Long before John Calipari ever got to Kentucky, he was known as one of the elite recruiters in all of college basketball. He signed Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray, and too many others to count at Kentucky. If John Calipari wanted a high school kid, well crap, there was a darn good chance he was going to get him.
But let’s be honest: High school recruiting is soooooooo 1999, and now all the cool kids are doing their recruiting in the transfer market. Well, after Kentucky picked up its third transfer commitment of the off-season on Wednesday and filled every hole on its roster, it’s worth asking: After dominating high school recruiting for years, did John Calipari just take over the transfer game too?
Admittedly, that’s probably a little bit of a stretch at this point. But after the work the Kentucky coaching staff has put in these last few weeks, it’s hard to argue.
For those who have lived under a rock for the last few hours, the big news came on Wednesday afternoon, when Wake Forest star Olivier Sarr committed to Kentucky. Sarr is a monster in the post, a player who averaged 13.7 points and nine rebounds in the ACC last year, to go with nearly a block and a half a game. In the process he earned All-ACC third team honors, and when he officially hit the portal on Monday, many (including me) believed he was the best big guy all off-season to hit the transfer market.
Less than 48 hours later, he was a Wildcat. He is now the third transfer to commit to Kentucky this off-season, joining Creighton combo guard Davion Mintz and Rhode Island wing Jacob Toppin. Not a bad few weeks, I must say.
Now, before we go any further it’s probably important to note that it is not yet certain if Sarr will be eligible to play next season. As of right now, there is no real belief that the one-time transfer rule will pass and players will be able to transfer and play immediately. And because Sarr is a true junior not on track to graduate until a year from now, he will need a waiver to get on the court for the 2020-2021 season. Considering the NCAA doesn’t simply hand out waivers if a player leaves because a coach is fired (even if they should) it means that there is a real possibility that Sarr will be forced to sit on the sidelines next season.
(At this same time, I find it hard to believe that Sarr would be so willing to transfer if he didn’t believe there was at least a possibility that he could get that waiver. Time will tell, but I do think it’s a possibility)
Still, this isn’t really about the waiver, so much as it is to discuss the simple willingness of Calipari to even take transfers in the first place.
For years, Calipari was hesitant to hit the transfer market, frustrated by what transfers were doing to programs at the mid-major level. At the same time, Calipari had little choice. With more players choosing to leave college early whether they’ll be drafted by the NBA or not, and more kids transferring overall, it was simply impossible to fill out your roster every year with high school players. There simply weren’t enough good ones. And there certainly weren’t enough good ones in the late spring, when your roster is still being shaped for the following season.
That’s also what has made this off-season run so impressive for Calipari. After dabbling with transfers the last few years (Reid Travis, Nate Sestina) he did a full pivot and jumped two feet in these last few weeks.
In the process, he filled every major hole this program had in the off-season.
After Immanuel Quickley emerged into the SEC Player of the Year, there was an unexpected need for a secondary ball-handler and playmaker in the backcourt. Kentucky filled it with Creighton’s Davion Mintz, a versatile guard who can play on or off the ball, shoot threes and help Devin Askew run the offense. With the reality that Terrence Clarke and BJ Boston are certain one-and-done’s on the wing, Calipari added Jacob Toppin, a developmental piece for 2021-2022. Now, instead of having to worry about replacing Clarke and Boston through the high school ranks (especially with this pandemic slowing down 2021 recruiting) the Wildcats will already have their replacement on the roster next season. How much better will Toppin be after practicing against those guys for a full season?
Then finally, there was Sarr.
Yes, Kentucky knew they’d need low post help this off-season, and that was only accentuated when EJ Montgomery made the (somewhat) surprising decision to declare for, and stay in the NBA Draft. Matt Haarms seemed like the most logical fit before he ended up at BYU, and if we’re being honest, it was probably a blessing in disguise anyway. As has been well-documented I never saw the fit, and thought he would have struggled to play for Calipari. Instead the Wildcats ended up with Sarr, a more complete player and one who better fits how Calipari wants his big guys to play. Sarr is big, athletic, can run the floor and block shots – and unlike Haarms doesn’t mind playing in the post. As I’ve said many times (including in some quick reaction I did after the commitment) I believe Sarr will give Kentucky about 80 percent of what Nick Richards did last year. He doesn’t quite have that automatic 15-foot jumper that Richards had. But Sarr can do just about everything else that Richards did last season.
And again, assuming he gets eligible, if you add Sarr with the pieces already in place, man does Kentucky once again look like a title contender. Boston and Clarke are going to be lethal on the perimeter, with Askew and Mintz will be ready to run the offense, with Mintz occasionally playing off the ball. Keion Brooks, Isaiah Jackson and Lance Ware can handle the four-spot, with Sarr manning the five. That doesn’t even include Dontaie Allen and Cam’Ron Fletcher, or the real possibility that more help could be on the way. At least if you believe what Keion Brooks Sr. has to say.
Kentucky not done just wait another one on the way!#BBN #9
— Keion Brooks (@keion_brooks) May 6, 2020
Ultimately it really is incredible how quickly and efficiently this roster came together.
Just a few weeks ago, the Wildcats had lost their entire starting five to the NBA Draft. There was just one player with any college experience on the roster, and only eight scholarship players total. Not even enough to run a full five-on-five practice.
Now the Wildcats have added three pieces, and in the process gotten deeper, more athletic and more experienced.
In just one year John Calipari became willing to hit the transfer market hard.
And Kentucky again has a title contender because of it.