Pilgrim's Basketball Insider Notes: Kentucky's holding pattern

by:Jack Pilgrim01/07/19

After a week of Citrus Bowl festivities, celebrating the victory over Penn State, and ringing in the new year, things took a slight turn for the worse when the Kentucky basketball team saw a disappointing 77-75 road loss to Alabama on Saturday to open SEC play.

But never fear. Even with the loss, work kicking back into full gear, and the kids headed back to school, I have something that should brighten the mood on this late Monday afternoon.

Welcome to the very first edition of Pilgrim’s Basketball Insider Notes.

Our very good friend TJ Walker was in charge of recruiting updates here at KSR, but with him off making big career moves, I have stepped in as the lead recruiting analyst and basketball beat writer. Now, I will be in charge of bringing you guys the latest insider notes here every Monday afternoon.

Now let’s get down to business.

After working the phones and talking to several different people on Kentucky’s side of things and those on the recruiting trail, there has been one common theme: Kentucky is stuck in a holding pattern. 

With basketball season in full gear with both high school and college, it’s a wait-and-see game for both sides of the equation. The early signing period (Nov. 14-21) is long gone, so recruits are now focused on finishing up their own seasons before seriously thinking about making final decisions. We see recruits cut their lists and set more official visits when they find the time, but other than a few prospects wanting to get their decision over with (we’ll get to that later), several of Kentucky’s big targets will wait for the regular signing period in the spring (April 17-May 15) before announcing. This is very good news.

On Kentucky’s end, like we saw last season, this team has several players with extremely unclear futures when it comes to the NBA Draft. With that, the “wants” vs. “needs” aspect comes into play.

As of today, sources tell KSR that Keldon Johnson and PJ Washington are expected to enter the draft, but everything is up in the air beyond those two. There is a sense that Ashton Hagans can make a leap similar to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last season and find himself in the conversation as a lottery pick. NBA scouts are also curious about Tyler Herro and how he closes out the season from an efficiency standpoint, so that variable is interesting, as well.

Beyond those four, along with Reid Travis’ impending departure as a senior, it’s looking as though Kentucky may return everyone else.

Worst case: Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards, and Jemarl Baker return, while Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney, and Dontaie Allen are ready to roll. That leaves a minimum of two necessary spots to fill, with three being the sweet spot for John Calipari and staff.

Best case: Hagans, Herro, Quickley, Montgomery, Richards, and Baker return, along with Maxey, Whitney, and Allen joining the fold. From there, the Cats need one elite frontcourt target, with another addition being the end goal.

So what are the options on the table?

Matthew Hurt

I have been told that things are looking really good for Kentucky with Matthew Hurt, with several individuals indicating the Wildcats were now in the driver’s seat.

The Wildcats got his very first official visit the first week of December, followed by North Carolina on December 14. He’s expected to officially visit Duke for their game against Virginia on January 19, and then Kansas sometime in February. He’ll take one more official visit to either Villanova, Minnesota, and Memphis before making a final decision in April.

Things are a bit quiet from there, as he’s currently focused on rolling through his final season of high school basketball. I’m sure we’ll hear more following his visit to Duke here in a few weeks, though I don’t feel they are a real threat in this recruitment.

I would expect the final decision to be between Kentucky, Kansas, and Memphis, with the Wildcats winning out in the end.

Jaden McDaniels

Listed at 6-foot-11, 185-pound power forward, Jaden McDaniels is one of the most unique prospects in the class of 2019. Garnering Kevin Durant comparisons, Daniels does things that shouldn’t even be possible at his size.

And the Kentucky coaching staff is licking its chops to bring him to Lexington because of it.

As of today, the Wildcats have picked up a ton of ground with the five-star prospect out of Federal Way, WA., and I really don’t think it’s a stretch to say Kentucky is the leader as of today.

Albeit challenging, the staff is extremely excited about the potential pairing of Hurt and McDaniels, with versatility and shooting being the key reasons.

With those two, the team would obviously have to adjust to fit their styles of play, but I’m told it’s a shift they’re confident in working. They wouldn’t rely on bully-ball like we see with current players like Reid Travis and PJ Washington, along with past players such as Bam Adebayo, and DeMarcus Cousins. Instead, it would be a team that thrives in transition with players that can hit threes at every spot on the floor. (Washington and Travis can hit shots, but Hurt and McDaniels would be legitimate threats from deep)

“John Calipari is the best in the game when it comes to adjusting his team and playing to their strengths year after year,” one source said, specifically noting the end-of-year turnarounds we’ve seen since Calipari arrived in 2009. “This wouldn’t be any different.”

They’d struggle defending some of the power big men we see in college basketball each year, but the counter of a team dominating in transition and hitting shots all over the floor is extremely enticing. And it’s the direction the NBA is moving toward, so that’s an easy pitch for Calipari, as well.

Isaiah Stewart

While there is a ton of momentum for the Cats surrounding Hurt and McDaniels, I didn’t get the same sense when it comes to 6-foot-9, 245-pound power forward Isaiah Stewart.

He originally cut the Wildcats from his list, but then later told Tipton Edits that the Kentucky was included in his final five schools, along with Duke, Michigan State, Syracuse, and Washington.

