn’t see big improvement there like PJ Washington showed as a sophomore from outside.
What we will have in junior EJ Montgomery, should we get one? Hopefully, is a reliable all-around post player cleared of a lane-clogging partner that—and I never could have imagined typing this a year-and-a-half ago—would be a dependable ‘leader’ or ‘captain’ of what will be a national title contender in 2020-21, and its dominant big.