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4-Point Play: KSR's final takeaways from EYBL Session III

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim05/20/24

I’ll be honest with you guys, Nike EYBL Session I in Memphis from April 26-28 was a struggle. Mark Pope was in the middle of forming his coaching staff and building a competitive roster with high school recruiting on the back burner. The Kentucky coaches had reached out to a few top-tier kids early to lay a surface-level foundation, but things just hadn’t progressed too far from there quite yet. That led to a weird situation in Memphis where you’re not exactly sure who to watch or interview, leading to a few awkward interactions with kids hoping and waiting to hear from the new Kentucky staff while others were blunt in saying they had no interest in the Wildcats without John Calipari.

We made the most of it, but admittedly didn’t learn as much as we had hoped to regarding the next era of high school recruiting in Lexington.

That shifted in Indianapolis at EYBL Session III, the very first live period of Pope’s time at Kentucky. The KSR crew got to follow the coaches around like lost puppies all weekend hoping to build a base group of talent to keep an eye on moving forward, Zack Geoghegan compiling that list of nearly 30 names earlier today.

How about some big-picture takeaways from the weekend, though? What was it like being with Pope and company for three days in a gym full of thousands of coaches?

A balanced evaluation effort

Let’s start with how the staff watched these players throughout the weekend, spreading far and wide across the country at three separate events to do so. Pope and Jason Hart got started in Indianapolis at EYBL while Cody Fueger was in Bryan (TX) at Adidas 3SSB and Alvin Brooks III was in Wichita (KS) at Puma’s PRO16/NXT in Wichita (KS). After day one, Brooks joined Pope and Hart at EYBL while Fueger hung back at 3SSB on Saturday, followed by a complete pivot of Pope and Hart flying to 3SSB while Fueger joined Brooks at EYBL on Sunday.

Taking a closer look at the individual games and players watched in Indianapolis, the coaches often spent one half split up on different courts, then swapped at halftime to cross-evaluate. And if they could position themselves to straddle two courts simultaneously or watch from the birds-eye platform above to see multiple games at a time, they would. There was note-taking on hard-copy coaches’ packets with Pope himself using a binder with analytics and charts, vigorous and calculated in their evaluations. It wasn’t just a networking weekend to catch up with old buddies like some coaches use the live period for, it was all business.

No one outworked the Kentucky coaching staff from Friday to Sunday.

Pope goes after the best of the best

It’s easy to say you’re going to continue recruiting at the highest level and bring in McDonald’s All-Americans on a regular basis when you take the Kentucky job — it’s what the fans want to hear. They liked the kids John Calipari brought in year after year, they just wanted better postseason results with that talent after coming up short recently. And there was a fear Lexington would turn into BYU East, recruiting at that level vs. this level with the resources and platform Kentucky basketball has to offer. This program allows you to swing for the fences, no matter the playing style or fit preferences.

And then Pope re-offered 2025 No. 1 overall recruit AJ Dybantsa to put those worries to bed.

There isn’t a better player in the gym than the 6-9 wing out of Massachusetts, no matter which one he walks into any given weekend. He’s longer, more athletic and more skilled than anyone else in high school basketball, truly a generational talent with All-NBA potential that leaves you drooling with every viewing. The way he glides across the floor and produces on both ends at the highest level every time out is second to none.

Pope and his assistants made sure to sit courtside at every game, just as they were for every top-tier prospect in the nation. KSR counted 15 top-20 players across all shoe circuits with a Kentucky coach in attendance — and that’s how it should be.

Recruiting beyond the rankings

Let’s not get it twisted, though: Kentucky did not go down the list of top recruits and use the rankings as a crutch when navigating the game schedule. You could safely assume under Coach Cal the Wildcats would hit the top 25 with the occasional viewing of a rising star — typically after the star had risen. That’s just how things worked under Calipari, that staff able to slide in late and pick off just about anybody they wanted, whenever they wanted. You can do that when you’re the greatest recruiter of all time with the biggest brand in college basketball, letting everyone else do the grunt work of talent evaluation while you choose your favorites when the time comes.

How that will continue in Fayetteville remains to be seen. As for how things are going in Lexington, Pope and his staff are hitting the best of the best while also showing off their early eye for talent by digging below the surface a bit. Take this one story, for example, a high-level scout asking me to relay the message about a rising standout in the making on the 3SSB circuit in Jamarion Bateman, a three-star currently ranked No. 161 overall and No. 10 among combo guards in the rising senior class. Before I even got the opportunity, a separate text came through from a set of eyes in Texas saying Mark Pope was courtside for Bateman’s game with Power 5 that afternoon.

Other examples included Shelton Henderson (No. 49 overall), Kayden Edwards (No. 87 overall), Acaden Lewis (No. 89 overall) and Kaden Magwood (No. 97 overall), guys outside the top 40 you’d have to know what you’re looking for to find. And you can even include that grouping of 26-40, as well, players who are more fit-specific with niches rather than pure top-end talent. Chris Cenac (No. 30 overall), Davion Hannah (No. 31 overall), Xavion Staton (No. 32 overall) and Kingston Flemings (No. 33 overall) fit in that category, all guys Kentucky watched closely.

The Wildcats are casting a wide net, which is the way to operate when you’re laying your foundation in the first month or two on the job. Gotta swing for the fences on the top talent, but also make sure you find your lesser-known system fits and potential diamonds in the rough.

Names of note for Kentucky moving forward

Kentucky was the clear dream school for Tounde Yessoufou growing up in Benin, coming to the United States in hopes of suiting up for the Wildcats one day — and Pope has made a strong early impression. Fortunately for the Wildcats, the top-25 prospect was clearly one of the best players in the gym in Indianapolis and is seen as a clear riser with five-star upside in the upcoming rankings.

Will Riley, the No. 9 overall prospect and No. 2 small forward in the On3 Player Rankings, is also someone Pope loves and will be watching closely going into the meat and potatoes of the summer. Dropping a session-high 42 points on Friday, he’s also considering a reclass to 2024 with Arizona, Alabama, Kentucky and Arkansas remaining as finalists.

Lexington’s own Jasper Johnson is also a top priority for Pope and company, the five-star guard solidifying himself as the next great in-state talent to come out of Kentucky but also one of the top shot-makers in high school basketball. The UK staff was in attendance for every one of his games throughout the weekend and will be pushing to keep him home when it comes time to make a decision. He’s currently averaging 17.9 points on 41.1% shooting, 30.8% from three and 89.6% at the line to go with 3.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest through three sessions.

Those three, along with Dybantsa, are among Kentucky’s top targets in 2025 as high school recruiting season ramps up into the summer.

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