EJ Montgomery’s decision to leave Kentucky after his sophomore season is a common one throughout the past decade of Kentucky basketball. Also common is Kentucky fans’ disagreement with players and when they should depart for the professional ranks.
Montgomery averaged just six points and five rebounds per game as a sophomore in 2020, but he made strides as a passer, shot-blocker and defender. His heightened tenacity on the floor and the Florida tip-in had the Bluegrass state buzzed for another star junior big man in 2021. Fans of Montgomery and the program were disappointed yet again by a player leaving before he had time to truly shine at Kentucky.
His father only added fuel to the fire.
“Why come back and waste a whole other year,” Efrem Montgomery said a few weeks after the season ended. Look, I’m going to all-out defend EJ’s decision to leave in a minute, but this quote from his dad is somewhat disrespectful to everyone involved with the program and justifiably rubbed the nation’s most loyal fans the wrong way. The worst part is Montgomery hasn’t once expressed this same lack of appreciation.
Ok, let’s get crazy: Efrem has a point! Leave out the sour word choice, but he’s right that EJ can leave for the NBA, G-League or overseas and get paid to develop just as he would’ve in Lexington. Will he develop better professionally – playing and practicing more often and against veteran competition while being paid…or as a 21-year-old in his third year with Calipari? There isn’t a certain answer.
Would that extra year of development even help his draft stock? Well, we all saw the jump Nick Richards made in 2020, and he’s still hanging on by a thread on draft boards. These two simply have limited versatility in the modern game because of the lack of a jumper (however, each has great shot mechanics and could make real improvement from distance) and their defensive limitations switching onto the NBA’s army of score-happy guards.
A few days ago, the Montgomery topic was brought back up when the head honcho around here shared some unfortunate news:
List of 105 potential NBA Draft Combine invites released…EJ Montgomery not one of themhttps://t.co/Dg8jdb4uBu
— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) July 27, 2020
… Which prompted this response from Wenyen Gabriel:
It’s your dream, nobody’s gonna see it like how you do. I wasn’t invited to the combine neither bro, time to work! ? https://t.co/PqQxoe68Jk
— Black (@WenyenGabriel) July 28, 2020
Wenyen Gabriel, the EJ Montgomery of his time, perhaps, is this: a raw, five-star forward who struggled as a freshman and had a few moments as a sophomore – but was likewise questioned whether or not he should have left after year two. Being the battler that he is on and off the court, having been born in war-torn Sudan and passing through Egypt before journeying to American refugee camps with his family, maybe it isn’t all that surprising that Gabriel eventually battled his way into the NBA.
(Something else cool: the name Wenyen means “wipe your tears” in Dinka, the primary language in South Sudan, and was given to him following his infant sister’s death the year before he was born. He said in a Youtube video with the Sacramento Kings, “I’m gonna wipe the tears for my family, wipe the tears for my country.” I’ll bet both couldn’t be prouder of their kid.)
I look at the tweet above, the remarkable climb Gabriel made as a pro, and ask: could this be EJ Montgomery?
Gabriel has a three-point shot, an animalistic fight about him, and he moves pretty well for a lean 6-foot-9 forward. What does Montgomery have going for him as a pro? He’s an above-average defender, he rebounds well, has nice shot mechanics and he’s relatively skilled around the basket at a good-lookin’ 6-foot-10.
Both bring a collection of valuable skills that could have immediate impacts on the end of an NBA bench. The difference between the two right now is motor. Wenyen’s a nonstop effort-churner. EJ is less consistent, although he played more aggressively as the season drew on, and he nestled into a comfortable role as the fifth starter and a perfect Nick Richards backup.
For a shot at the NBA, Montgomery needs to maintain focus on defense and rebounding. Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland was quoted saying he didn’t “have any doubt” that EJ would be an NBA player in an interview with Jerry Tipton, and compared his ability to switch “one through four” on defense to “Stacey Augmon, only two inches taller” – high praise. Augmon won three Defensive Player of the Year awards at UNLV and started games in the NBA for 15 seasons. I do agree with Howland that defense is Montgomery’s token to a seat on the court, and he’s shown flashes to suggest he can athletically hang, maybe not with smaller and quicker guards, but with most forwards and bigs.
Even if Montgomery fails to find a two-way spot or G-League contract straight out of college, the overseas option could be just as lucrative, with most foreign contracts paying at least six-figure salaries.
That’s probably the floor for him: a career back-to-the-basket big overseas, where those still exist and Kenny Payne would be Red Auerbach. Let’s remember: foreign teams aren’t unanimously better than Kentucky, although the world’s top leagues should crush UK. By going overseas and possibly playing for the runts UK beat up on in the Bahamas, he could have an even bigger role than he did at Kentucky – all while garnering the necessary professional experience and accompanying salary. However, that is no guarantee.
Possibly the most-important factor? College basketball may not have a season, although the NCAA has promoted full confidence in a full season to this point. In a normal year, the discourse around Montgomery’s decision wouldn’t include “well, you have to take into account that the college season may be canceled!” With COVID-19 threatening “amateur” college sports with cancellation more so than professional leagues across the world, the opportunity to play – and the money – may both lie exclusively with the pro route.
A league will offer EJ Montgomery a contract. Folks can say he wasn’t ready for the NBA and pro basketball as a whole, but I strongly disagree that his choice to leave was genuinely bad when you take a step back to examine the infinite complications of trying to transition from college to pro basketball in the middle of a pandemic. I hope we see this EJ again sometime in the near future: