This afternoon, Kentucky lost out on its final potential target to close out the program’s 2019-20 roster when 2020 five-star center N’Faly Dante announced he would be reclassifying to 2019 – as expected – and signing with the Oregon Ducks.
Dante, a 6-foot-11 center out of Wichita, KS, committed to Oregon over offers from Kentucky, LSU, Iowa State, and Tennessee, among others, though sources tell KSR that the decision ultimately came down to the Ducks and the Wildcats.
While the Big Blue Nation is understandably frustrated in losing yet another frontcourt prospect in the class of 2019 – Kentucky’s ninth miss overall – fans should take a step back from the ledge and see why there is still so much optimism within the program about the upcoming season and recruiting moving forward.
Kentucky swung and missed on big men in 2019
Before we get into the nitty-gritty on what this decision means for Kentucky and the pros and cons, we definitely have to address the obvious: UK swung and missed on just about every single big man target they had in the class of 2019.
Following today’s decision, this means James Wiseman, Vernon Carey, Isaiah Stewart, Matthew Hurt, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji, Oscar Tshiebwe, Kerry Blackshear Jr., and N’Faly Dante all turned down scholarship offers from John Calipari and the UK coaching staff. For a program that has seen elite big men come through such as DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Bam Adebayo, among others, there’s no doubt that this recruiting cycle has been a head-scratcher, to say the least.
That being said, the Kentucky coaching staff felt they had James Wiseman locked up for almost an entire year, and if it weren’t for Penny Hardaway – the 7-foot-1 center’s AAU head coach and closest role model – being hired at Memphis, he would be playing in Lexington this fall. Once it became clear that Wiseman was heading to Memphis, Kentucky was left playing catch-up elsewhere, most notably with Isaiah Stewart, who admitted that the Cats simply came on the recruiting scene too late.
In fact, at the McDonald’s All-America Media Day this past spring, Wiseman, Stewart, and Tshiebwe all told KSR that Kentucky finished No. 2 in their respective recruitments, with McDaniels later being added to that list after committing to the Washington Huskies over the Cats in May. With various ties to other programs already established and stronger, deeper relationships developed with other coaching staffs due to longevity alone, Wiseman’s late gut-punch proved to be more detrimental than it seemed at the time of the decision.
And it really had nothing to do with Kentucky and its efforts on the recruiting trail at all. Again, if it weren’t for Hardaway and Wiseman’s long-established relationship, the nation’s No. 1 prospect would be a Wildcat and all of these recruiting narratives would not exist. While the frustrations are understood – the coaching staff certainly feels it, as well – a tough string of bad luck is more to blame than any potential recruiting deficiencies.
… but the sky is not falling
While Kentucky missed on every top big man target in the class of 2019, with their lone true frontcourt signing being Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina, optimism is just as high as ever in Lexington. Yes, even after Dante’s decision to turn down Kentucky and sign with Oregon.
As I have mentioned in Pilgrim’s Insider Notes on a few occasions over the last several weeks, sources tell KSR that while the Kentucky basketball coaching staff was still actively recruiting Dante to Lexington and would have loved to have him for pure depth purposes alone, this decision was not one they were losing sleep over. From top-to-bottom, they are confident in the 2019-20 roster as it stands currently. In fact, I spoke to an individual close to the program two weeks ago – right in the midst of the reclassification process and prior to a decision either way – who said that with or without Dante, this Kentucky team is absolutely capable of winning a national championship.
Would this roster have been better with Dante in the fold? Yes. Did I feel the 6-foot-11 shot-blocker had the potential to be an instant-impact prospect at Kentucky? Absolutely, especially after a dominant Peach Jam.
That being said, the Kentucky coaching staff lined this roster with veteran leadership, versatility, scoring, shooting, rebounding, and defense both inside and out on the perimeter. To combat their odd cold spell on the recruiting trail with elite frontcourt prospects, they overcompensated by bringing back Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery – who should take major steps forward with consistent playing time and better-defined roles next year as the focal points of the frontcourt – and signed a surplus of long, versatile wings. They also added another grad transfer big man in Sestina to serve as a strong complementary piece with solid shooting, scoring, and rebounding abilities.
In terms of recruiting moving forward, sources tell KSR that the frontcourt remains the program’s top priority in the immediate future. With EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards, and Nate Sestina all expected to be gone after next season, Kentucky is actively recruiting Isaiah Todd, Greg Brown, Makur Maker, JT Thor, Lance Ware, Cliff Omoruyi, and Dawson Garcia in the frontcourt alone, with Mady Sissoko and Bardstown’s JJ Traynor also being rumored as potential targets moving forward, too. Paolo Banchero, a top-three prospect in the class of 2021, will also be considering a reclassification to 2020 and would immediately jump to the top of Kentucky’s priority list, as well.
As a whole, after coming away empty-handed with elite 2019 frontcourt prospects, Kentucky is in position to hit a home run up front in 2020.
Small ball is coming
While the Kentucky coaching staff isn’t completely devastated about Dante heading elsewhere, it does mean they will have some decisions to make in terms of their rotation this coming season.
As we saw during the NCAA Tournament this past season, John Calipari isn’t afraid to experiment with small-ball lineups, and he’ll almost certainly have to implement them again this season. While he is confident in EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards this year (more on that in a minute), and Sestina should be a strong core rotation piece, Kentucky is now only one injury away from having absolutely zero depth in the frontcourt. Regular foul trouble – something both Richards and Montgomery are no stranger to – would also be rather troublesome.
In either case (and possibly regardless), Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks Jr. will be asked to slide down to the four in certain situations, with Kentucky then rolling out a three-guard lineup with Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and Tyrese Maxey, or Johnny Juzang playing the three. Either way, Whitney and Brooks will be asked to use their impressive length as situational big men, something the coaching staff is confident in if the former can continue to work on his consistency and the latter can continue to bulk up and build the strength necessary to bang around down low a bit.
Sources also tell KSR that Calipari has been interested in utilizing his four-out, one-in dribble-drive motion offense moving forward, and following Dante’s decision, that could absolutely be the route he takes.
EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards have to step up
The most crucial aspect of Dante’s decision lies solely on Kentucky big men EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards and the necessity for each of them to make massive leaps this coming season. Montgomery, who nearly kept his name in the NBA Draft after being discussed as a potential first-rounder, is on a mission to prove to teams that he is capable of becoming the lottery talent he was hyped up to be going into his freshman season. With smooth shooting mechanics, guard skills, and length, the 6-foot-11 forward out of Fort Pierce, FL will be called upon to not only take a step forward, but make a PJ Washington-esque leap into stardom as a sophomore.
Per-4o minutes, Montgomery averaged 10.0 points (48% shooting and 20% from three), 10.8 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per contest last season. With the “lack of opportunity” excuse no longer on the table as the team’s anticipated go-to playmaker down low, it’s not unheard of to ask for a ballpark range of 15 points, ten rebounds, and two blocks per game for the skilled sophomore. The talent is there, and if he wants to be the lottery pick NBA teams are expecting him to be, he simply has to make the jump happen.
As for Nick Richards, John Calipari has already commented on the expectations he has for his junior center in 2019-20.
“I’m excited to continue to coach Nick because I know how special he can be,” Calipari said after Richards announced he was withdrawing from the NBA Draft and returning to Kentucky. “I’ve told him, ‘If you come back, I’m expecting you to be one of the best big men in the country.’ There is no reason he can’t be. There is nothing that Nick hasn’t seen at this point, and he knows what my expectations are for him in his junior season. I want him to dominate the game and affect it on every single possession.”
Like with Montgomery, Richards’ opportunity excuses are no longer on the table. After averaging 4.0 points, 3.3. rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 12.1 minutes per game last season, doubling that production in 20-plus minutes per outing next year is not too much to ask of him. With confidence, the 7-foot-0 shot-blocker out of Kingston, Jamaica has shown the potential to be a 12-point, eight-rebound, three-block type of player in Lexington. They don’t need him to be Joel Embiid next year, but they do need him to be the competent rim-running big man threat with elite defensive instincts we all know he is capable of being.
With Dante headed elsewhere, both Montgomery and Richards have no choice but to step up this season.