Paolo Banchero shocked the recruiting world Thursday when he announced his commitment to the Duke Blue Devils.
Banchero, ranked No. 2 overall in 2021 by Rivals, was long viewed as a Kentucky lean, though SEC rival Tennessee was picking up a lot of steam after landing a pledge from Banchero’s good pal, Kennedy Chandler. The two had discussed teaming up in college, and this was starting to become what looked like a Cats vs. Vols battle for the elite recruit.
While losing a recruit like Banchero is always a tough pill to swallow, he did at least do Kentucky a small favor by committing now. Had he waited until the spring, like was expected, and picked a school other than Kentucky, other 2021 options would have likely been off the board by then.
It’s only August, so there’s still plenty of time for John Calipari and his staff to target other frontcourt players in 2021 and possibly even 2022 reclass candidates.
So, who should Kentucky turn its focus to now?
Patrick Baldwin Jr.
While Banchero is a consensus top-five recruit, one player ahead of him in all the major rankings is 2021 forward Patrick Baldwin Jr. Viewed as a combo forward who could play the 3 or 4 in college, the second-ranked recruit at 247 Sports has been viewed as a Duke lean for much of his recruitment.
Does that change now that Duke has Banchero and fellow 2021 forward AJ Griffin in the fold?
Griffin, who Kentucky also pursued before his pledge to the Blue Devils, stands at 6-7, 200 pounds and is a consensus top-10 recruit ranked as high as fifth overall by 247 Sports. The duo of Griffin and the 6-9, 235-pound Banchero will be an elite frontcourt tandem at Duke.
Duke also has three incoming top-50 big men in Jaemyn Brakefield, Mark Williams and Henry Coleman. They also have Jalen Johnson, but he’s widely projected as a one-and-done prospect.
If even two of Coleman/Brakefield/Williams are back for sophomore seasons, they could potentially command large roles in a frontcourt that already has Banchero and Griffin in the fold.
So yeah, Duke’s frontcourt for 2021-22 already looks ridiculously good. Does Baldwin want to join that, or will that be too many mouths to feed for his liking?
Who knows, but it’s something to consider with Baldwin. Maybe Kentucky can actually make a serious push for him now.
It’s worth noting that Baldwin’s father, Pat Baldwin, is the head coach at Milwaukee, and they’re viewed as a serious contender for the younger Baldwin. Kentucky has been viewed as the third-place team in this recruitment.
Back in December, it was reported that Kentucky was showing interest in 2021 forward Moussa Diabate, who is currently ranked 7th overall by ESPN and 11th by 247 Sports. The 6-10, 215-pound Frenchman looks like a Day 1 starter for any program in America, though he was recently called one of the hardest recruitments to read by Rivals.
There hasn’t been any Kentucky buzz in his recruitment since December, but maybe that changes now that Banchero is off the board. It’s untelling how realistic of an option he is for the Wildcats right now, but he’s about as good of a remaining option as Kentucky will find in the 2021 class.
Jabari Smith and Michael Foster
Kentucky has had a pretty small net cast in 2021 for a while now, and perhaps that was evidenced by the lack of public interest in Jabari Smith or Michael Foster. The 6-10, 210-pound Smith is ranked fourth overall by 247 Sports, right behind Banchero. Kentucky reached out to him last summer, but that’s about the extent of public interest between the two sides.
As for the 6-9. 200-pound Foster, he’s said he wants to visit Kentucky, but there’s never been anything more to his recruitment from Kentucky’s side. He’s ranked 10th overall by 247 Sports. Foster does attend Hillcrest Prep, which has had NCAA eligibility issues before, so perhaps that has something to do with Kentucky not publicly recruiting him.
Whatever the case is, Kentucky has or hopefully will vet both recruits and determine if they’re legitimate options for next season. They’re both too talented for Kentucky to not at least kick the tires on.
With news that Kentucky could add Texas assistant Jai Lucas to John Calipari’s staff, perhaps some options from the Lone Star State will emerge soon. The most obvious is five-star center Daimion Collins, who is ranked 20th nationally by Rivals. The versatile big man from Atlanta (TX) has been compared to Nuggets forward Jerami Grant.
