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Star basketball recruit Justin Edwards commits to Kentucky

Star basketball recruit Justin Edwards commits to Kentucky

Team Final’s Justin Edwards (3) drives the ball into the paint during the first day of the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League session on Saturday, May 28, 2022, at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

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Earlier this summer, incoming Kentucky basketball freshman Adou Thiero was asked if his father had given him any advice regarding his new coach.

Thiero’s dad, Almamy Thiero, had played for John Calipari at Memphis, so he knew exactly what his son was getting into. The elder Thiero’s words of wisdom?

“Don’t let him repeat himself,” Adou relayed.

That got a chuckle from a handful of reporters who had seen Calipari’s practices, where mistakes from young players are expected but repeated mistakes are not excused.

The Hall of Fame coach’s newest recruit, five-star wing Justin Edwards, isn’t likely to have that problem.

“He just works really hard. He’s really smart,” said Andre Noble, the head coach at Imhotep Institute in Philadelphia. “He’s able to learn something, and then put it into his game. Sometimes you see kids training, and it’s, ‘Train, train, train,’ and then it takes them forever to get from training to actually being able to do it in a game. Justin is the exact opposite. You can show him something, and he has it. You see him play right after that, and he’s doing it.

“He really processes it well. And that last step — which is usually the hardest one — of putting things into your game that you’ve learned, he’s really good at.”

Edwards — a 6-foot-7 wing from Philly — announced his commitment to Kentucky on Monday night, choosing the Wildcats over Tennessee, which had recruited him to be the centerpiece of its 2023 class. He’ll be a major player at UK, too — he’s a top-five prospect nationally, after all — but he’s likely to come to Lexington as one of several elite recruits in what is shaping up as a monster class for Kentucky.

And sharing the spotlight should suit his game just fine.

It wasn’t too long ago that Edwards wasn’t even ranked in the 2023 class. 247Sports was the first recruiting service to place him on its list — putting him No. 59 nationally at the end of his sophomore season. He didn’t enter the consensus top 100 nationally until a few months after that, debuting last July at No. 32 overall in the 247Sports composite rankings. By the start of his junior year a few months later, he was up to No. 16. Going into this spring, he was at No. 10. Now, he’s the No. 3 overall prospect in the country, and there’s ample reason to think that the climb won’t stop there.

His rise can be attributed to that focus on listening, learning and implementing new things in his game. He’s also plenty long, plenty athletic, and plenty skilled. Put it together, and you have a player that 247Sports analyst Travis Branham has called perhaps the “most well-rounded prospect” in the entire 2023 class.

“He’s a very versatile and skilled wing,” Branham said. “He’s 6-foot-7. He’s long. He’s athletic. He can pass, dribble and shoot. He can go out and create his own shot if he wants to. But, typically, Justin has a knack of playing the right way and letting the game come to him. He rebounds. He defends. He’s a really good passer. There’s just a lot he does that impacts the game — that puts his fingerprint on the game.

“It’s a really good pick-up for Kentucky. And he’s a guy who is very much in the conversation for being the No. 1 prospect in the class.”

Edwards averaged 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game as a junior at Imhotep last season, leading the team to a state championship. He shot 39.5 percent from three-point range in the Nike EYBL regular season and helped Team Final advance to the quarterfinals at Peach Jam over the weekend.

Noble is quick to remind that his star player wasn’t nationally known as a youngster. He earned his spot in the 2023 rankings through hard work and determination, and it wasn’t always pretty. Regarding his defensive skills as a freshman …

“Oof, it was tough to watch,” Noble says. “But to see where it’s come — he’s now a very good defender and really focuses in and works hard at it. I’m proud of how he’s grown, and it helps us to win basketball games.”

That’s certainly one of the aspects of Edwards’ game that caught Calipari’s eye.

Top UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua did the heavy lifting in Edwards’ recruitment, and then — when Tennessee emerged as a serious threat earlier this year — Calipari put on the full-court press.

In late April, amid buzz that the Volunteers and their “come be our star” pitch had solidified Tennessee as the favorite in Edwards’ recruitment, Calipari and the entire UK coaching staff flew to Philadelphia to meet with the high school junior. Pretty much since then, the head coach has been in constant contact — a level of attention that Calipari reserves for only his very top priority recruits.

Obviously, it paid off Monday night.

Justin Edwards’ fit at Kentucky

Edwards currently sits at No. 3 in the 247Sports composite rankings for the 2023 class, but one of the players in front of him — new South Carolina commitment GG Jackson — is going to reclassify to 2022. This move from Jackson — who emerged earlier this year as the consensus No. 1 recruit in the class — has been expected for a while and has provided plenty of rankings fodder for recruiting analysts, who will now be tasked with naming a new No. 1 player for 2023.

Every short list for that top spot includes Edwards.

He joins a UK recruiting class that already features combo guards Robert Dillingham (currently No. 6 in the 2023 composite rankings) and Reed Sheppard (No. 20 on that list). Calipari isn’t close to finished with this group, however, and Kentucky could very well land two or three more top-15ish recruits, including New Jersey guard DJ Wagner, who might be Edwards’ top competition for the No. 1 national ranking heading into the fall.

The potential wealth of talent might lead one to wonder if there will be enough opportunities to please everyone on the Wildcats’ 2023-24 roster. It won’t be a worry for Edwards, who has proven his unselfishness throughout his young career.

His high school coach couldn’t say for sure whether Edwards led his team in shots last season, needing to double-check the stats first. The fact that it was even a question for perhaps the No. 1 recruit in America says volumes about Edwards’ approach to the game.

“He’s an efficient scorer. He just doesn’t take bad shots,” Noble said. “If he gets into a gap — and usually he draws attention — he’s kicking the ball. That doesn’t affect him at all. It’s really how he plays. Sometimes we have to get on him about being more aggressive. He’ll say, ‘I’m just making the right play.’

“It goes back to his basketball IQ. He’s not going to force up shots to say he had 20 points. That’s not who he is. He’s always been efficient in his scoring. To impact the game, he doesn’t need a bunch of shots. He’s going to take the right ones, and he’s going to create offense for his teammates. If he wants a shot, but there’s a better shot, he’s kicking it.”

He should have plenty of talented teammates to kick it to next year at Kentucky.

Until then, he’ll continue to work on his game.

Noble said Edwards knows he needs to get stronger. He has a naturally thin frame, but he wants to be ready to play physically from day one in college. He’s also working on going right off the dribble. “He’s one of those tricky lefties — it’s hard to stop him from getting left, but we want him to be more balanced,” Noble said.

“One of the things that’s great about him is he’s never satisfied with his game. He’s always trying to add the next piece. He loves the gym. He’s extremely dedicated and committed to being the best of himself. There are a lot of things that I love about him, but his drive to get better is awesome.”

The consensus — among coaches, recruiting analysts, anyone who watches Edwards play for any extended period of time — is that one of his best traits is he lets the game come to him. He plays within himself and finds ways to complement his teammates.

He could have gone just about anywhere in the country and immediately become the featured player. Instead, he committed to Kentucky knowing full well that the Cats could end up with one of Calipari’s best recruiting classes ever — a roster likely to be stacked with go-to options.

“What he’s worried about is just winning,” Noble said. “That’s really how he sees it. If he has 12 points and we win, he’s excited about, ‘We got a W today.’ And that’s how all of us around him are. Winning is what separates you. He’s embraced that. The sharing and all of that stuff — he already does that. If anyone watches him now, that’s what they see.”

This story was originally published July 25, 2022 7:05 PM.

Star basketball recruit Justin Edwards commits to Kentucky

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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