Well folks, we survived. After four-and-a-half full months without college basketball (oh, the humanity!) we finally got a little hoop over the last week with Kentucky’s trip to the Bahamas. And after four games, well, the gauntlet has been thrown down for the 2018-2019 season.
That’s because after a four-game run in which Kentucky absolutely bludgeoned four professional teams from across the globe, there is no doubt: Kentucky – a team which most believed was the preseason favorite coming into the 2018-2019 year – somehow looked better than even the most optimistic fans could have possibly imagined. A trip which was supposed to expose this team’s holes and weaknesses and give them plenty to work on in the coming months, instead did the opposite: It showed that Kentucky has no major holes and that this is one of the deepest, most skilled teams of the Calipari era in Lexington. It also showed that there is no single reason (short of a team-wide outbreak of typhoid fever) that they shouldn’t be in Minneapolis on the final weekend of the season competing for a national championship.
Yes, that’s right, for all the excitement of the off-season, the Bahamas trip showed that maybe we didn’t give this team enough hype entering the season.
Anyway, now a few days removed from the trip, I decided to go ahead and hand out some “grades” for the Wildcats players, while also explaining what I saw, what I liked, and what needs work.
Just know one thing: You’re going to see a lot of high grades. After four-straight games of double-digit wins, there frankly isn’t that much to pick apart.
Tyler Herro (A+++++++)
Yes, as a teacher, my typical grading scale is “A+” to “F” but after Herro’s performance in the Bahamas I couldn’t help but make an exception. He wasn’t just an “A+” player but something well beyond that. Frankly, the only reason I stopped at seven “pluses” is because the key got stuck on my computer.
Yes, Herro was that good.
The simple truth is that Herro was the revelation of the trip, a player who came in with plenty of hype and – like so many of his teammates – exceeded that. In the matter of one week he went from a guy that most UK fans hoped would get a couple buckets off the bench to one that is now being compared with Rex Chapman, Malik Monk and Devin Booker as one of the best wings to ever come through the school.
And if we’re being honest, Herro has earned that praised. Hyped throughout his career as a “shooter” who would add three-point range to this squad, Herro showed that he might already be one of the best all-around scorers college basketball – and no, that isn’t hyperbole. How many guys in college basketball could have done what Herro did against four teams stocked with the best professionals across the globe? Especially considering that he did it on relatively few shots.
As a matter of fact, that was the most impressive thing for Herro in the Bahamas: Despite leading the team in scoring at over 17 points per game, he let the game come to him. He finished the trip shooting 57 percent from the field (23 of 40), a staggering number for a player who does most of his work from 15-feet or beyond. In the process he showed that he isn’t just a “shooter” but an athletic scorer, with the ability to get buckets from pretty much anywhere on the court. There wasn’t one thing you would have wanted to see from Herro that wasn’t on display this weekend.
Point being, there is SO much to like about Herro’s game. And there’s a reason he’s already being compared to Chapman, Booker and so many others.
P.J. Washington (A+)
When it comes to the NBA Draft process, I rarely get too into what a player “should” do. When it comes to making an NBA Draft decision there are simply too many factors at play, be it a player’s family situation, their age, or simply whether they like school or not. But with Washington though, I felt different. Yes, he was projected as a potential second round pick in this past June’s draft. But it really did feel like if he could just improve a few small things (specifically ball-handling and three-point shooting) he could move his way well up draft boards and easily into the first round.
Well apparently, Washington listened to me (OK, probably not) because every single thing an NBA scout would have wanted to see from Washington, he displayed over the course of four games in the Bahamas. The 6’8 sophomore finished as Kentucky’s second-leading scorer (14 points per game) and averaged a cool 7.5 rebounds – a number which probably would’ve been higher if not for Reid Travis. More impressively though he proved to be a much more complete player than he was last season, hitting 3 of 7 shots from behind the arc and initiating the offense on the fast-break at times as well.