The home-state Longhorns have been viewed as the favorite, but does that change if Lucas joins Kentucky’s staff? If nothing else, it should help Calipari get his foot in the door of this recruitment.
This is a name Kentucky has shown interest in, though that was still when the 6-11, 247-pound Kepnang was considering a reclassification into 2020. He did say Kentucky was still in touch even after he decided to stay in 2021, but there hasn’t been much new in his recruitment since then, and nothing in regards to Kentucky.
The coronavirus is making it harder to recruit this summer, so perhaps we’ll learn more about Kepnang’s recruitment once the high school season starts. Still, it feels like he’s a backup option right now and isn’t real close to being offered by Kentucky.
This is another recruit Kentucky contacted as a potential reclass candidate, but he too opted to remain in the 2021 class. Since then, there’s been no real Kentucky talk with the 6-11, 225-pound center ranked 28th nationally by 247 Sports. He’s someone to keep in mind, but like Kepnang, Reid looks more like a backup option, even after the loss of Banchero.
Even before Banchero committed to Duke, a Bryce Hopkins-Kentucky paring was gaining heavy traction, including a pair of Rivals FutureCast picks from Cats Illustrated reporters Travis Graff and David Sisk.
And if you follow 247 Sports recruiting ace Andrew Slater, he likes dropping subtle hints on Twitter in regards to where certain recruits are leaning. Slater sent this on Wednesday, about 24 hours before Banchero committed to Duke.
https://t.co/URjMJOPhYt pic.twitter.com/fneD3tCZWv— Andrew Slater (@Andrew__Slater) August 20, 2020
Missing on Banchero should make it a near-lock that Hopkins is offered by Kentucky, who suddenly looks like a significant favorite if and when that happens. The 6-7, 220-pound Hopkins can play either the 3 or the 4 and is ranked as the 41st overall recruit by 247 Sports. He’s expected to get a big bump in the next round of recruiting rankings, possibly even into five-star status.
As of now, Hopkins is my pick for Kentucky’s next frontcourt commitment.
While missing on Banchero stings, Kentucky could still end up with a top-five recruit and No. 1 power forward, technically.
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who has widely been viewed as a Kentucky lean for the last year, is currently the fifth-ranked recruit in 2022 and top-ranked power forward at Rivals, where there are currently four FutureCast predictions in favor of the Wildcats.
Huntley-Hatfield recently announced his new list and said he’s no lock for Kentucky, but the belief in recruiting circles is still that he’ll ultimately reclassify and rock Kentucky Blue.
It was always going to be tough to convince Huntley-Hatfield and Banchero to join a frontcourt that could have sophomores Isaiah Jackson and Lance Ware for 2021-22, not to mention Calipari likely pursues at least one frontcourt transfer. There’s also a small chance Keion Brooks Jr. is back for a junior season. And don’t forget about the 6-8 Jacob Toppin, who will redshirt this year and may end up being a combo forward who plays the 3 and 4 spots next year.
Now that Banchero is off the board, Kentucky needs to go all-in on getting Huntley-Hatfield to Lexington next year.
The Rabbit in the Hat
Kentucky has certainly struggled when it comes to recruiting the program-changing recruits recently. Recruits on the level of John Wall, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Julius Randle have instead been opting for other schools over the last five years, and it looks like Kentucky may not get a top-five recruit in 2021 either.
Maybe, just maybe, that leads to Kentucky getting players who, while not as talented, could be more ready to make a major impact in college from Game 1 all the way into the NCAA Tournament,
That’s because the NCAA is expected to adopt a one-time transfer rule that would essentially put any college player up for grabs to schools like Kentucky if they explore the transfer portal. It’s untelling what level of players could enter the portal if they can go to any college program they so choose and be immediately eligible.
The combination of Kentucky and John Calipari will absolutely entice some big-name players to consider transferring to Lexington come next season. And that gives Kentucky a little more room to miss on big-time recruits and still potentially end up with a big-time player who already has college experience, something you just can’t teach to incoming recruits.
So yeah, losing Banchero is a setback, but Kentucky is still likely going to have a bevy of options when it comes to filling out the 2021-22 roster.