While the 2017-2018 college basketball season is literally just a couple days old, it’s no surprise to anyone reading this that excitement is already growing for the 2018-2019 campaign in Lexington. Because Kentucky has so few sure-fire “one-and-done” players on this year’s roster, and because we already know that John Calipari is going to load up in recruiting (since that’s what John Calipari always does) it feels like 2019 could set up for a monster year in Lexington, one where a blend of talent, experience and depth should make Kentucky the title favorite from the moment the season begins.
Now obviously there’s quite a bit to figure out between now and the start of next season, but one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle fell into place over the weekend. There, the Wildcats picked up their second commitment in the 2018 recruiting class, when five-star wing Keldon Johnson chose Kentucky over NC State, Texas, Maryland and a host of other schools.
Johnson is a guy that many Kentucky fans probably aren’t totally familiar with, if only because the recruiting process with Kentucky didn’t pick up until late (Johnson wasn’t offered by Kentucky until a few months ago). But according to Johnson’s high school coach Steve Smith at Oak Hill Academy, once Calipari zoned in on Johnson, he made him one of his top priorities in the class.
“I think [Calipari] wanted him over other players, even over other players who might have been rated higher,” Smith, who has known Calipari for years, told KSR. “I think Coach Cal really wanted Keldon because of how he plays, and what he brings to the table. His style of play. All that.”
That style of play is what obviously caught the eyes of the Kentucky coaching staff, and is something that should immediately make Johnson a fan favorite when he arrives in Lexington. To put it simply, Johnson has been regarded for years as one of the top scorers in the class of 2018, and his offensive exploits have become the stuff of legend in high school circles. He’s a player who went for 40 in his second high school game ever during his freshman year, followed it up with All-State honors his sophomore year at Parkview High School (in Sterling, Virginia) and averaged nearly 21 points per game on the ultra-competitive Nike EYBL circuit this past summer.
But for Smith, what’s impressed him the most about Johnson is everything else in his game besides scoring. Because Johnson grew up right down the road from Oak Hill, Smith has known about him for years, but it wasn’t until this summer that Johnson actually enrolled at the school. Once he arrived on campus, Smith was blown away at how complete Johnson’s game was.
“He plays every single possession and he plays on both ends of the floor,” Smith said. “He’s not just a guy that scores points. He handles it really well. He can pass. He can score. He offensive rebounds. He defensive rebounds. He’s the whole package.”
It’s a package of skills that Johnson has improved upon with lots of hard work. According to Smith, what makes Johnson so special isn’t just his God given abilities, but the extra work the five-star wing puts in behind the scenes. It’s something that has allowed Johnson to go from one of the Top 30 or so players in his high school class during his early years, to one that virtually everyone agrees is one of the Top 10 prospects in the country right now.
It’s also a work ethic that Smith has rarely seen in his near-30 years at Oak Hill. Understand that Smith has had roughly two dozen future NBA players walk into his gym, ranging from Kevin Durant to Carmelo Anthony, Ty Lawson, Rajon Rondo and others.
Yet when asked who has come in and worked harder than Johnson, Smith has struggled to come up with very many names.
“I’ve had 30-plus McDonald’s All-Americans, so I’ve had kids at his level,” Smith said. “Most of them had good work ethic [but] he’s kind of next level of them… He never takes days off in practice, he works hard every day.”
And really, the more you listen to Smith speak about Johnson, the more you realize that he fits the bill of so many other players Kentucky has recruited in the John Calipari era (including Immanuel Quickley, which we profiled earlier this fall). Johnson is a high-achieving kid both on and off the court, one who keeps a strong GPA in the classroom during the day, and as mentioned above, continues to fine-tune his game by night. He’s also a competitive SOB, one who isn’t afraid of the challenge of going against the top competition in all of basketball.
According to Smith, the reason that Johnson chose to spend his senior season at Oak Hill was the opportunity to go against other elite players in practice every day, and play against some of the best teams in high school when he takes the court. Smith also believes that competitive drive played a large role in why Johnson chose to attend Kentucky as well.
In essence, John Calipari walked in and gave Johnson the old “Kentucky isn’t for everyone” recruiting pitch. And the five-star recruit bought it hook, line and sinker.
“I was there for his home visits, and I was there when the coaches talked to him,” Smith said. “And Coach Cal, that’s basically what he told him… He was telling him ‘here’s our program, here’s how it works, here’s what we do, here’s what’s expected of you. And if that’s not you, than we’re not the place for you.’”
So with Johnson’s college decision complete and his paperwork set to be sent to Kentucky, it’s time to look ahead at what’s next. There are a number of variables that Johnson needs to continue to work at, whether it’s adding strength or improving his deep shot. Smith said outside shooting is “as close to a weakness” as Johnson has, but also believes that it will improve over time thanks to Johnson’s work ethic. Smith also believes that because of Oak Hill’s competition level (they will play in several national tournaments, against some of the best teams in the country throughout the season) Johnson should have an advanced skill-set by the time he arrives at Kentucky, one which should allow him to contribute right away.
So how good can Johnson be going forward? Without prompting, Smith said Johnson reminds him of one of the greatest players to ever come through Oak Hill Academy, a player who went on to become of the greatest scorers in NBA history.
“He reminds me a little of Carmelo Anthony when Carmelo Anthony was here,” Smith said. “He doesn’t shoot it quite as well as Carmelo did. So he’s got potential to be that kind of player in the future.”
Smith paused, then continued.
“His best days are in front of him,” he said. “I can tell you that.”
Aaron Torres is covering \ basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”