John Calipari and his staff are still hard at work on the never ending recruiting trail. The Wildcats are in the hunt for a couple of five-star perimeter players (R.J. Hampton and Johnny Juzang) in addition to potential grad transfer big Kerry Blackshear Jr. The roster has been mostly built, but there are still some important additions to be made.
Sitting here on Derby weekend, Kentucky should feel good about their backcourt of Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey. It’s the frontcourt where the big questions still loom. While we play the waiting game to see what the 2019-20 Kentucky basketball team will look like, there’s one piece that could tell the tale for UK’s chances this season.
Entering this season, Keion Brooks Jr. will be the lowest rated five-star recruit in UK’s class checking in at No. 24 in the 247 sports composite rankings. The 6-foot-7 wing has a near 7-foot wingspan and will be used by John Calipari this season to fill a lot of holes.
Throughout his coaching career, Cal has regularly gone with the traditional basketball lineup that we are all aware of. The hall of fame head coach prefers to have two traditional bigs on the floor using a power game consisted of defense and rebounding. However, thanks to the pace and space movement that took over the NBA a few seasons ago, we’ve seen the game start to change on the college level. Three of the last four national champions (Villanova 2016 & 2018, Virginia 2019) have each used a lineup that prefers to spread the floor and shoot threes. With Brooks in the fold, we could be seeing a change coming from Calipari to help fix the offensive spacing issues.
It is expected for EJ Montgomery to return to school and be UK’s top big next season after not getting an invite to the combine. The sophomore was a top 10 recruit in the class of 2018, but is not your typical Cal paint player. As we saw in small doses last season, Montgomery is best used in an open floor game while occasionally facing up on offense and using a pretty, but right now inefficient, jump shot. After him is where the questions are.
Kentucky is still in hot pursuit of Kerry Blackshear Jr. while it is assumed that Nick Richards will return for his junior season. Nate Sestina is signed up for a grad transfer season and the former Bucknell big will bring shooting in addition to solid size and post offense to the lineup. However, with no Blackshear, a team that requires 35 minutes from a combination of Richards and Sestina does not seem like it’s going to allow UK to accomplish what it wants. For Kentucky to reach its apex, Keion Brooks must be used in a small ball lineup.
For this great piece of literature’s purpose, we are just going to assume that Johnny Juzang will be a Wildcat next season. That would give UK two reliable downhill combo guards in Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey to go with a savvy spot shooter in Immanuel Quickley. UK would have three wings at least 6-foot-6 or taller in Brooks, Juzang, and Khalil Whitney to play around with. However, Brooks brings the most versatility to the lineup.
Juzang is three-point sharp shooter who shot over 40 percent from deep on the AAU circuit last year who has also proven to be a very good rebounder. Khalil Whitney is an athletic freak who can get up and down with the best of them, but has to improve his handle and feel for the game. Keion Brooks Jr. has everything UK will be looking for in a 3/4 man in a small ball lineup.
With the driving ability that both Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey have, it will be essential for a secondary ball handler emerges. Playing for high school powerhouse La Lumiere, Brooks proved many times against good competition that he could put the ball on the deck, stay in control, and find a good shot for the offense. This ability will be needed as a counter when teams collapse in on the dribble penetration from UK’s lead guards.
In his UK coaching career, John Calipari has really only used small ball twice. Due to only having a six-man rotation in 2012, UK was constantly forced to play Darius Miller at the four. In 2017, Derek Willis was small-ball four who was at it’s best spotting up on the three-point line and getting set for passes from De’Aaron Fox. In a similar role, UK could use Brooks like they used Miller in 2011 and 2012.
Many times during his career, UK would throw the ball to Darius Miller in the post and let him back down his defender and then use a turnaround shot or head fake to draw a foul. During his high school career, Keion Brooks Jr. has proven that one of his strengths is operating in the mid-post. The wing has an excellent feel playing with his back to the basket and has the length and lift to get clear looks against similar sized opponents. Kentucky is currently a team without a true post up option and there’s a very real case that Brooks can provide that for the offense. He can even be a weapon against zone defenses operating out of the high post.
If UK is going to play Keion Brooks Jr. heavy minutes on the wing and then potentially as a small ball four 8-12 minutes per game, they are going to have to get some floor spacing. The wing shot over 30 percent from deep last summer in Nike EYBL and if he can improve those numbers just a bit UK could be in great shape.
Throughout his prep career, Keion Brooks has proven to be a solid ball handler who occasionally can make things happen off the bounce. If used correctly, he can be an effective three-point shooter and very efficient mid-post offensive weapon. Then you the defensive versatility to go with his rebounding ability and you have quite the young prospect. He isn’t the athlete that Khalil Whitney is or the shooter that Johnny Juzang is, but it’s pretty clear that he will be one of UK’s most important players next season.