Kentucky players and Calipari talk after the Cats get knocked out of NCAA Tournament
ATLANTA — Early checkouts and early arrivals.
If the volatile nature of Kentucky basketball and frustration experienced this past season can change for the better, decisions, decisions, decisions this spring and summer will provide the hinge.
Those bolting for the NBA or transferring to a different school will go first. And others potentially joining the team by reclassifying and enrolling early could come later.
The makeup of the Wildcats’ roster and the ability to return to the Final Four for the first time in four seasons will be determined in the coming months.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox are gone. At least, no Kentucky roster projection for next season can possibly include last season’s leading scorers because they’re considered top 20 first-round picks and anybody considered as such must leave and get paid.
The Wildcats stand to gain or lose the most by what those on the fringe of the NBA mocks will do. Can you say with confidence that Hamidou Diallo, Jarred Vanderbilt, PJ Washington and Nick Richards would be among the top 30 selections?
No, you can’t.
Poor jump shooting, injury history, questions regarding position and struggles during the freshman campaign make that near impossible.
But, we must always keep this in mind: the 30th selection in the 2017 draft — former Villanova star Josh Hart — made nearly $1.4 million this season playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. And he’ll make $1.6 million next season. And there’s a team option for $1.9 million and $3.4 million the next two, respectively.
So, maybe one or two of those guys leave early. Diallo is an athletic freak. Vanderbilt is a rebounding freak. Washington could eventually — two words that mean potentially — become as versatile as he is sometimes dominant in the paint. And Richards, put simply, is a 7-footer in a world without many 7-footers.
Maybe a team uses a late first or any second-round pick to grab one of those guys. And maybe that’s good enough to convince them to go.
And maybe Quade Green, Sacha Killeya-Jones or Wenyen Gabriel decide to transfer. That, too, seems unlikely at this point in March. But, as we’ve seen with any Kentucky player not originally from Kentucky, sticking around four years for John Calipari doesn’t happen often.
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Alex Poythress is the only non-Kentucky native to play four years on scholarship during Calipari’s nine seasons in charge.
So it has become the norm when a player decides to leave for another school (like Kyle Wiltjer, Charles Matthews or Marcus Lee) or a professional league abroad (like Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humpries), once again leaving Kentucky without enough veteran voices in the locker room. Nobody is genuinely surprised anymore when anybody, for whatever reason, leaves Kentucky.
And nobody is surprised when another wave of elite talent enrolls.
Combo guard Immanuel Quickley, shooting guard Tyler Herro and small forward Keldon Johnson have already signed.
That’s a strong trio that could turn into a quintet.
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James Wiseman and Ashton Hagans, both top 10 players in the 2019 class, could graduate high school early and begin their college careers next season. Kentucky could add both to its 2018 class, but it’s not a sure thing in either case.
The No. 1 overall junior in the country from Memphis, Wiseman has for some time been considered likely to end up at Kentucky. But that was before the Memphis basketball program hired Penny Hardaway, Wiseman’s AAU and high school coach, as its leader.
Hagans, considered the top point guard in the junior class from Covington, Georgia, committed to UGA before coach Mark Fox was relieved of his duties. He de-committed in February but Hagans’ father Marvin told me last week new coach Tom Crean has already established a good relationship with the family.
Adding Wiseman and Hagan, or possibly 2018 power forward E.J. Montgomery (Marietta, Ga.), would once again give the Wildcats a super talented team. Losing more than a couple of the fringe first rounders or potential transfers, however, would create a situation similar to the 2017-18 season; a super-talented yet young and inexperienced roster.
Can you say with confidence you’re ready to live that life again?
No, you can’t.
Not after Kentucky lost 11 games this past season, just the fifth time that’s happened to a Calipari-coached college team since 1992. Not after it dropped four in a row and had a losing conference record in early February. Not after it choked against Kansas State in the Sweet 16 Thursday instead of continuing on a wide-open path to the Final Four.
With that in mind, who joins and, perhaps more importantly this go-round, who doesn’t leave will shape Kentucky, once again, for next season.