What Aaron Bradshaw's return looks like for Kentucky

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim11/29/23

There are exactly two teams in college basketball scoring more than Kentucky (94.4 PPG) to open the season: Arizona (95.3 PPG) and Alabama (94.9 PPG). There are exactly zero teams with a better assist/turnover ratio (2.56). Just three have better effective field-goal percentages than the Cats (60.7%) — none being high-majors.

Put simply, among realistic contenders in college basketball, Kentucky is on a different planet offensively. The volume, efficiency and balance are all there and the product is a blast to watch, the latest example being a top-ten beatdown against No. 8 Miami (FL).

And whether the Wildcats need it or not, there is help on the way. First up? 7-foot-1 forward Aaron Bradshaw, who John Calipari is set to return either this Saturday vs. UNC Wilmington or next vs. Penn in Philadelphia. His broken foot is healed and the ramp-up process has begun.

He went through a complete pregame workout ahead of the Miami matchup, sweat dripping from his forehead going into the locker room. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was coming out in full uniform ready to make his debut.

That didn’t happen, but we’re now officially in our target window for return. Assuming all goes well to close out the week, the plan is to play Saturday. So what does that look like?

The numbers

Bradshaw averaged 12 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 25 games as a senior at Camden High School — 118 made 2-pointers. He added 12.7 points on 59.6% shooting to go with 7.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks playing for the NJ Scholars alongside DJ Wagner on the Nike EYBL circuit in 2022. And he was a 75% free-throw shooter across both levels.

As for his 3-point numbers, that’s harder to get a better read. In a vacuum, he went a combined 0-12 from deep playing EYBL in ’21 and ’22 and made just eight 3-pointers across his final two seasons of high school — four apiece. There just isn’t a great sample size of Bradshaw as a long-range sniper yet.

Who is he as a player?

If you were to look from his torso up on jump shots, you’d have no idea it fit a 7-foot-1 body. The mechanics are so fluid and sound for a player his size. And that has translated to free-throw and mid-range efficiency. We’re just waiting for that to extend beyond the arc on a consistent basis.

It’s one of those things where you just have to trust the eye test with Bradshaw. His game is expanding. Starting as a back-to-basket big limited to layups and dunks around the rim with the occasional jump hook, he’s now wildly comfortable as a face-up specialist. He’ll lift for mid-range jumpers or pump fake and drive for vicious slams — he’s also an athlete. One- or two-dribble pull-ups, turnarounds and fadeaways both out of the low and high posts, he’s got it all in his bag. With a 7-4 wingspan and similarly long legs and strides, he makes up a ton of ground quickly and efficiently. He’s a surprisingly fluid mover.

With that comes a finesse game, even at 226 pounds in Lexington (he came in at 210). Bradshaw was known for battling in high school and AAU, but lacked core strength and got bumped off his spots easily. He’s certainly not a bruiser. That shouldn’t be expected to change at Kentucky.

His counting numbers also looked great as a rim protector, but that can be a bit deceiving, too. Gangly, he flails his arms a bit with high-risk, high-reward block attempts that can lead to foul trouble.

How does he fit?

Short and sweet: Bradshaw fits incredibly well. Look, Kentucky doesn’t need a plodding anchor in the post. That would go against this team’s identity completely. Where they’ve struggled with length and rebounding, the Wildcats have made up for it with offensive versatility. With Bradshaw, you’re adding the former without sacrificing the latter.

The 7-foot-1 forward is going to be a plug-and-play complementary piece alongside and staggering minutes with Tre Mitchell. This system will not change with Bradshaw on the floor either way. He will, however, add a lob threat and clean-up specialist that has been missing up to this point. Mitchell may be the better facilitator with a superior feel, but Bradshaw is the better athlete, interior presence and a solid playmaker in his own right. Both players can put the ball on the floor and take and make shots.

And don’t discount Bradshaw’s chemistry with DJ Wagner, either. Those two played off of each other extremely well throughout high school and on the EYBL circuit — that’s why they wanted to team up in Lexington in the first place. Bradshaw will make Wagner’s life easier as a safety net lob presence, and vice versa. Accounting for the 7-footer means you’re giving the dynamic guard more runway to work with as he gets downhill and finds space.

Above all else, Calipari isn’t lying when he says Bradshaw is another basketball player who can pass, dribble and shoot. He is. You’re not shoving a round peg in a square hole here stylistically. The dribble-drive isn’t going anywhere and five-out looks will continue.

It’ll just be a 7-foot-1 guy executing it now.

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