Coming in as a top-ten recruit in the class of 2018, expectations were high for Fort Pierce, FL native EJ Montgomery out of high school. Known for his smooth, guard-like abilities, the 6-foot-10 forward was seen as the perfect complementary player to PJ Washington and Reid Travis, two strong, physical talents down low for the Wildcats last season.
But as Washington and Travis separated themselves as two of the most consistent and productive big men in the SEC, Montgomery was limited to a bench role with sophomore center Nick Richards. Washington and Travis averaged nearly 30 minutes per contest with the offense running through them both, while Montgomery and Richards each struggled to break the 15-minute threshold each night. The freshman forward showed flashes of brilliance at times, but without a defined role and limited stretches on the floor, consistency was never had.
With Washington being taken in the lottery of the NBA Draft this summer and Travis pursuing his professional basketball dreams in Germany, Montgomery is now expected to take over as the team’s premier big man in 2019-20.
“We saw him last year, we’re all saying how does E.J. get more time? What do we do to get E.J. more time?” John Calipari said at UK Media Day this week. “Well, guess what? He’s going to get more time.”
Montgomery, who averaged 3.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks in just 15.1 minutes per contest, flirted with the NBA Draft right until the withdrawal deadline this past offseason. He even told reporters this summer that despite most of the mock drafts indicating he was a likely second-round candidate, there were a few teams in the late first round that were ready to pull the trigger had he kept his name in.
“[Kentucky] wanted me to come back. They said if I came back and got stronger, I’d go higher in the draft,” Montgomery said this summer. “Probably the main reason, just my physical part, my body. I went out there and I showed I could do a lot of things [during the pre-draft process] but they just wanted me to show I could go out there and play with the physical guys. [They said] I would be late first round, but if I came back, I would be a lot higher.”
With summer workouts now out of the way and fall practice now officially underway, Montgomery says he can already see a physical change in his body and that he’s ready to take over down low.
“This year, I’ve been in the weight room a lot with Rob (Harris), and that’s been my main focus, just getting more physical and staying consistent and stuff like that,” he said. “But this year, I’m definitely going to be ready.”
Montgomery saw the massive transformation Washington underwent between his freshman and sophomore seasons both physically and in terms of on-court production.
The Fort Pierce, FL native is using Montgomery’s success last season as a blueprint for his own this year.
“Once I heard where I would land in the draft, I knew if I came back and go hard every day like he did, it would improve my stock,” Montgomery said this summer.
“Just how hard he went in everything he did, he was always the first one in [the practice gym],” the 6-foot-10, 228-pound forward reiterated this week at UK Media Day. “Just watching how his body changed over the summer, I wanted that.”
According to Calipari, he has used Washington’s growth both on and off the floor as a teaching tool for Montgomery. As much as the Wildcat sophomore wants to look at Washington’s productivity on the floor and mimic that, the Kentucky head coach wants him to know that it starts outside the white lines.
“One of the things, I sat him down and we talked. [I told him to] understand that P.J. did all these things, but he changed his approach to this,” Calipari said. “P.J. finished first in every conditioning (drill). P.J. pushed himself physically. P.J. was a better leader. He wasn’t looking to what’s the least amount I can do, what’s the most I can do, can I do more, can I stay after, what can I do? A lot of this becomes changing your approach to this. And E.J.’s walking through that. There are things that’s got to be more consistent with, but he is a talent.”
If you ask Montgomery, though, he is up for the challenge.
“[My focus has been on] just staying in the gym and having my confidence up,” he said this week. “Just know what I can do and just get more physical. [I don’t have a defined role], I just like to think of myself as a basketball player. Anything Coach Cal asks of me on the floor, I want to be able to do that. I just want to contribute to wins this year.”
So how does he feel he has improved personally?
“Just my physicality, getting stronger,” he said. “I want to go out there and play my game, keep working and staying in the gym. Coach Cal keeps saying we need to be a defensive team, so we’ve been working on that a lot. Just going out there and competing.”
And the team’s improvement as a whole?
“Getting up and down the floor, we like to do that a lot,” he said. “Lockdown defenders, we have a lot of those. [The best defender is] definitely Ashton Hagans, he doesn’t let anybody score on him. He’ll foul you before he lets you score on him. We’re all competing, we’re battling in practice, trying to knock each other’s heads off.”
Now that he’s one of the “older guys” on the team, Montgomery knows he has to take the next step up and be one of the leaders both on and off the floor, especially in the frontcourt.
And if he can do that, he believes this team can be special.
“I just wanted to come back and get better everyday with my guys,” he said. “I’m one of the older guys now on this team, so I’ve got to just be a leader, go out there and help this team compete [for a national championship.”