Stewart, who visited Kentucky back on September 28, said in the same interview that he just can’t ignore John Calipari’s pitch.

“It’s hard not to listen to Coach Cal and all the success he has,” he said.

The five-star frontcourt target added that he’s currently in a group chat with Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney, and Dontaie Allen, who all want him to join them in Lexington. As another interesting note, the only other school he’s in a group chat with is Duke and their commitments.

So when could we see Stewart make a decision? He says he’s close.

“I’m definitely close to the bottom of things,” he told Tipton Edits. “So that’s why I say (I’ll be announcing) soon.”

I get the sense that Kentucky is running third behind Duke (the favorite) and Michigan State. If a decision comes as soon as he seems to indicate, I believe the Blue Devils win out in the end.

Keion Brooks

At one point (specifically following Kahlil Whitney’s commitment), I completely counted Kentucky out for the five-star small forward out of La Lumiere in La Porte, IN.

Now, I wouldn’t be shocked in the slightest if he ends up in blue and white.

As TJ Walker has said in the past, the staff absolutely loves Brooks’ game and feel his versatility is exactly what they’re looking for. If McDaniels and Hurt opt for Kentucky, they feel he would fit right in with that run-and-gun style of play, as the 6-foot-7 five-star thrives in transition and can hurt opponents on both ends of the floor. I get a Jarred Vanderbilt vibe from his game with a smooth jump shot.

He has recently said that he is “inching toward a decision,” which I don’t think is necessarily good news for Kentucky, but I don’t believe an announcement is imminent.

In a video interview with Tipton Edits, Brooks said Calipari’s message for him is simple: you can achieve your dreams of making it to the NBA and win a national championship at Kentucky. He’s not going to get that with the hometown favorite, Indiana.

“His message is Kentucky isn’t built for everybody, but he feels like I’m built for Kentucky,” he said. “I have an edge about myself. You know, iron sharpens iron, so I just feel like – me going there – I could really achieve my dreams of going to the NBA, and possibly winning a national championship.”

His final six schools in contention are Michigan State, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA, and Purdue, but this thing will come down to the Hoosiers and the Wildcats.

He certainly has ties to Indiana, and I feel that all of his friends and family are pulling at his heartstrings to stay home, but I think he genuinely likes the idea of playing for a Hall of Fame head coach at Kentucky. What he cares about more is the only question at hand.

Anthony Edwards

The narrative out there is that Florida State is the leader to land the consensus top-three prospect in the class of 2019, and though his recruitment is more open than people seem to believe, I wouldn’t bet against the Seminoles as the end destination if an announcement were to come anytime soon.

Georgia got Edwards’ first official visit, with Florida State, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State also joining the initial list.

Since, though, the five-star point guard cut Michigan State and Duke from his list entirely, adding Kentucky and North Carolina. As a result, I’ve been told it’s likely that the Wildcats will get a visit.

Sources tell KSR the 6-foot-3 point guard has “a ton of interest” Kentucky, with the school’s ability to get players to the NBA as the key reason. If Ashton Hagans takes a major step forward and the staff anticipates he’ll leave by year’s end, I think things can get really interesting. I’d put Edwards in the “want” category for the Cats right now, but if he turns into a “need,” this coaching staff can stretch this thing out and have a legitimate shot when the regular signing period comes around in April.

I’ll give the solid edge to Florida State right now, but if this becomes a marathon instead of a sprint, I like Kentucky’s chances.

Kahlil Whitney

I have been told there is absolutely zero concern about Whitney not making it official during the early signing period, and the staff is certain he will still be a Kentucky Wildcat when the 2019-20 season rolls around. End of story.

This afternoon, Whitney confirmed that in an interview with Corey Evans of Rivals.com.

“I am 100 percent Kentucky,” Whitney said. “The whole thing for why I didn’t sign in the fall is because I had scheduled to sign in Chicago in front of my grammar school and everyone would come out so I couldn’t do that because I was not home.”

Dontaie Allen

Last Wednesday, it was announced Kentucky small forward signee Dontaie Allen would miss the remainder of his senior season with a torn ACL following an awkward fall in his game against Cooper on December 22.

The 6-foot-6 small forward made it official on Twitter:

It was an extremely interesting situation, as sources told KSR that he was expected to be out for the year when the injury originally happened. When news leaked out that there was optimism surrounding his status and he was eventually listed as day-to-day, it was a “shock” to those around him, but they were certainly ecstatic about the good news. They genuinely felt his return to the floor was imminent.

Unfortunately, his knee stiffened up and his slight limp grew to be a significant one and he needed to be re-evaluated. There, they found the ACL tear and determined he had played his final game at Pendleton County.

But the future is not grim for the player one source compared to NBA sharpshooter Kyle Korver: Allen is expected to make a full recovery and suit up for the Wildcats at some point next season. From there, the staff thinks he can be a special player for Kentucky in the not-so-distant future.

That’s all I have for you today, but I’ll be back next week with more.

I’ll also have some football notes from time to time, so be on the lookout for those, as well.

Go Cats.


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