The deadline has passed for those testing the NBA Draft waters, and for Kentucky, it went as well as you could’ve hoped.
The only two players on the roster left with decisions to make, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards, each decided that they would be returning to school. Now, Kentucky has a roster capable of making a Final Four run next season.
But is the UK coaching staff done?
In this edition of Pilgrim’s Insider Notes, we break down the decisions of both Wildcat forwards, whether or not Kentucky will be recruiting Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr., and if they’ll look to 2020 for another big man.
Let’s dive right in.
Last night, Kentucky forward EJ Montgomery announced he would be withdrawing from the NBA Draft and returning to school for a sophomore season.
And while it’s massive news for the roster and the team’s depth top-to-bottom, the news certainly wasn’t the expectation.
In last week’s edition of my notes, I said that the momentum had shifted back in Kentucky’s favor and that those on Montgomery’s side of things expected him back in Lexington this season. Originally, I had heard that while his first run of workouts had gone okay, teams encouraged him to return to school and develop for one more season before making the jump. At the time, I felt fairly confident that both Montgomery and Kentucky center Nick Richards would be back.
During his second round of workouts, though, I heard that a few teams had promised him the guaranteed contract he was looking for in the second round, with some rumblings indicating that he might even slide in at the end of the first. From there, Jerry Tipton of the Herald-Leader posted the article of former Wildcat Tony Delk, who worked out with Montgomery last week, saying he thought the Wildcat forward was staying in the draft.
After the back-to-back set of not-so-positive news for Kentucky, I definitely admit that my gut feeling flipped in favor of the NBA, and it stayed that way through the final decision.
I tried reaching out to some of the individuals in Montgomery’s inner-circle after his workout out in California on Tuesday to see if their optimism for a return had wavered at all after the fact, but I didn’t get much of anything back. On Kentucky’s end of things, John Calipari told reporters down at the SEC Meetings in Destin yesterday early afternoon that he still wasn’t certain of Montgomery’s decision. Sources tell KSR that not only was Calipari unaware of what the Kentucky forward was going to do in the hours leading up to the announcement, but so was the entire UK coaching staff.
After getting through to some folks after the decision was made, I definitely believe that Calipari’s advice tipped the scales on a truly 50/50 decision that went well into the day on Thursday. While there was significant interest in Montgomery from multiple NBA teams, the Kentucky head coach’s confidence in him to follow in PJ Washington’s footsteps and become a potential lottery pick next year pushed the scale in Kentucky’s favor.
While Montgomery’s return was more of a surprise, seeing Nick Richards’ announcement on Wednesday was not.
There was a very brief time that Richards contemplated keeping his name in the NBA Draft and exploring the professional ranks, but I’m told it was never an option that he seriously considered. While he obviously wants to get his professional career started sooner rather than later, he knows he still has work to do at the college level before he’s ready to make the jump.
From the minute he put his name in the draft, the Kentucky coaching staff expected the 6-foot-11 big man to learn what he needed from NBA teams and return to school. That’s exactly what happened.
As Calipari said when Richards made his announcement, those at UK are waiting for things to click for the former No. 1 center in the class of 2017, and they think it’s coming soon. When he realizes his true ability and builds up his confidence to play with consistency, they genuinely feel he can be one of the best big men in college basketball.
“I’m excited to continue to coach Nick because I know how special he can be,” Calipari said in a press release. “I’ve told him, ‘If you come back, I’m expecting you to be one of the best big men in the country.’ There is no reason he can’t be. There is nothing that Nick hasn’t seen at this point, and he knows what my expectations are for him in his junior season. I want him to dominate the game and affect it on every single possession.”
Physically, there’s no denying he’s gifted. If he can match that mentally? There is confidence within the program that he can have a Willie Cauley-Stein-esque impact on the team.
Kerry Blackshear Jr.
With Montgomery and Richards now back for next season, Kentucky will now turn its attention to closing out the 2019-20 roster with Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr.
And even with ten legitimate scholarship players on the team, sources tell KSR that the UK coaching staff is still hoping to bring in the 6-foot-11 big man and will be heavily involved in the recruiting process.
The fact that we’re even at this point, though, is surprising to me.
