The 2018-19 Kentucky basketball season is officially over, but John Calipari is still hard at work putting the final touches on his next crop of talent in 2019-20.
Right now, we have Tyrese Maxey and Dontaie Allen signed and ready to go, while Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks Jr. are committed to the program and will make it official after National Signing Day on April 17.
Beyond those four, the Kentucky staff has a few tough decisions to make when filling out the rest of the upcoming roster, specifically when it comes to NBA Draft decisions. Until they know who stays and who goes, they don’t exactly know how many players they need to close out their 2019 recruiting class and/or who they need to focus on when it comes to the graduate transfer market.
So let’s start with the big question… What is the latest when it comes to the NBA Draft?
NBA Draft decisions
Before we go player-specific, let me just cut through the obvious. All players will meet with the coaching staff and their families before making an initial decision. Several players know what they’re going to do, at least in the short term, and that news could come out within the next week or so. Ten years into the John Calipari Era at Kentucky, you guys know the typical offseason routine.
That being said, players are now allowed to choose an agent to help them through the draft process, so that could certainly throw a wrench into things from a time perspective. In short, we won’t know some final decisions until possibly May 29, the final day to withdraw from consideration.
I was told last offseason when Washington decided to return to school for a sophomore season that it would be his final year at Kentucky, really no matter what happened. He wanted to leave for the draft last year, and part of the agreement (with himself more than anything) was that he would do anything and everything it took to improve his stock before making the jump this offseason.
He cut weight, got faster and more athletic, improved his jump shot, polished his post moves, and developed a stronger basketball IQ. In the process, his numbers dramatically improved and he became a consensus All-American player.
Washington went through the process exactly right, and he will be rewarded for it in the form of a late-lottery selection this summer. Though a timetable isn’t certain yet (sooner rather than later), he will be happily signing with an agent and entering the NBA Draft for good. As he should.
That being said, Washington’s decision to return has been big for John Calipari and his thoughts on the draft process/players returning to school. He even mentioned it on his radio show on Monday, saying he will be more comfortable telling fringe first-rounders it’d be in their best interest to return to school because he saw how much it benefitted Washington. This will impact multiple Kentucky players this offseason.
Kentucky small forward Keldon Johnson had his moments this season, but it’s no secret his total body of work certainly left a lot to be desired. He thrived against shorter, weaker opponents (Abilene Christian), but struggled against length and strength. Not a good sign for a player with immediate NBA dreams.
While he could certainly benefit from another year in school, a frustrating little word called “potential” exists and NBA scouts are obsessed with it. And as a 6-foot-6 athletic freak with smooth shooting mechanics, Johnson falls right into that category.
Johnson will likely be putting his name in the NBA Draft and letting the process play out completely. There may even be some last-minute rumors after the NBA Combine about him making a triumphant return and raising his draft stock as a sophomore, a la Kevin Knox last offseason.
While that would be phenomenal for Kentucky, I just don’t see Calipari letting a fringe lottery pick/certain first-rounder return to school, especially when the goal for him was to be a one-and-done going into the year.
The hot take from fans right now following Tyler Herro’s seven-point, 3-11 shooting performance in the Elite Eight against Auburn is that the 6-foot-6 shooting guard simply isn’t good enough to play in the NBA yet.
As much as he struggled to find his shot as Auburn’s primary target on defense, it’s just not true in the grand scheme of things. And Herro knows that, as does his family.
His stock skyrocketed late in the season, jumping from early second round status to late-first, and then all the way up to late-lottery/middle of the first.
After Sunday’s loss, Herro told reporters (specifically The Athletic) that there is “definitely a chance” he returns to school.
“Of course,” he said, nodding vigorously. “There’s a chance. Definitely a chance. I just love Kentucky. I haven’t (made) a decision. I haven’t looked at anything. I don’t even know where I stand right now. But I love the coaching staff and I love Lexington. Just going to go back, cherish this moment with my teammates — we had a great ride — and talk to my family, coaches, see what happens.”
While he genuinely loves Kentucky and would love another year in Lexington, I’m told that Herro has been contemplating a jump to the NBA for a few months now, and the plan is for him to put his name in the draft and keep it there.
Like Johnson, he’ll go through the process and give himself an opportunity to return to school. I just don’t see it happening right now.
Like Herro, Hagans told The Athletic that he would consider returning to school, pointing out the intrigue in leading next year’s roster.
“This team, they were my brothers, and if I did make a decision to come back, I could help the other guys understand that everybody has to be for each other and everybody has to fight or you’re not going to go very far,” he said. “I’d tell them you don’t want to lose this game, in the Elite Eight.”
That being said, he also added that he had a “hell of a year” and “definitely” has a decision to make.
So where is he leaning?
