No, Kentucky doesn’t have numerous home run signings in the works at the point guard position, a string of moves designed to load up the depth chart and ultimately push 2021 signee Nolan Hickman Jr. out the door. No, John Calipari didn’t cut ties with the five-star guard after the coaching departures of Tony Barbee and Joel Justus, Hickman’s two lead recruiters. The senior guard standout decommitted from Kentucky on Friday for several key reasons, none as complicated as you may think.
On the surface level, yes, Barbee’s move to Central Michigan to take over as the program’s head coach hurt, just as it did when Justus signed on to become Bobby Hurley’s top assistant at Arizona State. Barbee was Hickman’s lead recruiter, and Justus was right in the thick of things during the heat of his recruitment, as well.
“The connection with Tony Barbee, the rapport he developed with the coaching staff, that definitely had something to do with it,” Hickman’s father, Nolan Hickman Sr., told KSR on Friday. “We love the entire staff, with Calipari as well, but with Tony being his lead recruiter and not being there, and then Joel (Justus) being his second recruiter, it just made things rough.”
When you dig below the surface, though, homesickness was a key factor – and maybe even the most significant – in Hickman’s decision to decommit from the program after committing just over eight months ago. Spending the past year at Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah – nearly 1,000 miles away from his hometown of Kent, Washington – Hickman rarely got to see family, friends, classmates, and even teammates at times due to COVID-19.
“It was rough with COVID, you’ve got to be away from the family again. COVID has played a part in peoples’ lives way more than you think. I don’t think we took into consideration that, he was allowed to have a season, but me and his mom, we were in tune with our child but we weren’t as in-tune with our child as we needed to be,” Hickman Sr. said. “We sent him to Mount Pleasant, Utah, away from the city, friends and family, FaceTime isn’t enough. And then you go through stretches, having a season almost hindered his growing and his capability alike, because he wasn’t able to play. When he’s not able to play, they’re not able to meet with other students on campus. He had to sit in a room for five days at a time to test. It was modern-day jail for a kid at his age. Just not having connections with people.
“Even though he was with his teammates, sometimes he wasn’t even able to mingle with the team because he had to stay in the room with whoever his roommate was. That’s just what it was until they figured it out and said, “OK, you’re clear. No COVID.” And this was every time they left the campus. He really struggled with those parts of the COVID situation, and it’s not going anywhere.”
Scheduled to leave for Kentucky in one month – Hickman’s family was set to fly out to Lexington the last week of May to begin the move-in process – the five-star guard wasn’t ready for another extended lockdown period on the other side of the country, this time almost 2,500 miles away.
“He was like, “Dad, I can’t do it to myself.” More and more, he just felt like he didn’t want to be away,” Hickman Sr. told KSR. “He’s actually home for the week, and he was like, “I really have to think some things through. I can’t go through this again, being away, separated from you guys and family.” That’s how we got to this.”
His decision to decommit had nothing to do with Calipari or the Kentucky basketball program, it simply came down to staying close to home and playing for a coaching staff he’s familiar with. Hickman Sr. even offered to move to Lexington to be close to the standout guard prospect if he needed his dad at close reach.
At the end of the day, Hickman Jr. simply needed to take a step back.
“We were all in, never one foot in, one foot out the door with Kentucky. We were all in, loved Kentucky, everything about it,” Hickman Sr. said. “The fact of the matter is, I was even going to move closer, move down there to give him some normalcy. But after the season, he was like, “No dad, I can’t go back to (that).” That’s when it really hit. “Man, it just feels good to be around other students on campus, being treated as a normal student and not being secluded to a room or a hotel where we can’t even hang out with the other teams we’re playing against.” We just didn’t take any of that into consideration, what they had to go through to have a season.”
When news broke that Hickman had decommitted from Kentucky, many assumed it had to do with potential competition at the point guard position and the fact that UK seemed to add a new target in the backcourt every day. The five-star guard’s dad said his son was never concerned about the competition, ready to play with whoever Calipari and the staff added to the fold leading up to the season. After seeing Kentucky’s struggles at the position this past year, it was clear it would take more than one point guard to turn things around, no matter who they added.
“We knew they had to do it by committee. The pressures of Kentucky, you can’t control them looking into other point guards or them not thinking he was the point guard, we thought (Calipari) felt he was all the point guard (we think he is),” Hickman Sr. said. “This year showed that you have to have multiple ball handlers, you can’t just have one. So we knew it would be him and someone else, then Kellan (Grady) doing the scoring or (Marcus) Carr, whoever else they’re recruiting. The transfer portal deal, that didn’t have anything to do with it. … He was ready to come in with whoever.”
When it came time to officially back away from the table, Hickman Sr. said Calipari was a “consummate professional” and “gave Nolan his blessing,” a gesture the family appreciated. The five-star guard has been released from his letter of intent and is now free to sign anywhere in the country.
“Calipari is a consummate professional, we have nothing bad to say. He was great and he understand what we’re dealing with, COVID,” Hickman Sr. told KSR. “He has kids, he knows when you coach kids in it (like he did last year), he had to manage the people and the kids more than he had to manage them winning games. When you consider the mental health aspect, kids not being able to be themselves or do kid things, young adult things, that’s a huge part of growing as a person.
“To be somewhere new, and it’s not regular, you’re used to routine, you know? Go to the gym when you want to, play video games, hang out with other kids, all that plays a part in the off-court stuff. He was good, he understood, definitely respected where we stood with it. He gave Nolan his blessing, and that’s all we could ask of him.”
As for what’s next for Hickman, the former Kentucky commit doesn’t necessarily have a plan, but the expectation is that he’ll be “staying close to home.”
“Honestly, we don’t even have a plan, but I assume (he’ll want to stay home). If I had to say anything, he would probably be staying close to home,” Hickman Sr. said. “I don’t know if it’ll be at home or how far he’ll go, but it’ll probably have to be a straight flight wherever he is for us to reach him, for sure.”
As for Kentucky, Hickman Sr. believes the program is certainly in good hands, easily being able to fill the point guard position with the pieces they’re going after in the transfer portal. No panic at all from Calipari and the UK coaching staff.
“We didn’t see a sense of panic, they have more than enough feelers, offers, you know the way they go about it,” he said. “All the upperclassmen in the transfer portal, I would have to assume that they have some teeth in the game. I think some of the upperclassmen weren’t considering (UK) because of the fact that Nolan was the point guard, “Not going to have the ball in my hands as much, they have the young guy with the ball in his hands.” I think that played a part of it. I think they’ll get who they want, who they’re recruiting out of this, as well.”
At the end of the day, it was a breakup with no hard feelings on either side.
“With the coaching staff changing and him not being familiar, seeing the direction, on top of the coaches leaving, he was just like, “I don’t know. I know Calipari is rooting for me and he’d push me in the right direction, but I want a rapport with who brought me here.” That was all,” Hickman Sr. told KSR. “Just being so far from home, but the coaches (leaving) really was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”