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What Davion Mintz's return means to Kentucky

Jack Pilgrim07/01/21

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Article written by:On3 imageJack Pilgrim
SEC Men's Basketball Tournament - Kentucky v Mississippi State
<small>(Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)</small>

(Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Davion Mintz is back for another season, with the standout guard announcing Thursday he will be withdrawing from the NBA Draft to play one final year in Lexington.

“I want to thank everyone for the support they have provided me the last couple of months while I pursued my dream of playing professionally,” Mintz said. “I really appreciate the support from my coaches, my teammates and my family while I went through this process. I wanted to give it a real shot and I feel like I did that. I know that I am ready and closer to my ultimate goal of playing in the NBA.

“Having said that, my heart has guided me back to Kentucky for one more year. I want another season on the national stage to prove that I am ready to play at the highest level. I can’t wait to get back to Lexington with my teammates and experience the full effect of Big Blue Nation. It’s time to get back to work.”

What does Mintz’s return mean for John Calipari and the Kentucky basketball program going into 2021-22? Let’s break it all down.

Kentucky returns its leading scorer for the first time since Calipari’s arrival

In his debut campaign as a Wildcat, Mintz led Kentucky in total points (288), 3-pointers (56), assists (77) and double-figure scoring games (17). Averaging a team-high 11.5 points on the year, the 6-foot-3 guard becomes the first Kentucky player to return to school after leading the team in scoring average the previous season since Randolph Morris in 2006-07.

To put the icing on the cake, Mintz averaged a whopping 16.7 points per game over his last six games in 2020-21, putting up two 20-point performances in the team’s final three regular season games. He also shot 37.8% from three and dished out 3.1 assists per contest overall.

There were plenty of high-level scoring options for Kentucky to work with prior to Mintz’s decision, and now, the team just added the best of the bunch from last season.

Calipari’s most experienced roster

Kentucky fans wanted experience? They sure got it.

Following Mintz’s return, UK now has its most experienced roster since John Calipari arrived in Lexington 13 years ago. As things stand now, the Wildcats feature a sixth-year graduate in Mintz, a fifth-year graduate in Kellan Grady, a redshirt junior in CJ Fredrick, six juniors in Keion Brooks Jr., Jacob Toppin, Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler, Zan Payne (walk-on) and Brennan Canada (walk-on), a redshirt sophomore in Dontaie Allen, two sophomores in Lance Ware and Kareem Watkins (walk-on) and three freshmen in Daimion Collins, Bryce Hopkins and TyTy Washington.

Not even considering incoming transfers, Kentucky is set to return 42.1% of its minutes, 41.9% of its scoring, 39.0% of the rebounds, 42.4% of the assists and 60.6% of the 3-pointers from a season ago with Mintz, Brooks, Allen, Toppin and Ware all back.

Per UK Athletics, the only two Calipari-coached Kentucky teams that returned more minutes and more points (in terms of percentages) than the upcoming 2021-22 team were the 2011-12 national title squad and the 2014-15 Final Four team that started the season 38-0. I’d say that’s pretty strong company.

Factor in the entire team – both returnees and incoming transfers – and UK’s 2021-22 roster is set to include 13,385 minutes, 5,203 points, 1,917 rebounds, 1,132 assists and 543 total 3-pointers in total college basketball production.

Fact of the matter is that Calipari has never had this much returning talent to work with and has never had to rely less on true freshmen.

Kentucky’s backcourt is complete

Going into the month of May, UK had zero point guards signed on for the upcoming 2021-22 season following the decommitment of Nolan Hickman. They added both TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler within three weeks, and now to start the month of July, Mintz – who emerged as UK’s top point guard option to close out last season – is officially back.

With Mintz back in the fold, Kentucky’s backcourt is an embarrassment of talent, production and experience, with the combination of Mintz, Wheeler, Grady, Fredrick, and Allen totaling 10,394 minutes, 309 career starts and 4,148 total points over the course of their respective careers.

Oh, and factor in Washington, who finished ranked No. 11 overall by Rivals.com in the outlet’s 2021 recruiting rankings and is widely seen as one of the top 3-point shooters in his class. He’s expected to be an instant-impact freshman and likely starter.

