Yes, we get it. Seven scholarship players — eight including Brennan Canada — for John Calipari and the Kentucky basketball program here in June. Six weeks away until the Wildcats head to Toronto for the GLOBL JAM, representing the United States in a round-robin Under-23 tournament also featuring Canada, Germany and Team Africa.
As of today, though, that roster includes just five freshmen in DJ Wagner, Rob Dillingham, Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw and Reed Sheppard, along with returning sophomores Adou Thiero and Ugonna Onyenso.
The draft withdrawal deadline passed with two new official departures from the program, bringing the total to eight this offseason. Oscar Tshiebwe and Chris Livingston joined Cason Wallace and Jacob Toppin in the 2023 NBA Draft, while Sahvir Wheeler (Washington), CJ Fredrick (Cincinnati), Daimion Collins (LSU) and Lance Ware (Villanova) all transferred out. Antonio Reeves withdrew from the draft, but continues to weigh his college options, including a potential transfer from Kentucky.
96 points of returning production, a combined average of 16.6 minutes per contest.
Calipari stressed patience on June 1, noting that his hands were tied until the withdrawal deadline passed, but a plan was in place.
“We’ve prepared for all scenarios and now we can move forward,” he said at the time. “… We want players who want this culture, who care about winning, understand what it means to play at Kentucky – both how hard and how rewarding it is – and have the ultimate drive to win and succeed on the biggest stage, which helps everyone.
“We have a talented group right now which isn’t finished yet, but when it’s done we will have a talented team who will chase the ultimate goal together and make #BBN proud.”
Playing the waiting game
Fair enough. The issue, though, is 48 of the top 50 and 93 of the top 100 players in the On3 portal rankings have already committed elsewhere. Similar results in the 247Sports portal rankings: 46 of the top 50 and 93 of the top 100 are claimed. Kentucky hosted two players on official visits, Hunter Dickinson (Michigan) in April and Keshad Johnson (San Diego State) in May, potential replacements for Oscar Tshiebwe and Chris Livingston, respectively. The Wildcats would ultimately miss on all four, Dickinson signing with Kansas and Johnson going with Arizona while the other two kept their names in the draft.
Calipari dipped his toe in the portal waters to open the offseason, but opted against seriously pursuing anyone beyond Dickinson and Johnson. Kentucky was connected to a number of players — remember JUCO standout Chad Baker-Mazara announcing he spoke with the Wildcats, only to commit to Auburn just hours later? — with minimal traction. Hell, the UK head coach went out of his way to call most of what is being reported fake news.
“There’s so much misinformation out there and most of it we can’t address publicly,” Calipari said. “Numbers being thrown around just aren’t accurate, who we are in contact with or who we are not in contact with, we don’t make it public.”
Again, fine. Kentucky isn’t new to hat-on-the-table recruitments, players using the blue-blood program to drive up interest (and NIL money) elsewhere. But if you’re willing to host two key replacement pieces on visits, why was the line drawn there? Why can the program now move forward when Dickinson and Johnson were clearly move-forward options? It’s either revisionist history or indicates a lack of planning and focus, one foot in both boats. And now, Calipari has a roster to fill with the best of the rest.
Does that mean a contending roster can’t be constructed? Certainly not, and that’s where we’re going to play devil’s advocate.
It starts and stops with Antonio Reeves
Antonio Reeves is the ultimate domino, one that can really shake things up for the Wildcats depending on how it falls. The native of Chicago averaged 14.4 points per contest while shooting 41.6% from the field, 39.8% from three and 78.3% at the line as a senior in Lexington. He’s currently trying to decide whether to enter the portal or not, looking to maximize NIL and role in his final season of eligibility. Get him back to play alongside Wagner and Dillingham in the backcourt and things are looking up.
If you don’t? Well, that’s where things get tricky.
UC Riverside’s Zyon Pullin stands 6-4, 195 pounds and averaged 18.3 points on 48.6% shooting, 39.4% from three and 77.1% at the line while adding 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per contest. Intriguing, but he’s down to a final five of Florida, Gonzaga, LSU, Michigan and Xavier. DePaul’s Ahamad Bynum is a former four-star recruit, but averaged just 3.8 points on 28% shooting, 20.7% from three and 57.1% at the line for the Blue Demons as a freshman. Next.
