Five points (1-3 shooting), two rebounds, three assists, three steals, and a block. Solid numbers, but certainly nothing that blows you away on first glance.
Watching Kentucky’s 78-61 victory over UNC-Greensboro, however, it became obvious freshman point guard Ashton Hagans took a major step forward. In fact, it might have been a performance that solidified his spot as the team’s lead point guard.
Whether it be poking balls loose, diving on the floor, jumping the passing lanes, or being a pest on the ball, Hagans dominated on the defensive end of the floor. It was the exact kind of performance we were told we might see before he even arrived in Lexington.
Back in April before Hagans committed, Kentucky guard Tyler Herro told KSR the Covington, GA native was a defensive superstar and whoever signed him would be “lucky.”
“The way he picks up 94 feet, full-court defense. He gets downhill a lot, as a point guard, he gets downhill. Comes off in transition, makes the right play. To have him as a point guard, whoever gets him, they’re lucky,” said Herro.
Keldon Johnson agreed.
“I’d say he’s definitely a dog, picks up 94 feet, steps up on defense,” he said.
We’ve seen spurts of elite play out of Hagans on the defensive end of the floor, but it’s been inconsistent at best. To make matters worse, the Kentucky freshman has struggled immensely on offense, making it hard to keep him on the floor for long stretches of time.
Over the last two games, however, we’ve seen an uptick in production on both ends of the floor. He finished with a career-high seven points on Wednesday against Monmouth, and then followed it up with an absolutely phenomenal defensive performance against UNC-Greensboro star guard Francis Alonso.
Guarded by a combination of Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro, Alonso finished the first half shooting 5-6 from the field for 19 points. From there, Hagans allowed Alonso to shoot just 1-6 for three points the rest of the way. In fact, the star Spartan guard finished with more turnovers in the second half (two) than total baskets.
“It’s not even what he did offensively,” head coach John Calipari said after the game. “We put him on No. 10. We said we can let the kid get 60, or we can put Ashton on him.”
Kentucky forward Reid Travis said the Wildcats knew Francis Alonso was a talented scorer going into the game, and it’s a relief to have a player on his team that can slow down a hot hand.
“(Alonso) is a talented scorer, he’s a good player, and we knew that going into the game,” he said. “He can score in a lot of different ways, but it’s nice to have a guy like Ashton that can take it on himself. We knew that when (Alonso) got going, we could put Ashton on him and have success. He really took a lot of pride in stopping him and shutting him down. He knew that was going to help us win the game.”
And that’s not even to discredit the progression the Wildcat freshman has made offensively as of late, either.
Last game, Hagans drilled an open three-pointer in the corner, his first make from deep of the season. There was zero hesitation, the form was smooth, and he looked comfortable taking it. For a player with shooting concerns coming in, it was absolutely a step in the right direction.
Today, however, the newest Wildcat guard pulled out a trick we saw quite often as a high schooler in Georgia. It was one that forced recruiting analysts to compare his speedy style of play to former Kentucky stars John Wall and De’Aaron Fox.
On one instance, Hagans got the ball in transition and took it coast-to-coast going three-on-two. The defenders sagged off onto the other Wildcats, leaving an open lane for Hagans to make a play. Instead of hesitating like we’ve seen throughout the season, the Kentucky point guard shifted gears, cutting through the lane and going up for a reverse and-one layup. The Rupp Arena crowd erupted for easily the loudest moment of the afternoon.
Calipari says Hagans played the situation perfectly and was proud of the progression out of his bright-eyed newcomer.
“Here’s his job: Catch that ball and look ahead. If somebody is ahead, throw it. If they’re not ahead or they’re guarded, that means the court is spaced. So I look (left), he’s guarded; I go the other way, he’s guarded, I’m shooting a lay-up. So you’re doing this on the run,” he said.
Travis said the defensive talent is obvious, but when he’s aggressive on offense, Hagans can be a truly special basketball player.
“He’s obviously disruptive on defense, and he can facilitate on offense,” he said. “But when he picks his spots and he gets in there, I mean, that finish was something you could see all the time. Really, if he has an aggressive mindset, he can get in there and make free throws and get and-ones. We’re all happy for him.”
The offense is coming along, but there’s no question Hagans’ defense is what’s quickly separating him as the most impactful point guard on the Kentucky roster. Quade Green has been solid shooting the ball, and Immanuel Quickley has been a solid facilitator, but they’re not forcing opponents to gameplan against them when they enter the game the way they have to with Hagans. He’s a much-needed energy boost when the team just needs a spark on both ends of the floor.
UNC-Greensboro head coach Wes Miller said Hagans will be able to put on a show defensively against “just about anybody.”
“His on-ball pressure in the backcourt is where it starts,” he said. “He makes it difficult to bring the ball up the court. … That was the main thing we talked about in scouting, the impact he has on the game defensively. I think he’ll be able to do that to just about anybody in the country this year.”
With defensive struggles elsewhere on the roster, it’s a breath of fresh air when Hagans steps on the floor. It’s so much of a breath of fresh air that John Calipari has officially decided the Kentucky guard will be in charge of guarding the opposing team’s best player going forward.
“He’s physical,” Calipari said. “He’s more athletic. He can stay in front of people. He gave (Alonso) one shot, if you remember, in front of their bench where he guarded him with his hands down and the kid made a three. Short of that, he guarded him, and I told the team after the game, so what’s just been proven is if another team gets going with an individual player, what are we going to do as a team? We’re putting Ashton on him.”