When Blackshear originally put his name in the draft, I was told on multiple occasions that he did so with the intention of keeping it in. He has already been in college for four years, put up solid numbers, made a decent run in the NCAA Tournament, etc. As much as he’d enjoy winning a national title, he’s already enjoyed a full college career, and the hope was that he’d do enough in the pre-draft process to give him a reason to start his professional career.
Unfortunately, that simply didn’t happen.
I talked to one individual who was actually at his Professional Basketball Combine workouts at the Mamba Center in California, who said it wasn’t a major shock that he decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft afterward. While he showed off solid versatility and shot fine, he just didn’t separate himself from the pack the way scouts hoped he would. Same goes with team and individual workouts.
In the end, Blackshear Jr. was almost certainly not getting drafted, and his journey to the NBA would have likely been dominated by years in the G-League. While he was (begrudgingly) open to either taking that route or playing professionally overseas, he decided it’d be beneficial to take one last stab at using what he learned during the pre-draft process to build his stock a bit more, competing for a title, and working toward his Master’s degree.
In terms of what’s next, I heard from someone I trust about a month ago that if Blackshear ended up withdrawing from the NBA Draft (highly unlikely in their mind at the time), Kentucky would be the likely landing spot. This was after Kentucky met with Blackshear’s family in Florida, mind you, so the confidence likely came from just how well that went. Blackshear’s camp has confidence in Calipari and his ability to put the 6-foot-11 star in position to thrive at the next level.
Outside of Kentucky, the main schools in contention are Florida and Texas A&M, along with a possible return to Virginia Tech.
For Florida, there is a legitimate need for him down low, and the coaching staff is selling him on being the missing piece for a potential Final Four contender. Beyond pure fit, he’s also from the Orlando, meaning he could spend his final season of college playing in front of his closest friends and family.
With the Aggies, his former Virginia Tech head coach, Buzz Williams, was hired this offseason and there is obvious familiarity there. As for a potential return to the Hokies, he’s already familiar with campus and new coach Mike Young seems confident that he’ll at least consider the opportunity.
I expect to hear of visits being scheduled in the very near future, with Blackshear ultimately ending up at either Kentucky or Florida.
We’re still early in the process, but I like UK’s position.
If Blackshear opts for another school to close out his college eligibility, the next big question is whether or not the Kentucky coaching staff will push for a reclassification from a prospect in the class of 2020.
The main targets? Five-star center N’Faly Dante, five-star center Makur Maker, five-star forward Isaiah Todd, and four-star center Cliff Omoruyi.
On Wednesday, Corey Evans of Rivals.com said that the Kentucky coaching staff is still “pushing” Dante to reclassify and join the 2019-20 roster.
“The Wildcats might not land N’Faly Dante, though they are pushing for his early enrollment,” he said.
At one point, sources told KSR that Kentucky was hoping Dante would remain in the class of 2020 to develop, but his dominant play during the winter and spring led UK to be more open-minded to a jump to 2019. I’m not certain of an updated status on that since Montgomery and Richards announced their return, but I do know that they love his game and think he has the potential to be next in line as a dominant shot blocker in Lexington. Oregon is seen as the slight favorite right now, with LSU also firmly in the running.
Omoruyi is also a possible option, and I definitely think he’d be open to taking the opportunity if it presented itself. As of today, I feel fairly confident that Kentucky leads for the four-star big man out of Roselle Catholic in New Jersey, though I think it’ll likely be for the 2020-21 season.
As for Maker, there are rumblings that he’s looking to either reclassify or go the professional route, but I’m not certain which is more likely right now. We’re still waiting on Calipari to offer a scholarship at this point, so if he does decide to make the jump, I don’t see him landing at Kentucky.
And finally with Todd, I think the only way he was playing for UK in 2019 was if Coach Cal found himself in desperation mode following the NBA Draft deadline. With his pair of former five-stars back in Lexington, the Kentucky coaching staff hopes to snag him in 2020.
In short, if a 2020 prospect begs Kentucky for a roster spot this coming season, I believe Calipari would be open to it, but it’s not a necessity. The UK coaching staff is confident in what they have currently and are not in desperate need of adding another piece. If Blackshear ends up elsewhere, my gut tells me the 2019-20 roster is set as-is.