But you know what I loved most about Washington’s play in the Bahamas: He became (along with the next guy on this list) the unquestioned emotional leader of this team. He set the tone early with physicality and toughness, slapped away opposing player’s shots after the whistle blew and always seemed to have his teammate’s back when a scuffle broke out.
Understand, it’s one thing for a team to have as much skill as Kentucky does. But when they have the toughness to go with it, that’s a lethal combination. And it’s a toughness created by P.J. Washington.
Well, P.J. Washington and…
Keldon Johnson (A+)
Quick question: Is it too late to name myself the President of the Keldon Johnson fan-club? If not, let me know. I’m already getting t-shirts printed up and buttons made. I also booked the reception hall down the street for our first meeting next Tuesday. It’s a pot luck kind of deal, so feel free to bring a small dessert or something.
In all seriousness, I don’t think there are very many words I can use to describe just how much I enjoyed watching Johnson play this weekend. A player who was already hyped as a Top 15 prospect and maybe Kentucky’s best long-term NBA prospect somehow surpassed realistic expectations, as a tornado on the court, a guy who got after it on the defensive end, while providing the ability to score from all three levels on the offensive end. He also threw down a couple dunks that were so violent, small children shouldn’t be allowed to see the replays because they might have nightmares.
Like this one, for example. Parents, hide the kids.
And then Keldon Johnson took another poor man's soul. MERCY! pic.twitter.com/GlEutG8ksE
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) August 12, 2018
Most of all though, you know what I loved about him? He played with an intensity that is rarely seen from a basketball player anywhere, let alone a college freshman. He was all over the court, yelling and screaming and getting in the opposing player’s faces, screaming after big dunks, clapping his hands after big defensive stops and slapping the ball in disgust when he’d get fouled going in for a layup, clearly mad that he didn’t finish a play that was impossible to finish.
Ultimately, it’s easy to see why Johnson has been described as a “dog” by so many of teammates, and it really does feel like the intensity that he and Washington brought every night was infectious with his teammates. It’s something you can’t put a price tag on once the season begins, as Johnson will be the guy that finds a way to fire up everyone on the roster, even on nights when the natural emotion and intensity isn’t there.
Let’s just say, there really isn’t anything not to like about Keldon Johnson – and yes, I apologize for using a double-negative, but I’m just that fired up!
I want to be Keldon Johnson when I grow up.
Sophomore Nick Richards (A)
Not sure if you got the memo, but it’s official: Nick Richards can only be referred to as “Sophomore Nick Richards” (cc: Drew Franklin) going forward. Sorry, I don’t make up the rules. I just enforce them.
Honestly though, was there a bigger shock this entire trip than Richards? Sure, guys like Herro and Quade Green (more on him coming) probably played beyond expectations. But Richards? Yeah, I’m sorry, I can’t say I saw him going from “unplayable freshman” to “Hakeem Olajuwon” overnight.
The simple truth is that I have been watching college basketball for 25 years and can’t ever remember a player improving more in one summer than Richards appears to have over the course of the last few months. That limited, raw player from last season turned into a man overnight, confidently maneuvering around the basket, ripping down big boards and swatting shots into the second row of the stands. At one point he even two-hand blocked another player’s shot, at which point I nearly opened a “23 and me” account because I needed some DNA proof that this was the same guy.
We already knew Kentucky was going to be good coming into the season, but if Richards can continue to play the way he did in the Bahamas, he adds a whole new element to the Wildcats roster. And he makes them that much scarier for their opponents.
Quade Green (A)
Because Richards has improved so rapidly, and freshmen like Herro and Johnson exceeded expectations, does anyone else feel like Green’s play went completely under the radar this past week? Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel like he was the least talked about star of the trip.
He certainly has the most crazy stat of the trip. Get this: Green finished 15 of 30 from the field in the Bahamas, a very respectable 50 percent shooting performance. But here’s the crazy part: Does anyone else remember him going 1 for 11 in the first game? That means that in the final three games of the trip, he went 14 of 19 from the field. To quote John Calipari… WHAT?!?!?!
