The NBA Draft deadline has come and gone, and for Kentucky, it went about as well as the program could have possibly hoped.
While PJ Washington, Tyler Herro, and Keldon Johnson were all locks going into the process, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards were up in the air. Based entirely on individual production this past year, the latter two seemed to have easy decisions to make on the surface level, but they each had various reasons to at least consider the possibility of making the jump.
After going through the process, the Kentucky players that needed to go to the NBA did just that, while the guys that needed to return did, as well.
Factor in Montgomery and Richards withdrawing from the NBA Draft with Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley already back in the fold, and Kentucky now has four legitimate returnees going into the 2019-20.
In our very first media opportunity with the four returning Wildcats on Friday afternoon, they each made a point to address the one common goal they have amongst themselves: be a leader.
With a star-studded recruiting class of Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney, Johnny Juzang, Keion Brooks Jr., and Dontaie Allen, along with the addition of graduate transfer Nate Sestina, Kentucky’s four returnees understand that they need to set an example for the newcomers.
They might still be young in age, but coming off an Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, they all know what it takes to make a deep run during the postseason.
“It feels good [to be one of the experienced players on the team],” Quickley said on Friday. “I wouldn’t say I’m old, but definitely one of the veterans on the team now, so I’m ready to take on that leadership role.”
For EJ Montgomery, while he had the toughest decision to make among the four returning players, he’s happy he can be one of the “old guys” on the team to help teach the younger players, all while developing as a player himself.
“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 and to just be a leader and go out there and compete. It’s definitely weird [that I’m considered an “old guy” now] because you have to learn fast here. It’s different but you just have to take that role.”
As for Hagans, he’s comfortable with taking over a leadership role on the 2019-20 team since he’s done it countless times in the past for other teams he has been a part of. Only this time, it’s magnified because Kentucky is put under a national spotlight like nothing he’s ever experienced.
“I’ve been a leader on all the teams I’ve been on growing up, that I’ve played on. Any type of sports,” Hagans said. “Just knowing that this is a different type of environment. The fanbase is crazy. There are just things you’ve got to handle to know how to be a leader for this team and the coaching staff.”
Nonetheless, he’s ready for the challenge.
“Yeah, I’m ready. If anything comes my way and Cal puts anything on me, I’m going to have to own up and take that. Like I said, this year, I want to be the main focus of the team. I want to be the leader of the team and show that people can rely on me, things like that. Like I said, I’m just ready to get back to work and ready for the season to get started.”
For Nick Richards, he’s excited to see what kind of growth Hagans can make as a sophomore being the leader of this team. He already proved he can be a high-impact player on both ends of the floor in short spurts. If he can find that consistency this season, look out.
“It’s just going to be easier, especially for him,” Richards said. “Just to know what Cal wants from him. He wants defense and wants him to push the ball up the court and try to get other people involved but he also wants to see improvement from a shooting aspect. So, I guess little things like that will be easier for him.”
As for Richards himself, the junior center said he’s planning on following in PJ Washington’s footsteps from last season as a veteran leader both on and off the floor.
“Just following by PJ’s example last year of how he took over the whole entire team,” he said. “Just try to make guys better in practice and help guys be the best person that they can be on the court.”
On Tuesday, Kentucky head coach John Calipari said that while he’s known for coaching one-and-dones, he absolutely loves coaching players for multiple years and seeing how they grow both as players and people.
With four key pieces back, it reminds him of another pretty special year Kentucky had just a few years back.
“It’s nice to have players back. We have four really quality players back,” Calipari said. “The last time we had four players back who were quality players like that was 2014-15.”
Another historic run doesn’t sound too shabby at all.