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Kentucky basketball mailbag: Recruiting, Calipari and more

Kentucky basketball mailbag: Recruiting, Calipari and more

Camden (N.J.) standout Aaron Bradshaw has a chance to be the No. 1 center in the 2023 recruiting class.

AP

Earlier this week, we asked for your questions about the Kentucky men’s basketball team, UK’s recruiting efforts, and anything else related to the Wildcats’ program.

There was a response on a wide range of topics. Let’s dive in …

It appears that Duke, with new coach Jon Scheyer, is driving new innovation, including new administrative roles focused on NIL and Operations. Should we expect to see Kentucky follow, or is Coach Cal thinking even bigger?

Duke made one of the biggest splashes of the college basketball offseason with the announcement that Rachel Baker, who has NBA ties and was a longtime and well-known figure on the Nike grassroots circuit, had joined the Blue Devils in the new role of general manager.

The move was lauded by college basketball pundits, and some called for Kentucky — and other major programs — to follow suit. As of right now, I don’t expect John Calipari to do that. At least — and unless something changes — it won’t be in the form of handing someone the title (and role) of “general manager” of the program.

There are a few different reasons for that.

First, let’s look at what Duke has said Baker’s responsibilities will be. From the program’s statement when she was hired:

“In this exclusive position, Baker will specialize in helping players enhance their personal and professional skill sets, capitalize on strategic partnerships, including NIL opportunities, and work to support players in navigating the opportunities and challenges that come with being a student-athlete at the highest level.”

Many of those objectives are already being performed at UK by TJ Beisner, who Calipari hired last August as the program’s “director of player development.” Beisner has been integral in the team’s NIL-related activities and various other off-the-court efforts. Just asking around in recent months, it’s a hire and initiative that has impressed others in the college basketball world.

It’s already paid off in the NIL landscape.

The work that’s been done behind the scenes over the past few months surely played a role in the return of national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, who will now be in a spot to better capitalize on NIL opportunities. We don’t know exact dollar figures — and likely never will — but every player on the team seems to be benefiting from the NIL approach that UK basketball is taking, and it’s also impressed with some recruits. Other programs have taken notice, and I think Calipari — in a candid moment — would probably say he thinks Duke was following Kentucky’s lead by adding the GM position, and that his head-on approach to NIL last year was the more innovative move.

I wouldn’t be surprised if UK continues to add to its package of player resources in the near future. That final part of Baker’s job description at Duke says she will help players navigate “challenges that come with being a student-athlete at the highest level.” Mental health has been something that Calipari has talked about quite a bit over the past couple of years. It’s clearly important to him, and it sounds like he realizes the need for a specialized approach to the subject, with more direct resources for his players. That might be an area for further staff additions in the future.

So, there’s certainly room for adjustments to the way the Kentucky basketball program currently operates, but, simply put, John Calipari is always going to be the “general manager” of his own program. He’s too hands-on to back off that mentality, which he’s carried throughout his Hall of Fame career.

It’s not yet clear how the Duke GM role will shake out. And it’s not yet clear how Scheyer will run his program. (He’s been on the job for only a few months and hasn’t yet coached a game, remember). It was certainly an interesting development to hire Baker, and I’m sure other major programs will try and make similar moves. For the time being, however, it’s probably a bigger deal that Duke hired someone with NBA experience and such extensive ties to Nike grassroots basketball than the formation of the GM position itself.

We’ll see what it looks like two or three years down the road.

Could you do an update on the 2023 frontcourt prospects? Is Cal selling Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso and Aaron Bradshaw on playing together? If Kingsley reclassifies, how likely is he to leave after this season? Is Ron Holland still possible? What are their timelines?

Taking these one at a time …

1.) Yes, Calipari is definitely hoping and planning for Onyenso and Bradshaw to play together at Kentucky. Both are 7-footers, but both also have the ability to be versatile enough a year from now to hit the court at the same time. Cal has shown that he doesn’t mind playing two bigs at once as long as they can handle the “4” and “5” spots on both ends of the court — particularly, the defensive end. Defense shouldn’t be a problem. Onyenso can already defend the “4” spot, and Bradshaw projects as a terrific rim-protector with quick hands that can also fill passing lanes. The next step is for one (or both) of them to be able to step away from the basket and knock down shots with consistency. Both are already working on that area of their game. Kentucky has made it clear: they want Onyenso on campus so he can develop now and be better prepared for the 2023-24 season, and Bradshaw is the priority big man recruit for UK in the 2023 class.

2.) I certainly understand any Kentucky fans showing hesitancy about this situation after living through the Shaedon Sharpe saga over the past several months. But these are two totally different cases. Sharpe was already the unanimous No. 1 recruit in his class when he decided to jump to college early. And despite what some might claim now, it was known as soon as he stepped on UK’s campus that Sharpe would be a lottery pick in the 2022 draft if eligible, with nothing to prove in college to reach that goal.

Onyenso is not nearly as highly touted. He has the length and upside, but there is still a lot he needs to add to his game to be viewed as a surefire NBA Draft pick. If Onyenso does indeed pick UK and reclassify to 2022, he’ll spend this season as a practice player and debut for the 2023-24 campaign. If he happens to put it all together at some point during the next few months, he could theoretically play for the Cats this season. But that doesn’t seem likely. And it would be a major, major shock if Onyenso left Lexington without playing a game.

