On Thursday, Kentucky picked up a big recruiting win. That’s nothing new. What is new however is that for a second straight year, it wasn’t a high school All-American who chose Kentucky (although a few of them have over the past few months). Instead it was a graduate transfer.
That player is Nate Sestina, who followed the lead of Reid Travis, and elected to use his final season of college eligibility in Lexington. The 6’9 Sestina averaged just under 16 points and eight boards per game last year, while shooting 38 percent from behind the arc.
With the news, it helps shore up a massive need in Kentucky’s front-court, where the team will lose Travis and P.J. Washington after this past season. Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery are expected to be back, and more guys may be on the way, but for the time being, the Wildcats have another big body to plug in up front next season, something they desperately needed.
And as we begin to look ahead to next season, and the role Sestina might play, it’s important to remember one thing: While John Calipari is increasingly growing more and more comfortable with the graduate transfer route, it’s unfair to expect Sestina to be Reid Travis 2.0. They’re two different guys with two different experiences, and in the same way it would be unfair to expect an incoming freshman to be the “next Tyler Herro,” it’s unfair to expect Sestina to seamlessly step into Travis’s shoes. At the same time, Sestina can still play a very valuable role with next year’s team. And to be blunt, he might end up having a bigger impact that any high school guy Kentucky can get at this point.
Let’s start with the Travis point, and let’s make one thing abundantly clear: Reid Travis spoiled Kentucky fans. Yes, Travis had his flaws – most notably dealing with extreme length and size on the interior. But it also isn’t an exaggeration to still say that he is one of the best grad transfers to ever hit the market. After all, there is a reason that most guys are looking for a place to play a fifth and final year of college basketball. If they were good enough to be making money in the NBA, that’s where they would be instead of on a college campus.
But even by that standard, Travis is the exception to the rule. While his NBA prospects are largely up for debate, there simply aren’t that many guys out there who have been a two-time All-Conference performer in a Power 5 league like Travis was (well, assuming you still consider the Pac-12 a “Power 5” league). There aren’t all that many guys who have averaged 20 and nine while playing against the likes of DeAndre Ayton, TJ Leaf and other future NBA pros through the years.
So that’s what’s most important to remember with Sestina: It’s kind of what I said at the top. He is going to be a good player, and someone who will likely serve a role, playing alongside Montgomery and Richards in the front-court next year. Based on the film I’ve seen (admittedly, I didn’t watch a ton of Bucknell games last year), he seems like a solid, hybrid four-man, who can step out and shoot, or put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. It seems like his skill-set really is suited to play alongside Montgomery and Richards, as a “small-ball” four.
Still, it’s also important to remember that it is a major step up in competition for Sestina to go from Bucknell to Kentucky, the Patriot League to the SEC. This isn’t Reid Travis from jumping from one (slightly inferior) Power 5 conference to another, but a dude literally jumping from a mid-major to the highest of high majors. There are going to be some growing pains. Just like there were with Travis this season.
At the same time, there is another element of this transfer which could be true as well: Is it possible that Sestina could have a bigger impact than some of the freshmen Kentucky has pursued in the front-court this season? The answer is absolutely.
Look, I’m not going to throw any particular 18-year-old kid or recruit under the bus, but I do think that time has proven that while so many freshmen come in with hype, each one grows at his own pace. Sure, we focus on Zion Williamson, but let’s not forget that E.J. Montgomery was actually ranked ahead of him in some recruiting rankings. Romeo Langford got stats but had no impact in the win-loss column at Indiana, and Nassir Little came in with a lot of hype at UNC and played well, but was never a star. Therefore, while Matthew Hurt or Jaden McDaniels will come to college next year with plenty of hype, is it possible that they struggle? Of course. Or that Sestina, as a 22-year-old, who has seen and done it all before, could actually have a bigger impact than either? Absolutely.
And therefore, that’s what’s important to remember about today for Kentucky. Sestina probably won’t be a double-double guy like he was at his last place, and he probably won’t even at times be as good as Travis, who played a wildly important role for last year’s club.
But will he be a contributor, and frankly, maybe even a bit better than some of the freshmen that will have so much hype coming into next season.
The answer is an absolute yes.