Most college basketball teams would be in bad shape after losing four starters from the previous season. Kentucky is not most college basketball teams. This level of turnover is business as usual for the Wildcats, as Coach John Calipari enters his 11th season in Lexington. During his tenure, Coach Cal has seen 38 of his players selected in the NBA draft. That is 14 more than the next closest school (Duke). Nobody is more experienced in reloading a program with talented young players, and no fan base carries higher expectations for their team. At Kentucky, there is no such thing as a rebuild.
This Wildcats team, like many before them, has big shoes to fill. Last year, Keldon Johnson, PJ Washington, Tyler Herro, and Reid Travis led the team to the Elite 8, in a 30-win season. Despite losing those 4 leading scorers to the NBA (or Germany in the case of Travis), Kentucky has a fairly high share of production returning, in comparison to previous seasons. The Wildcats have 36.8% of last year’s minutes returning, which ranks as the 3rd most in the Calipari era. They also have 27.2% of points (5th most), 30.4% of rebounds (5th), 45.1% of assists (2nd), 44.1% of steals (3rd), 51.1% of blocks (3rd), and 21.4% (6th) of three-point shots made, returning. Kentucky fans should take comfort in knowing that an above average (by Calipari standards) percentage of last year’s production will be returning to the floor for the 2019-2020 season.
Kentucky will have four main contributors from last season back on their roster:
Ashton Hagans: The 6’3 sophomore guard is the lone returning starter for the Wildcats. Hagans shined as a lockdown perimeter defender last season, averaging 1.6 steals per game. The freshman received SEC All Defense and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. SEC Media members like Hagans to follow up with another big year, voting him to the preseason All-SEC first team. In addition to his ability as a defender, Hagans facilitated the offense well last year. He’s a capable ball handler and a willing passer, both of which are key in Calipari’s dribble drive offense. The key for Hagans to take his game to the next level is improving his perimeter scoring ability. The sophomore guard showed off an improved jump shot in Kentucky’s Blue-White Game. If Hagans can knock down some threes when the games start counting, it would be a huge boost to Kentucky’s offense.
Immanuel Quickley: Another 6’3 sophomore guard who split time with Hagans in the backcourt last season. Quickley started the first seven games of last year before ultimately settling into a backup role. The guard provided 18.5 minutes per game off the bench and proved useful with a style of play contrasting to that of Hagans. Quickley is a stronger scorer on the perimeter who managed to shoot 34.5% from behind the three-point line last season. He raised this percentage to 38.1% in conference play, an encouraging sign of growth for the former five-star recruit. Quickley will have to fight for minutes with a deep group of talented newcomers, who are sure to challenge him for time on the floor. For Quickley to increase his role on this team he’s going to have to improve his perimeter defense, and work to become a more complete player on offense. Calipari has spoken highly of Quickley’s development this off season, and the sophomore has looked more comfortable handling the ball and driving to the basket thus far in preseason action.
E.J Montgomery: The 6’10 sophomore forward joined Hagans in receiving All-SEC preseason honors, being voted to the second team. As is the case with many freshmen at Kentucky, Montgomery struggled to find his footing when confronted with a smaller role than he’s ever been asked to play before. Down the stretch, however, Montgomery provided efficient minutes off the bench and showed flashes of impact post defense. He went on to finish the season with the best defensive rating on the team, allowing 92.9 points per 100 possessions. In addition to his ability as a rim protector and lob finisher, the lefty has a smooth jump shot that looks like it should fall more often than it does. Look for Montgomery to stretch the floor with an improved mid-range jumper this season. The forward’s biggest opportunity for improvement is working on post moves to score more efficiently down low. Despite catching a high percentage of lobs, Montgomery only shot 46.3% last season.
Nick Richards: Juniors at Kentucky are a bit of a rarity in the Calipari era. Richards tested draft waters but ultimately decided to return to Lexington for his 3rd season with the Wildcats. Coach Cal and the Kentucky faithful are awfully happy that he did too. For all the incoming talent on this year’s team, there’s not much help arriving down low in the paint. Richards and Montgomery are going to be tasked with playing big minutes this season. Richards was an even more effective lob finisher last season than his big man counterpart. The 6’11 forward from Jamaica led all Wildcats in field goal percentage last season at 59.8%. He also led the team in blocks with 1.3 per game. Kentucky looks to have a lot of scoring options on the perimeter and the wing, so Richards will not be asked to score at a high volume. Continuing to provide good shot efficiency and effective rim protection is all the Wildcats really need from Richards. An underrated aspect of the junior’s game is his free throw shooting. Richards is a career 70% shooter from the charity stripe.
In addition to the returning players, Calipari has brought in another strong group of recruits along with a grad transfer. 247 Sports ranks Kentucky’s recruiting class as 2nd in the nation. The Wildcats are no strangers to huge contributions from freshmen, and this season should be no exception:
Kahlil Whitney: A 6’7 five-star small forward from New Jersey. Whitney is the highest ranked recruit in Kentucky’s incoming class at 12th overall and 2nd at his position nationally (per ESPN). He will look to dominate with impressive athleticism and a tenacious motor. The McDonald’s All American should be able to attack the basket at will and score at a high volume. Whitney’s combination of strength, agility, and bounce should make him a handful for opposing defenders. Whitney’s ability to hit perimeter shots remains a bit of a question mark at this stage. While most scouting reports highlight Whitney’s capabilities on the offensive side of the ball, emerging as a strong wing defender would be huge for a Kentucky team that already has Hagans locking down the perimeter and Richards / Montgomery rejecting shots down low.
Tyrese Maxey: The 6’2 shooting guard out of Dallas joined Whitney on the McDonald’s All-American team. The five-star freshman was ranked 13th overall in the nation and 3rd at his position. The guard received preseason All SEC honors, being voted to the 2nd team. Maxey should be able to score from anywhere on the floor. His perimeter scoring ability, both off the dribble and in catch and shoot opportunities, looks to be particularly strong. He could play a huge part in replacing Tyler Herro’s three-point shooting production from last season. Maxey has the speed and handles to be a major threat in the fast break. He is however, considered to be an average defender. This may actually make him a good complement to Ashton Hagans in the back court. What Hagans lacks in perimeter scoring ability, Maxey should make up for with his strong shooting, creativity around the basket, and confidence to lead the offense. Hagans on the other hand, can lead the back court on the defensive and help protect his freshman teammate from getting exposed.
Keion Brooks: An Indiana native standing at 6’7 and playing as a combo forward, Brooks was ranked 35th nationally by ESPN, but as high as 14th by Rivals. He in many ways fits the archetype of Coach Cal’s frontcourt recruits: tall, athletic, and versatile with the ability to fulfill a variety of roles for the team. One of his best stand out traits is his ability to score from mid-range, where he uses his length and high release to score with ease. His bounce and height should make him a capable rebounder, although his physicality in the post would improve if he were to fill out his lanky frame. By virtue of Kentucky’s depth in the backcourt and at the wing, I would expect Brooks to play more as a power forward than a small forward. As most Kentucky recruits do, Brooks possesses an abundance of talent. The question at this point is: In which direction will Cal focus that raw talent. It will be interesting to see the manner in which his role impacts his development this season.
Johnny Juzang: A late addition to the recruiting class, Juzang adds some much-needed perimeter shooting. He too stands at 6’7, which seems to be the default height for members of this year’s team. ESPN ranks the small forward as the 30th overall player in the 2019 class. In addition to a strong three-point shot, the freshman possesses a feathery touch around the rim. Juzang wasted no time showcasing a smooth floater in the Blue-White Game. His ability to score in a variety of ways gives him a chance to be a big part of a loaded Kentucky offense. The biggest knock on his game is his defense. Juzang has the size and athleticism to guard opponents at the college level, however defense is largely about effort and mentality. The freshman is going to have to work to play effectively on both sides of the ball if he wants to secure a prominent role on this deep Kentucky team.
Nate Sestina: For the second straight season, Kentucky has opted to bring in a grad transfer to play in the frontcourt. Both Calipari and Sestina would be thrilled to replicate the success that Reid Travis had in the same situation last year. The 6’9 power forward arrives from Bucknell with an opportunity to provide a level of leadership and poise rare for a “first year” player. Sestina started all 31 of Bucknell’s games last season and averaged 15.8 points with 8.5 rebounds for game. The big man also shot 38% from behind the arc. His ability to stretch the floor and knock down shots from the perimeter should add a valuable layer to the Wildcat offense. Sestina also adds size and experience to a Kentucky frontcourt that becomes a lot deeper with his presence. Rebounding may not be the most glorious part of the game, but players like Sestina, who put their head down and crash the boards, are a vital component of winning rosters. The challenge for the forward will be proving that he can make an impact against major conference opponents. A jump shot is a jump shot, whether in the Patriot League or the SEC. However, Calipari will certainly be keeping an eye on how Sestina fairs against bigger, more talented, and more physical matchups in the paint.
Dontaie Allen: The 6’6 freshman becomes the first in-state player since Dominique Hawkins, in 2013, to sign with the Wildcats. Allen won Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball award for the most outstanding high school player, despite only playing 13 games before suffering an ACL tear. The wing’s 43 points per game in his injury shortened season go to show the potential as a scorer that this young man possesses. Allen’s teammates have spoken highly of the work ethic that he has displayed during the injury rehab process. Minutes may be hard to come by for the freshman as he gets a late jump on the season, but the talent is very much in place for this Kentucky native to be a difference maker at some point. One criticism of Allen is that his high school dominance was achieved against relatively soft competition. It remains to be seen how the freshman stacks up against opponents who can match his athleticism, but a fundamentally sound jump shot and his knack for offensive creativity should translate well and prove valuable off the bench.
My projected starting lineup:
Kentucky will have an early opportunity to measure themselves against elite competition. The preseason #2 ranked Wildcats will take on #1 Michigan State in the Champions Classic on November 5that Madison Square Garden. If Calipari and his talented group are able to overcome the Spartans, they will become the number one team in the nation. The pieces are in place for Kentucky to have another strong season, however the challenge lies in getting the whole to equal more than the sum of the talented parts. Calipari is certainly up for the challenge as he begins his second decade as head coach at Kentucky. The potential of this team is undeniable. However, potential doesn’t cut down the nets. The wait is nearly over for fans across the Bluegrass State, as one of college basketball’s most storied programs prepares for the long road ahead.
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