The reality of the matter is that Hagans wants to go to the NBA, and he has from the second he committed to Kentucky. When he went through his stretch of elite play late from late January to February, sources tell KSR that he was absolutely sold on heading to the league after this season. All he needed was his production to back that up.
Late in the year, though, he struggled immensely and his stock dropped accordingly. Now, it’d be a shock to see him taken anywhere in the top 45 picks or so.
Hagans will go through the draft process and get feedback from scouts, but barring a major and surprising spike in stock, I genuinely believe Calipari will tell his point guard it’s in his best interest to return to Kentucky for another year. Like Washington, if things can slow down for Hagans (i.e. fewer turnovers) and his jumper becomes even remotely consistent, he’s a first round lock in 2020.
That scenario is where I’m leaning now.
Nick Richards/EJ Montgomery/Immanuel Quickley/Jemarl Baker
From there, the rest (should) be easy. Richards, Montgomery, Quickley, and Baker all need to return to school, and they know that. Richards and Montgomery may test the waters just to get feedback, but I’d be shocked if they even remotely considered an actual leap.
First and foremost, Richards is in a relationship with Kentucky volleyball star Leah Edmond, and they have been together for a while now. That’s certainly something to factor in right away.
While Richards would likely be taken in the second round on potential alone, and there’s a low chance Montgomery would too, Quickley, and Baker have absolutely zero draft stock right now. Calipari mentioned that players leaving too early could be out of basketball in just a few years, and one would think he would make that a main point of emphasis with these guys.
We could see one (likely Quickley or Baker) transfer, more likely if Hagans returns, but that’s not a guarantee. The safe bet is for all four to return to Kentucky next season.
There were whispers early at the McDonald’s All-American Game that Kentucky was going to hit the graduate transfer market hard, and just a day later, reports surfaced that Bucknell senior forward Nate Sestina would be visiting Lexington this week.
I’m told that this visit came together rather quickly, specifically on Sestina’s end, as he’s coming in with serious intentions. Sources tell KSR that Sestina watched Reid Travis’ situation closely this year and saw just how much playing for Calipari at Kentucky did for his game. The interest is significant, and if the Kentucky coaching staff is ready for him (which is a big aspect of it all), he’d likely jump at the opportunity.
The 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward out of Emporium, Pa. averaged 15.8 points (53.6 percent shooting, 38 percent from three, 80.8 percent from the free throw), 8.7 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game last year for the Bison. Sestina was named Second Team All-Patriot League and was a Patriot League All-Tournament selection.
The graduate transfer scored in double figures in 27 of his 31 games last season and had 11 double-doubles overall.
In an interview with The Daily Item, Sestina said that he wants to go somewhere where he can make an impact right away. With PJ Washington and Reid Travis almost certainly leaving, that opportunity is there.
“I felt I needed to improve some things,” Sestina said. “The opportunity to play college basketball for another year, make a run to the NCAA Tournament, and hopefully win some games, was very, very appealing. I want to find a place to grow and develop, but a place where I can be me and play my game — not a place where I’ll sit the bench.”
Sestina, who is visiting from Monday through Wednesday, said himself this is a very serious visit and he very well may end up in Lexington for his final season of eligibility.
“If it goes well, clicks and I get signs from God — I’ve got to pray on it; I’ve been doing that a lot recently — it just depends on the visit,” he said. “I’ll take the time I need to make the right decision.”
I don’t expect to hear Sestina make a final decision on his visit like Travis did last offseason, though things could come together fast in favor of the Wildcats. The Kentucky staff will have to think about this hard, though, as it would certainly have an impact on other 2019 prospects.
Nonetheless, Sestina is a fantastic option and would be a great fit in Lexington. I’ll find out more on the movement of things as the visit concludes tomorrow.
After Sestina makes his decision, we’ll only be waiting on Matthew Hurt and Jaden McDaniels in the class of 2019, and then (to a lesser extent) some other potential reclassification candidates. After seriously considering a jump to 2019, it’s looking like five-star power forward Isaiah Todd will stick with 2020, where Kentucky is the heavy favorite. Five-star center N’Faly Dante is still being discussed as a possibility, though things have been a bit slow with him as of late.
I do believe Kentucky could make room for one more potential addition even if Sestina commits, though things would get pretty tight if that’s the case.
That being said, UK would be comfortable with a frontcourt consisting of a freshman Keion Brooks Jr., a sophomore EJ Montgomery, a junior Nick Richards, and a senior Nate Sestina. I was told several months ago from someone within the program that Kentucky would be moving to a faster offense that capitalized on transition opportunities and stretching the floor, with one individual telling me that the dribble drive was returning. Those four players would allow for several interesting frontcourt combinations, including a small ball approach (as Calipari experimented with this postseason).
Barring an unexpected transfer or draft departure, I believe closing out the class with Sestina is the likely scenario.