Late Tuesday night, under the cloak of darkness, one of the last big puzzle pieces in the 2019 recruiting class officially fell. After a back-and-forth recruitment, one that left even the best recruiting experts uncertain of where he’d land, Jaden McDaniels officially decided to play at Washington.
Although Washington was the spot that McDaniels’ recruitment had trended for weeks, no one really knew where he’d end up… until he actually ended up there, choosing the Huskies over Kentucky while most fans slept the night away.
But with McDaniels’ recruitment officially closed, another reality set in for Kentucky on Wednesday morning: For the Wildcats to reach their full potential next season, they need EJ Montgomery to come back to Lexington. As a matter of fact, I think you could make a legitimate case that of all the players who are still truly “testing the waters” in the NBA Draft process, Montgomery is the most important decision left anywhere in college basketball.
— Jmac (@Jmcdaniels7) May 22, 2019
Now to be clear, this isn’t just about McDaniels’ decision to go elsewhere, as it was never really an “either/or” kind of deal between the two. Although both are listed at 6’11, they play a completely different style of game, with McDaniels much more comfortable putting the ball on the floor as more of a hybrid, new-age four-man in the mold of Kevin Durant, Tracy McGrady or Michael Porter Jr. (to be clear, I’m not comparing McDaniels upside to any of those players – just his style of play). Montgomery, as we all saw last year, is more of a traditional four-man, not quite as comfortable making plays for himself, but more competent around the rim and in the paint.
Had McDaniels chosen Kentucky he wouldn’t have necessarily been a player to “replace” Montgomery, but instead one to compliment him.
Still with McDaniels finally of the picture, Reid Travis graduated, and PJ Washington gone after his sophomore year, there is in fact a gaping hole in the Kentucky front-court. And the best option to fill that spot and maximize the potential out of this entire Kentucky team would be for Montgomery to return.
The bottom-line is that Montgomery fills an incredible void for the Wildcats next year as a big-time threat down low. Admittedly, he didn’t have a great offensive season last year (averaging just four points a game) but did show flashes, with 11 points and 13 boards against South Carolina, and a couple other double-figure scoring games, to go along with several more where he helped the team on the glass. Considering his pedigree as a McDonald’s All-American it doesn’t seem far-fetched to assume that he would make a leap similar to PJ Washington last summer and become a focal point of the offense. He might not become an All-SEC caliber player like Washington. But it isn’t necessarily inconceivable either.
Just as important, his skill-set certainly fits with the other guys that Kentucky is projected to have back. If the Wildcats want to go big, Montgomery can play the four-spot, with Nick Richards (assuming Richards returns as well) serving as a rim protector and true center. If they want to go small, Montgomery would fit in well as a new-age five-man, with Kahlil Whitney stepping in at the four-spot. John Calipari wants to play position-less basketball, and the two of them really would make a dynamic duo together.
Because of that, Montgomery is the missing piece for Kentucky. The guy who makes them the heavy favorite in the SEC, and a legit national championship contender.
But without him? There is that gaping hole in the middle, with no obvious replacements available.
Looking at the other options, we all know that Richards doesn’t have the offensive upside of Montgomery, and I do worry about Nate Sestina’s ability to transition to the increased competition in the SEC. Kerry Blackshear is of course a possibility, but he seems hell bent on staying in the draft if at all possible. Beyond that, it seems like a reach to get any other high school players to reclassify, and no other grad transfers have been linked to UK either.
Yup, EJ Montgomery remains the best available option for a consistent front-court presence for the Wildcats next year.
Will he be back?
It could be the difference between the Wildcats being a legit title contender and a good, but not great team.