After a tough loss to end last season, the 2022-23 Kentucky Wildcats basketball team will be looking to respond to all the critics and prove they have what it takes to continue being a dominating force in college basketball.
The Bahamas trip gave us a quick preview of what to expect, but it’s the returning pieces for UK that should get everyone excited.
One of those players is point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who brings a wealth of valuable experience at the game’s most important position.
- Height: 5-9
- Weight: 180 lbs.
- Class: Senior
- Hometown: Houston, Texas
- Position: Point guard
- Recruiting Ranking: 4-star recruit ranked No. 100 overall and No. 8 among points guards in the class of 2019 via 247 Sports Composite.
Coming into his second year in Lexington, Wheeler will be looking to take another step forward as he heads into his senior season.
The path to being the court leader for a program like Kentucky has been an interesting one for Sahvir, as the former four-star recruit first took his talents to Athens (GA) to play for the Bulldogs.
Although he had a solid freshman season in Athens, it was his sophomore year that propelled him into being one of the elite playmakers in college basketball. He then entered into the transfer portal and found his way to Lexington.
The trend that started in Athens continued last season as Wheeler’s stats remained consistent, and the talent around him took a step up. He finished the 2021-22 campaign averaging 10.1 points on 44% shooting from the field and 31% from deep. He also added 2.6 rebounds, while continuing to lead the SEC in assists at 6.9 per game. He ended up third in the country in assists.
Wheeler’s 207 assists were the fourth-most in a single season in UK history. He also ranked second in the conference with a 2.27 assist-to-turnover ratio.
We can’t forget about just how pesky of a defender Wheeler was. Despite his smaller frame, Wheeler was consistently able to wreak havoc in opposing backcourts and will look to continue doing the same again this season.
After an All-SEC second team and Bob Cousy Award finalist campaign last season, the question becomes: can he take another step forward?
With the way the last several seasons have been trending, I think the answer is yes.
The obvious knock on his game, as a whole, is his shooting numbers. For this Kentucky team to take that next step, those have to continue to take steps in the right direction. After a decent showing throughout the last few months of the season, it will be key to see some of those shots drop early, especially to make Michigan State and Gonzaga at least have to respect him from distance.
Another knock on Wheeler is his lack of size. It can be hard for any point guard under six feet to play at a high level, especially in a league like the SEC with physical freaks like Arkansas’ Anthony Black (6-foot-7).
But if anyone knows how to play at a high level despite a smaller frame, it’s Tyler Ulis. The 5-foot-8 floor general was the SEC’s best player in 2016-17 and arguably the best point guard in college basketball.
It just so happens that Ulis is staying on UK’s campus right now as he rehabs from a broken ankle suffered in a car crash. He’s taking college courses while also spending time helping John Calipari coach up the 2022-23 Wildcats.
“We got Tyler Ulis who is rehabbing and taking some courses in the gym with us watching and helping there too,” Calipari said while adding that Wheeler is “way better” this year.
Calipari also went into detail on how Wheeler must improve his shooting to become a more complete player.
“Now he’s just got to — what I want to be able to — and I told him, if I had known, if we back up the defense for him, it hurts him. If he’s got to play a guy from the top of the key and in, it hurts him. Because it shows some of what he isn’t. 6’-5”.
“When you pick up and you’re disruptive in the full court and we give you space to be disruptive in the pick-and-roll, all of a sudden — and your speed — and now all of a sudden you’re shooting the ball better?
“I told him, ‘You got to be guarded. You can’t be a player out there that’s not being guarded, or you won’t be in. So, you got to be guarded. They got to respect you and your shot.’
“And he knows that. And he’s in the gym. I just looked today, he was in there shooting and getting a workout in. The guys, we got guys spending time in the gym, I can say that.
Calipari has shown that he is very effective in utilizing returning point guards in a ‘floor coach’ role. I would expect that to be the same with Wheeler this season. That also speaks to the pieces he has around him that allow him to play to the leadership capabilities he has shown.
Whether it be pushing the tempo, sneaking in a pass into a tight window, or helping lock down the perimeter on defense, Wheeler will be a key to this team on both ends of the court.
Add in the return of Oscar Tshiebwe and Jacob Toppin, while bringing in Antonio Reeves, Cason Wallace, and Chris Livingston, and I will take one of the nation’s top point guards leading that squad any day of the week.
Saying this, if Wheeler doesn’t make the jump many expect him to take, he could eventually lose his starting role to Wallace, who comes to UK as arguably the top-ranked point guard from the 2022 class.
The good news is Wallace is fully capable of playing off the ball, so we should see plenty of lineups that feature both guards on the floor.
Plus, having Wallace capable to play the point at a high level allows Wheeler to continue playing tight defense and not worry too much about getting into foul trouble.
For what it’s worth, Wheeler will still have one more year of eligibility after this season thanks to the free COVID-19 year. It’s hard to see him doing enough to be an NBA Draft pick at 5-foot-9, so perhaps there’s a chance we’ll see Wheeler at Kentucky or another college when the 2023-24 season rolls around.
Still, many players like Wheeler still opt to begin their professional careers after four years in college, so that should be the expectation until he says otherwise.
It should be fun watching Sahvir go to work once again this season for the Cats.