After coming in as a top-ten prospect and McDonald's All-American, there has been a significant learning curve for Kentucky freshman EJ Montgomery.
Going into yesterday's game, the 6-foot-10 prospect out of Fort Pierce, Fla. has seen point totals of eight, six, ten, six, eight, and seven, but he has been wildly inconsistent. As a result, we've seen a significant drop in minutes, with Montgomery not seeing over 15 minutes in a game since the first of December.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has preached that he's waiting for a "breakthrough" moment with the elite prospect where the world can finally see how talented he can really be. He has reportedly done it in practice, but translating that to in-game success just hasn't happened yet.
Last night, the former five-star power forward had his breakthrough.
In 20 minutes of action, Montgomery managed a career-high in points and his first career double-double with 11 points on 5-7 shooting and 13 rebounds. He also added one assist, one block, and one steal for good measure.
After the game, Calipari couldn't stop raving about Montgomery's massive performance off the bench.
“E.J. was really good,” Calipari said. “Double-double, active, playing hard, blocking shots. He’s starting to come around. This was a great game for him to prove it against a really physical team, that they’re going to get body-to-body on you. He was able to still get it done.”
For Montgomery, it was a moment he knew was right around the corner. All of the hard work and effort he puts in at practice finally paid off in the form of a career night.
"It's a good feeling when you put in all the hard work every day to come out and improve, and you do it," he said. "I knew my time was coming."
The biggest moment of the game for Montgomery came with the clock ticking down late in the second half. Sitting at eight points and 13 rebounds, the former five-star prospect needed just one more bucket to secure his first career double-double.
With 16 seconds remaining, the Wildcat freshman found himself wide open at the top of the key. He caught the pass, squared up to the basket, and launched it with zero hesitation. Splash.
"Yeah, I knew (I was one basket away from the double-double)," Montgomery said. "Some of my teammates were telling me, so Coach Cal ran a play for me."
But that big moment would not have happened had it not been for his intensity on the floor in the first half. Prior to intermission, Montgomery put up seven rebounds and made a solid impact on the defensive end of the floor.
Montgomery said he's been making that his main focus each night, and it has actually translated to offensive success.
"That's my focus now going into games, getting rebounds and playing defense, just letting my offense come to me," he said.
After months of battling against Kentucky forwards PJ Washington, Reid Travis, and Nick Richards in practice, Calipari believes the wars going on during each practice have finally paid off for his freshman big man.
“EJ, I am so happy for him,” Cal said. “Every day in practice going against Nick, Reid, and PJ has done this for EJ.”
"It definitely gets me ready for physical games like this one," he said. "Going against them every day is a challenge, and it's definitely getting me better."
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said that Montgomery didn't receive the accolades he did out of high school because he's not a good player; he knew we'd see a dominant performance out of him at some point. Like Calipari and Montgomery both said, matching up with Washington, Travis, and Richards in practice has prepared him for this moment.
“EJ wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American because he’s no good," he said. "I don’t know Calipari’s team. I’m not at practice every day, but he’s got three guys on the front line, two of which started last year, that are both really good and a fifth-year senior. So, I’m sure EJ keeps getting better because he is competing with those guys in practice. He got an opportunity tonight. He’s extremely active on the interior, he protected the rim. He rebounded every ball that came off the rim. That credit to EJ. They called his number today and responded and played with physicality and just created problems with us.”
Montgomery's sparring partner in practice, PJ Washington, said he couldn't be happier for the Wildcat freshman.
"It was great. I'm happy for him. I'm one of his biggest fans and just to see him go out there and put a smile on everyone's faces, that's big for us."
Kentucky guard Jemarl Baker said that it's massive for the team's overall success moving forward for Montgomery to be firing on all cylinders. With a balanced effort from the top of the roster to the bottom, the Cats can afford to have an off night from a player and still come out with the win.
"We know we're going to need everybody to win," he said. "We know there are going to be games that somebody isn't going to have a good game, and we know that everybody else needs to step up when it's time to."
Judging by the Gatorade bath Montgomery received from his teammates after the game, they're not lying when they say they're happy for him.
PJ Washington, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, Reid Travis, and Ashton Hagans have all proven they can take over a game on any given night. Immanuel Quickley and Jemarl Baker understand their roles off the bench. Nick Richards has even had sporadic moments of high-level success.
But the one player we've been waiting on is EJ Montgomery.
With the 6-foot-10 freshman out of Fort Pierce, FL finally finding his footing, this team just got a whole lot scarier.