What makes that stat so much more impressive was that Green put up those numbers while showing a more complete overall game. He didn’t shoot 14 of 19 in those three games with easy buckets around the rim, but instead deep three’s, shots off passes and curls and difficult runners and floaters in the lane.
There really is no other way to put it: Green was the best player coming out of this trip that no one is talking about.
Immanuel Quickley (A-)
Well, actually, on second thought, is Quickley the least talked about player coming back from the Bahamas? He just might be.
The simple truth is that while Quickley did nothing to stand out (like say, nearly kill a man with a dunk like Keldon Johnson), he was also the Wildcats’ most steady hand, with a staggering 18 turnovers and just two assists in four games. While I thought he forced a few shots in the final game, he otherwise ran the team like a seasoned pro.
With Green’s ability to score in bunches, don’t be surprised to see Quickley running the offense for a good chunk of the season.
Reid Travis (B+)
So when I did my recap of Kentucky’s first few games last week, I was a bit critical of Travis, and some fans mistook it. It’s not that I’m anti-Reid Travis, or think he’ll be a bust. But I do think that – even for a fifth-year senior – the Bahamas trip showed that he still has a lot of work to do to make it to the NBA.
Regardless, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a darn good college player, with the Bahamas trip showing exactly what he will provide for this Kentucky team: Toughness in the paint. Travis averaged 10.3 boards per contest on the trip, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he will be even better once the season starts. If he’s already grabbing that many boards against 25 and 30-year-old grown men, can you imagine what he’ll do against 18 and 19-year-olds?
If anything, I think Travis (more than any player except Ashton Hagans) may have played to his nerves in the Bahamas. It’s clear the skills are there, but in his first showcase for Big Blue Nation, it seemed as though he was playing too fast and thinking too much on the court. The last game was his best, and he even displayed some three-point shooting as well.
The bad news for Travis is that he didn’t have his best performance in the Bahamas. The good news is, I think we may have already seen his “worst” days in a Kentucky uniform.
Ashton Hagans (B)
There was a lot of “boom or bust” in Ashton Hagans’ play in the Bahamas. On a positive note, he was by far the Wildcats best perimeter defender on the trip and will be an absolute nightmare for opposing SEC point guards. The bad news is that he was a bit out of control on the offensive end, playing too fast, turning the ball over too much, and making a lot of “freshmen” mistakes.
But truthfully isn’t that a good thing for Hagans? As talented as he is, he is also a player who is supposed to be entering his senior year of high school right now. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the speed of the game might take some time to adjust to. Two months ago he was playing against 16-year-old’s. This week he was playing against players twice their age.
Overall, Hagans is going to be fine.
At the very least he’s going to play 15-20 minutes off the bench and be a sparkplug defensive star for the Wildcats. But if he can stay calm on offense, run the point without turning the ball over and hit shots, watch out. Out of every player on the roster, he has the most room to grow between now and March.
E.J. Montgomery/Jemarl Baker (Inc)
Obviously, everyone including Montgomery and Baker would have liked to play more minutes in the Bahamas. But as important as these games are, they pale in comparison to the long-term health of these guys. If they weren’t 100 percent, it was best to play it safe and let Montgomery and Baker ease back in when they’re fully healthy.
That said, it will be interesting to see if they are a step behind everyone else when they return. We saw that the last two players who arrived this summer (Travis and Hagans) struggled the most in the Bahamas and it wouldn’t surprise me if both these guys (especially Baker) needed some time to re-adjust once they return to the floor.
The Team Overall (A+)
I mentioned it all off the top, but it really is worth repeating here: As good as everyone thought the Wildcats would look (and virtually every national writer had them ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in their preseason polls), Kentucky somehow looked better. And the crazy part is that it’s only August. There is so much more time before the first game in November, so much to work on before the games start to count.
That’s also what is so scary for everyone else: If Kentucky looks this good in August, what will they look like in November?
It’s a wild thing to wrap your brain around and a scary thought for everyone else in college basketball.