Utah Valley’s Trey Woodbury? 13.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.7 APG with 45/40/73 splits, but he’ll need a waiver to play again next season. Alabama State’s Isaiah Range, who averaged 14.0 points on 42% shooting, 42.7% from three and 78.8% at the line? Coming off a broken leg, but the numbers are solid in the SWAC. Maryland’s Ian Martinez? 5.7 PPG, 45/40/80 splits, former four-star. Andre Curbelo of St. John’s, another four-star? Non-shooter (worse than 30% 3PT all three seasons of college).
Those are the remaining handful of guards left in the portal, available top-200 players. Some viable roster options, but one capable of finishing in double figures 26 times, including 10 games of at least 20 points en route to SEC Sixth Man of the Year honors? That guy simply doesn’t exist, no spin for that disaster scenario. And looking at the 2024 class — a historically bad group — for reclass options isn’t the answer, either. Kentucky has no choice but to get Reeves back.
Make that happen and you have eight strong core pieces, but depth remains a concern. You need scholarship bodies for practice and injury insurance, no matter how tight Calipari tends to keep his rotation.
Insert Joey Hart and Jordan Burks, a pair of three-star recruits in the class of 2023 set to visit Kentucky this week. The former is a 3-point specialist out of Indiana (Linton Stockton) who backed out of his commitment to Central Florida back in May, while the latter is a former Ole Miss signee. Now, the Wildcats are in position to add both.
Standing 6-5, Hart earned SISN Indiana Highschool Boys Player of the Year honors after averaging 23.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per contest while shooting 41% from three as a senior. As for Burks, a 6-9 forward out of Decatur, AL, he led Overtime Elite this past season with 27.1 points on 46.7% shooting, 26.7% from three and 67% at the line to go with 7.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals per contest. The Hillcrest Prep standout is listed as the No. 172 overall prospect in the 2023 On3 Industry Ranking.
Back-to-back visits could lead to back-to-back commitments. There’s some depth.
And while the Kentucky staff is looking for help around OTE, maybe take a shot at four-star center Somto Cyril — a 6-10, 250-pound bulldozer who the Wildcats have been keeping tabs on since 2021. Listed as a ’24 prospect, he graduated from high school in May and is eligible to reclassify and enroll immediately. UK lost essentially all of its physicality in the frontcourt following the departures of Tshiebwe and Lance Ware this offseason. Adding Cyril would check some obvious boxes.
One final home run swing
Could the Wildcats find a potential game-changer to wrap things up? Look no further than Creighton forward Arthur Kaluma, who heard from Kentucky upon withdrawing from the draft, along with the likes of Alabama, Texas and Texas Tech. Standing 6-7, 225 pounds, he’s a top-20 portal piece with real star potential, averaging 11.8 points and 6.0 rebounds in 29.3 minutes per contest for the Bluejays as a sophomore. In a vacuum, the excitement that would have been felt with the return of Chris Livingston is essentially what you’d get with Kaluma, a former top-50 recruit with Elite Eight experience.
Kentucky has explored the addition of St. John’s transfer David Jones, who would bring similar positional versatility at 6-6, 210. He averaged 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds this past season for the Red Storm after a breakthrough sophomore campaign at DePaul, averaging 14.5 points and 7.4 rebounds, respectively. Memphis, Kansas State and Xavier are also in the running for the top-50 portal option.
In short, Kentucky’s roster will soon expand from seven scholarship players to as many as 12 (13 including Brennan Canada). And that movement is expected starting this week.
Is it enough?
What could that rotation look like on paper?
- Guards: DJ Wagner, Rob Dillingham, Antonio Reeves, Reed Sheppard, Joey Hart
- Wings: Justin Edwards, Arthur Kaluma, Adou Thiero, Jordan Burks, Brennan Canada
- Bigs: Aaron Bradshaw, Ugo Onyenso, Somto Cyril
On paper, the pieces could be there. It’s still a young group overall, but one with talent and potential with veterans filling the gaps. Certainly plenty of offensive firepower to keep things entertaining. And it’s a guard-dominant bunch, bringing back a style and makeup Calipari prefers, where we’ve seen him at his best in the past.
Now it’s on the Kentucky coaching staff to mold that roster of nine-ish new faces into a contender — assuming pen hits paper, of course.