Speaking of starters and the guard rotation, laying it all out paints the full picture of just how ridiculous the Kentucky backcourt looks on paper.

Need a veteran lineup capable of pushing the ball up the floor? Can’t get any better than Sahvir Wheeler, Davion Mintz and Kellan Grady as your backcourt trio. Pure scorers? TyTy Washington, Mintz and Grady. Shooters? Washington, CJ Fredrick and Dontaie Allen, with Mintz and Grady serving as your more-than-capable alternates.

Whatever you need, no matter the in-game circumstance, this roster now has it with Mintz back.

UK has its “dagger thrower” back

After watching his team miss countless shots in late-game situations last season, Calipari begged for someone to step up as Kentucky’s “dagger thrower” to close out the season.

“I need some dagger throwers,” Calipari said on his call-in radio show on February 4. “Who will make the shot? We had shots to get us back (in games), but the ones to be the dagger in them, we missed. … You cannot be afraid of missing… You’re playing to throw that dagger in.”

Mintz became that player for UK down the stretch, knocking down shot after shot, knocking down three go-ahead 3-point jumpers in Kentucky’s games against Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Auburn, with the makes against the Commodores and Tigers proving to be game-winners.

In terms of quantity, that was there too. On the year, Mintz had 16 multi-three performances, including at least three makes from deep nine times, at least four makes on six occasions, at least five makes twice and a six-make effort in the team’s regular season finale victory against South Carolina. Of the games he made at least four 3-pointers, he finished shooting at least 44% from deep on all six occasions.

It never hurts to have a player on the roster with the clutch gene, and they now have it with Mintz.

One final piece?

Kentucky’s roster now sits at 12 scholarship players, though Mintz technically does not count against the team’s overall 13-man scholarship limit after the NCAA granted a blanket waiver this past season due to COVID-19 that gives student-athletes an additional year of eligibility, including grad transfers. So while there are 12 scholarships being used, there are still two spots remaining, should John Calipari decide to use them.

Will Coach Cal fill both? Unlikely. He’s never used up all 13 scholarship spots, let alone adding an unprecedented 14th piece. He is, however, still in the process of recruiting the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2022, Jalen Duren, who is expected to reclassify to 2021 later this summer. Duren, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound center, took an official visit to Kentucky earlier this week and is set to cut his list down to five on Friday. UK is widely expected to make that final cut, along with Memphis and Miami (FL) among college options.

Memphis has re-emerged as a strong option following the return of Penny Hardaway, who interviewed with the Orlando Magic for its vacant head coaching job earlier this week. Miami also has Duren’s former high school and AAU coach, DJ Irving, on staff, who has been close with the five-star big man for years now. Kentucky remains in the thick of things, but they’ve got competition.

Should UK miss out on Duren, how about arguably the most dominant player in college basketball stepping in as the consolation prize? Illinois superstar Kofi Cockburn – named a consensus Second-Team All-American and First-Team All-Big Ten honoree in 2021-22 – entered his name in the transfer portal this afternoon, and there’s already buzz growing that Kentucky is on the table as a potential option.

Cockburn still has his name in the NBA Draft and has until July 7 to withdraw, but it’s telling that the 7-foot, 285-pound center opted to enter the portal on the transfer decision deadline just six days before he must make his final decision on the NBA. And with Kentucky immediately surfacing as a possible destination, it certainly makes you wonder, especially considering UK added Illinois assistants Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman to the staff earlier this offseason.

As a sophomore, Cockburn finished the year averaging 17.7 points (fifth in the Big Ten), 9.5 rebounds (first in the Big Ten) and 1.3 blocks per game. His 28 career double-doubles is fourth in the nation over last two seasons.

As things stand with Mintz back, Kentucky’s roster is stacked from top to bottom. Add either Duren or Cockburn – the No. 1 high school prospect and arguably the No. 1 center in college basketball, respectively – to the fold, and we’re talking about potentially the most loaded roster of the Calipari era, one with zero holes or noticeable flaws.

Needless to say, Coach Cal is on a mission this offseason.

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2022-12-01