A week after asking “what if?” Kentucky Sports Radio will explore a version of the what if question by examining some of the biggest whiffs on the recruiting trail. How could a few added signatures from top targets have changed the John Calipari era in Lexington? Would the Wildcats have won more titles? Were they better off with their replacements?
1. Xavier Henry
Once seen as a simple miss under Calipari, we learned just a few weeks ago just how massive Xavier Henry’s commitment elsewhere meant for the program.
At one point, it appeared Kentucky was set to land the consensus top-ten prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. In a recent interview with 247Sports, former UK superstar John Wall revealed he would have committed to Miami (FL) had Henry signed with Kentucky.
After playing alongside Henry at the Nike Hoop Summit, he knew they couldn’t coexist in Lexington.
“I was playing with Xavier [Henry] and Xavier was a talented player but he was just shooting the ball so much, so mad he wasn’t getting the ball, I called Cal up and was like, ‘‘Cal when you switch to Kentucky, if he’s coming, I promise I won’t go,’” Wall told 247Sports. “I told him that straight up. I told him I can’t go because I was like me, DeMarcus, E-Bled [Eric Bledsoe] and all of these guys are about to sacrifice and he has to sacrifice, we’re not going to get a lot of shots. We all are used to averaging over 25 or more on our team and we’re not about to be like that and I don’t think he could buy into that.”
Wall went on to average 16.6 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per contest, leading Kentucky to an Elite Eight finish in the NCAA Tournament before being selected No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft. Meanwhile, Henry averaged 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game in his lone season at Kansas, with the Jayhawks falling in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to 9-seed Northern Iowa.
Kentucky’s recruiting miss would wind up being arguably the biggest blessing in disguise of the Calipari era.
2. Zion Williamson
At the time of Zion Williamson’s commitment, the sting wasn’t so much his decision to turn down Kentucky, but rather, the final destination.
Leading up to the announcement, Clemson led the way in his Crystal Ball with 87 percent of picks, with Kentucky and South Carolina seen as the secondary options for the top-five prospect. Many national recruiting analysts didn’t even see the Blue Devils as a legitimate possibility at the time.
Had he signed with Clemson or South Carolina, Williamson would have spent eight months on campus dominating the competition, but playing for a school unlikely to compete for a title. UK fans had grown content with either of those possibilities had he turned down Calipari and the Kentucky program.
Instead, Williamson signed with UK’s direct competition in their pursuit for a national championship and became college basketball’s can’t-miss sensation en route to a No. 1 overall selection in the NBA Draft.
From both a production and branding perspective, Williamson would have been one of the top talents of the Calipari era, neck-and-neck with the likes of Wall and Anthony Davis.
3. James Wiseman
For the majority of James Wiseman’s recruitment, the general consensus was that No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2019 would ultimately sign with Kentucky.
The second Penny Hardaway was hired at Memphis, though, it became apparent that the UK coaching staff would be working at a disadvantage from that point forward. And then eight months later, that momentum shift became official, with the 7-foot-center signing with Memphis in November of 2019.
From a recruiting perspective, Wiseman’s commitment to the Wildcats was a gut punch to the program, as it marked the fourth consecutive year UK had failed to sign a top-five prospect. Investing so much time in Wiseman also put them behind with the likes of Isaiah Stewart and Oscar Tshiebwe, leaving the program scrambling in the spring to find help in the frontcourt.
From an on-court perspective, the biggest question with Wiseman is whether or not he would have avoided eligibility issues with the NCAA at Kentucky. Would Hardaway have still been at Memphis? Would the NCAA have cared that Hardaway previously paid for the five-star center’s moving expenses? Would it have even come up?
In a perfect world, he comes to UK, faces no eligibility issues, and dominates in a loaded frontcourt alongside Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery, and Nate Sestina. Wiseman is then selected No. 1 overall in the draft and added to UK’s trophy case of high-profile frontcourt talent.
Instead, Penny Hardaway threw a wrench into those plans.
4. Andrew Wiggins
On paper, Kentucky’s 2013 recruiting class is seen as the most impressive in college basketball history, with the program signing the No. 1 point guard, shooting guard, power forward, and center, along with the No. 3 small forward and No. 9 power forward in the nation that year.
With Andrew Wiggins’ addition, Kentucky would have not only added the No. 1 prospect in high school basketball, but managed a clean sweep of the top-ranked player at all five positions. Replicating that level of recruiting success ever again would be almost impossible.
While Kentucky still managed to put together a ridiculous tournament run to the national title game, Wiggins – who averaged 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in his lone season at Kansas – very well could have been the difference-maker in UK winning it all.
At the very least, Wiggins would have been the icing on the cake of a never-to-be-done-again recruiting class.
5. Jaylen Brown
Remember that stretch where it seemed, for whatever reason, Kentucky simply couldn’t land a talented, athletic wing on the recruiting trail?
Jaylen Brown was at the heart of that conversation when the former five-star small forward turned down UK in favor of California, Berkeley back in 2015.
In 2015-16, Kentucky had one of the most dynamic guard duos in school history in Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, but beyond that, the roster was in desperate need of star power.
Skal Labissiere underwhelmed as the surefire top-three incoming prospect he was hyped up to be, while Alex Poythress, Isaiah Briscoe, Marcus Lee, and Derek Willis were all serviceable talents. The team had a solid core, but missed one final star piece on the roster.
That factor was a solid contributor in Kentucky falling in the Round of 32 to five-seed Indiana, the program’s second-worst finish under Calipari.
Would Brown have been enough to spark a Final Four run for UK?
- Josh Selby (Kansas)
- Marques Bolden (Duke)
- Cheick Diallo (Kansas)
- Andre Drummond (UCONN)
- Quincy Miller (Baylor)
- Alex Oriakhi (Missouri)
- Emmanuel Mudiay (SMU)
- Aaron Gordon (Arizona)
- Cliff Alexander (Kansas)
- Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV)
- CJ Leslie (NC State)