3.) Ron Holland does remain a possibility for Kentucky in the 2023 class, but no one seems to have a great idea of what’s going on there or if he’s even leaning in a certain direction at the moment. Holland decided to skip Peach Jam this week after leading Team USA to a FIBA U17 gold medal earlier in the month and playing a busy schedule of Nike league games and major camps before that. So there probably won’t be any major recruiting updates on him until later in the summer. The Texas native has already taken official visits to Arkansas, Kentucky and UCLA, with a trip to see the home-state Longhorns up next. The G League will also remain in the mix. No matter what happens elsewhere with UK’s 2023 recruiting efforts, there will be a place on the roster for Holland. It’s just not clear what he’ll do.

4.) Expect a commitment (and reclassification) from Onyenso, who is on UK’s campus for an official visit this week, by the end of next weekend. It sounds like he might not have everything squared away in time to join the Cats on the Bahamas trip next month, but — if all goes according to plan — he should be on campus shortly thereafter. Fall classes begin Aug. 22.

Bradshaw’s timeline has shifted in recent weeks (more on that next) but he still seems on track to make a college commitment before his senior season of high school begins. This one should be wrapped up by the early signing period in November, possibly well ahead of that time.

With Holland, who knows? That recruitment could still go a few different ways, and there’s no set timetable on when he plans to announce a final decision.

I read that Aaron Bradshaw backed off of his expected commitment because his mother wanted him to wait. I also read that Bradshaw’s interest in the pro route made Kentucky want to wait, until it was clearer what he wanted to do. What is the truth?

My understanding of this one — from multiple people who should know — is that Bradshaw was fully prepared to commit to Kentucky earlier this month, and then another program involved in the recruitment realized what was about to happen and convinced Bradshaw’s family to hold off on a July decision. It’s true that Bradshaw’s mother was not able to make the official visit to Lexington, and — while the star 7-footer was all in on Kentucky at that point — there was a push for him to delay a college announcement until after he could see some more college campuses and put some distance behind his UK visit.

The current plan is for Bradshaw to take official visits to Texas and UCLA before making a final decision. Louisville is the only other college he’s visited other than Kentucky.

It is true that the professional route remains an option here. Bradshaw is clearly intrigued by the G League path to the NBA Draft, and — here’s where it gets tricky for Kentucky — that straight-to-the-pros option will likely be a threat even after the five-star recruit picks a school. And, obviously, a college commitment or even a signed national letter of intent would mean nothing if spring rolls around and Bradshaw decides he wants to go pro.

A couple of positives for Kentucky here: 1.) Bradshaw clearly enjoyed his visit to Lexington and loves UK’s program, which should still be seen as the favorite in his recruitment; and 2.) The addition of Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso as a redshirt player to this season’s team would give the Cats some insurance against a change of heart from Bradshaw later on down the road. And, if Kentucky can get Onyenso, that makes it a lot easier to take an early commitment from Bradshaw, even if he’s still thinking about the pro path. UK is in no way backing off his recruitment.

It seems that Justin Edwards and maybe DJ Wagner, Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso and Aaron Bradshaw could commit soon. That is a great class with Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard already committed. If they get them all, do they add someone else, with many likely leaving this year or just wait for the transfer portal? I am not sure if they would try to add someone lower-ranked like Adou Thiero to develop or local Kentucky kids.

The hypothetical 2023 class constructed here would probably be the No. 1-ranked group in America and one of Calipari’s best overall recruiting hauls in his time as Kentucky’s coach. And, yes, it’s very possible that UK ends up with this bunch.

To reiterate, if the Cats do indeed get Onyenso, it’ll be as a member of the 2022-23 roster — so, he’d technically be included in the 2022 class — though he wouldn’t be expected to play this coming season.

Bradshaw, Dillingham, Edwards, Sheppard and Wagner would make five new additions. Onyenso makes six. So, taking a look at this season’s roster of 10 scholarship players, who’s likely to come back?

Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler, Jacob Toppin and Antonio Reeves are all entering their fourth year of college basketball and have all tested the NBA Draft waters in the past. All four would have one season of eligibility remaining — thanks to the extra COVID year granted by the NCAA — but fans probably shouldn’t expect any of them back for the 2023-24 season. Ditto for freshmen Chris Livingston and Cason Wallace, and sophomore Daimion Collins — all McDonald’s All-Americans and projected as NBA Draft picks after this season. We’ve seen guys projected to be draft picks in the preseason ultimately return, but it shouldn’t be the expectation.

That leaves CJ Fredrick, Lance Ware and Adou Thiero.

Frederick is entering year five on a college campus, but he’d still have one season of eligibility beyond this one, and he’s not currently considered to be an NBA Draft prospect. Ware is going into his third college season. He’s also not on draft boards, though it’s incredibly rare for a scholarship player to play four seasons at Kentucky in the Calipari era. Thiero came to UK as a long-term prospect and is expected to be back for the 2023-24 season.

Even if those latter three players all return, that’s only nine scholarship players for the 2023-24 roster. Perhaps someone comes back for a fifth season or one of those projected draft picks doesn’t pan out for 2023, but it seems more likely than not that — even if the Cats add Bradshaw, Edwards, Onyenso and Wagner to Dillingham and Sheppard — there will be at least one or two more additions before next season.

Ron Holland — a five-star forward from Texas — is a player at the top of Calipari’s wish list. Class of 2024 guard Ian Jackson could reclassify and pick Kentucky (though that might be a tougher sell if Wagner, Dillingham and Sheppard are already on board). Perhaps a late-bloomer like Thiero pops up in the spring, and I do think you might see UK (and other perennial contenders) look to longer-term prospects like him more often in the future as they try to fill out their rosters in this transfer portal era.

And the transfer portal will continue to be a legitimate option. And a terrific safety net. Kentucky took only one transfer this past offseason (Reeves), but the Cats took a hard look at several others. There wasn’t much need to add more players this offseason, but that won’t be the case every year.

Bottom line: there will be a lot more roster turnover in 2023 than there was in 2022, and UK will exhaust all avenues of finding talent to fill in the gaps once that time comes.

Jai Lucas was always identified as the recruiting coordinator. Now that he is gone, who is filling that role?

When Jai Lucas was hired by Kentucky two years ago, there were technically no open spots as an assistant coach. At the time, Lucas, who left for Duke this offseason, was a rising star in college basketball coaching circles, and UK was just trying to get him in the door in a meaningful capacity. He was ultimately elevated to assistant coach a couple months later. Lucas retained the “recruiting coordinator” title — and obviously contributed a huge amount to UK’s efforts there — but that job, in reality, has and always will be a team effort. It involves everything from creating promotional literature for recruits to planning on-campus visits to communicating with families to the actual act of evaluating, prioritizing and recruiting players.

None of that is falling through the cracks, and it doesn’t sound like there are any immediate plans to put that “recruiting coordinator” title on anyone. Support staff is handling a lot of the behind-the-scenes promotion of the program, and the coaches are obviously on the same page regarding who Kentucky’s top targets will be.

As long as there is communication — especially among the coaching staff — regarding the program’s priority targets, things should go smoothly. Calipari has assembled a staff with three proven recruiters — Orlando Antigua, Chin Coleman, and the recently hired K.T. Turner — and he’ll always be the one who oversees and dictates the program’s recruiting efforts, no matter who holds a particular title.

Right now, it looks like Calipari could be on the verge of one of his best recruiting classes ever at Kentucky — on paper, it might end up as the best in the Calipari era — so, clearly, something is going right for the Cats with the current setup.

Do you think there is any chance John Calipari gets fired with another early tournament exit?

I always hesitate to say there’s “zero chance” of anything happening. But there’s zero chance of this happening.

Yes, an early exit from the 2023 tournament would mean at least nine years without a Final Four appearance and at least 12 years without a national title. At Kentucky, those would both qualify as painfully long droughts. But the fact remains that Calipari has still won a ton of games in the time since UK’s last Final Four trip ended with a loss to Wisconsin to cap a 38-1 season.

And, yes, there’s a lot of angst among a vocal and growing corner of BBN following the past two seasons, specifically — first, the 9-16 debacle; then, the Saint Peter’s stunner — and it’s pretty clear that nothing short of a long run in March is going to quell that at this point.

But, three things here …

Folks I’ve talked to elsewhere in college basketball — coaches, media, etc. — have been shocked in recent months at the level of discontent surrounding Calipari among some UK fans. Those perspectives aren’t going to change anyone’s mind who thinks he’s doing a poor job, but — from the outside looking in — people who know the game think it’s crazy that this is even a subject being discussed among fans.

Next, his contract. It’s pretty much impossible for Kentucky to walk away from it. Just for the sake of this argument, if UK were to fire Calipari after the 2022-23 season, it would be looking at a buyout north of $38 million. That’s an incredibly high number, and it would be indefensible for Kentucky to pay that amount to someone to not coach basketball games. (While also having to pay a new coach a similarly large annual salary).

And then there’s recruiting. UK appears to have a real shot at its best class in the Calipari era. The vast majority of the players projected to be in that Kentucky class for 2023 wouldn’t be coming if not for Calipari. That means if he’s not here, they won’t be here. And, given the expected roster turnover next offseason, that would mean a complete and total rebuild.

Postseason results matter most around here, and another early NCAA Tournament exit — as unpredictable as things are in March Madness — should be cause for some serious self-reflection. But the reality of the situation is that — at this point in his contract — Calipari is the person who decides if or when he’s leaving Kentucky. No one else.

And, looking ahead at the next two seasons of UK basketball, there’s plenty of reason to believe there will be a whole lot of winning in the near future.

Kentucky basketball mailbag: Recruiting, Calipari and more

Ben Roberts is the University of Kentucky men’s basketball beat writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He has previously specialized in UK basketball recruiting coverage and created and maintained the Next Cats blog. He is a Franklin County native and first joined the Herald-Leader in 2006.
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