On Wednesday, Kentucky basketball got another big-time basketball commitment.
If that sounds like a sentence that I simply copied and pasted from a previous article, well, it’s not far off. Over the last few weeks, Kentucky locking in a big-time commitment has seemingly become a weekly occurrence, no different than calling your mom every Sunday just to check in and say hello.
In this case, the player was Tyrese Maxey, a big, powerful, 6’4 guard, widely considered to be the second best point guard in the class of 2019. For those who follow recruiting, you also know that the only point guard ranked ahead of Maxey in the 2019 rankings is Ashton Hagans, who is also committed to Kentucky (although he’ll probably re-classify to the class of 2018). The Wildcats also have a third, five-star recruit in 2019 (D.J. Jeffries), and when you couple all that with a late spring commitment of E.J. Montgomery, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that John Calipari is on one of the hottest recruiting runs of his time at Kentucky.
The last two months or so, Kentucky has gotten commitments from: The No. 1 ranked PF in the class of 2018, the two Top PG's in 2019 and another Top 25 recruit in 2019. Isnt a stretch to say this is one of 2-3 best recruiting runs John Calipari has had at Kentucky
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) May 9, 2018
Still, with the Maxey news, it also may finally put to rest one of the stupidest narratives in sports, one that had gained traction in recent years. That narrative: That John Calipari had “lost” his recruiting touch, and has now suddenly “regained” it. That simply isn’t true, and along with asking “Is LeBron James clutch” might have been the dumbest storyline found anywhere in sports these last few years.
Before we look at these most recent classes, it’s important to remember one big thing: Even in Calipari’s best years, when he was the unquestioned best recruiter in the sport, it’s not like he got every single player he coveted. No coach does. In Cal’s legendary first recruiting class that produced John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, there was a whiff on Xavier Henry, who originally committed to him at Memphis. There were major runs at guys like Shabazz Muhammad and Emmanuel Mudiay, who ended up committing to UCLA and SMU respectively (Mudiay eventually skipped college basketball altogether and instead went overseas). There was Malik Newman picking Mississippi State over Kentucky. Again, no coach, in any sport, bats 1,000 percent in recruiting – not Coach Cal, Coach K, Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, nobody. Even Cal at his peak lost some guys that he wanted.
Then again, the “Did Cal lose his touch” narrative isn’t really about retracing things back to the beginning of his time in Lexington. Instead, it’s more about recent years, when Duke ramped up its recruiting efforts and brought in everyone from Marvin Bagley to Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson. Of course, that’s also a part of how this dumb narrative got started to begin with. Without discrediting Duke (because what they’ve done is incredible these last few years) it has sort of become a sort of stupid, zero-sum game between the two schools. Just because Duke started recruiting well, doesn’t mean that Kentucky stopped recruiting well. If anything, you could argue that Calipari has brought in two of his better classes period since Duke really jumped two feet in to the one-and-done game.
Let’s just take the 2016 class for example. While the recruiting experts didn’t rank the class No. 1, it was indisputably one of the finest that Calipari has ever put together. Of Kentucky’s five recruits, all five were eventually named McDonald’s All-American’s. Does that sound like a guy who is losing his recruiting “touch?” That class also led to some classic Calipari wins on the recruiting trail, including Malik Monk picking Kentucky over Arkansas (as someone who does a pair of weekly radio hits in Arkansas every week, let me tell you, that Monk commitment nearly led to the entire state of Arkansas burning to the ground). There was also a stunning recruiting win on Bam Adebayo, when virtually everyone had him pegged to NC State until the very end. In total, that class produced three eventual lottery picks in the 2017 draft, as well. Again, if that’s “losing” on the recruiting trail, than no one – not Kansas, Duke, UCLA, you name it – is “winning.”
Last year’s class was pretty much the same. For all the talk about the incredible freshman class Duke put together (and deservedly so, Marvin Bagley was awesome), it’s not as though Kentucky didn’t get good players. In total, they signed five of the Top 25 players in the class and six of the Top 30. And that doesn’t even include Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a future lottery pick, who will likely be the highest drafted out of all of the 2017 signees.
That also brings up an important point as well: At any school (not just Kentucky) you can’t judge recruiting “success” simply by what a website says, but instead, how the players actually play once they get to campus. Gilgeous-Alexander is a perfect example of that. At one point in his recruitment, Gilgeous-Alexander was probably considered a “reach” for Calipari. Instead, that was a player who Calipari saw potential in, when many of the “experts” didn’t. Forget what the rankings said when he graduated high school. Is there any doubt that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander developed into a “five-star” while he was on campus in Lexington?
And of course there are guys who didn’t come to Kentucky, but should still be discussed when the dumb “John Calipari lost his touch” conversation comes up. For example, Trae Young spent the better part of his recruitment openly flirting with Kentucky, and it was Kentucky that basically said “no thanks” by taking Quade Green instead. I mean, is it an exaggeration to say that if John Calipari had really prioritized Young, that he probably would have ended up a Wildcat? It doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to me. Mo Bamba also nearly chose Kentucky over Texas last year. How different would last year’s class – which was already ranked No. 2 nationally, by the way – have looked if both Bamba and Young had committed to the Wildcats (which both nearly did)?
So ultimately that’s important to remember as Kentucky fans celebrate another John Calipari recruiting win on Thursday.
Tyrese Maxey isn’t a sign of changing times, or of John Calipari taking back some long lost turf.
It’s Coach Cal just doing what he’s always done.