As Kentucky senior Reid Travis packs his bags and explores his professional basketball options, the Wildcats have found his replacement in the post in the form of yet another graduate transfer.
Bucknell senior forward Nate Sestina has committed to Kentucky, giving the Cats their fifth pledge and/or signee for the class of 2019. And with the Wildcats so desperately needing help in the frontcourt next season, it’s certainly a big one.
Let’s take a look at this decision and what it means for the program from all angles.
Who is Nate Sestina?
A 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward out of Emporium, Pa., Sestina averaged 15.8 points (53.6 percent shooting, 38 percent from three, 80.8 percent from the free throw line), 8.7 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game last year for the Bison. The graduate transfer scored in double figures in 27 of his 31 games last season and had 11 double-doubles overall.
He was also named Second Team All-Patriot League and was a Patriot League All-Tournament selection this past season.
As far as his style of play is concerned, Sestina is comfortable in both face-up and back to the basket settings on offense. While he thrives on the perimeter and floating between 15 and 18 feet from the basket for catch-and-shoot opportunities, his size allows him to muscle his way into the paint for easy baskets at the rim. Like Travis, he plays beneath the basket, but is crafty enough offensively to compensate for his lack of leaping ability.
His jump shot, arguably the most fascinating aspect of his game, is a thing of beauty, with range extending several feet beyond the three-point line. He doesn’t create his own shot much, but he does work hard off the ball to find open shots for himself, which he converts at a solid 38% clip on five attempts per game. At Kentucky, I could definitely see him being a 41% shooter or so from deep, similar to PJ Washington (42.3%) this past season, but on more attempts.
Outside of scoring, he’s extremely active on the glass, fighting for loose balls down low on offense and converting that into second chance opportunities. Sestina also runs the floor fairly well, has pretty solid passing vision and ability, and possesses a strong basketball IQ.
Last season at Bucknell, Sestina had an overall offensive rating of 114.7 (points scored per 100 possessions) and a defensive rating of 100.3 (points allowed per 100 possessions). In other words, he was a strong offensive player and an average to slightly above-average defender.
For comparison’s sake, Reid Travis came in to Kentucky with an offensive rating of 118.1 and a defensive rating of 104.6. In his lone season in Lexington, Travis raised his offensive rating to 121.3 points per 100 possessions and lowered his defensive rating to 97.9 points allowed per 100 possessions on defense.
In terms of other weaknesses, Sestina will need to work on his lateral quickness and mobility, specifically when switched onto guards on the perimeter. He holds his own right now, but he’ll get beat at times against quicker SEC competition. Like we saw with Travis, though, he’ll make massive strides under Kenny Payne.
How did we get to this point?
As mentioned on Tuesday night in Pilgrim’s Insider Notes, there were rumblings down in Atlanta for the McDonald’s All-American Game that Kentucky was going to be hitting the graduate transfer market hard, specifically in the frontcourt.
Just a day later, Evan Daniels of 247 Sports reported that Sestina had scheduled an official visit to Kentucky for this week from Monday to Wednesday.
After doing some digging, I was told that Sestina absolutely had an agenda going into his trip to Lexington. He not only saw the way Reid Travis developed both as a player and as a person, but he also saw the way John Calipari talked about coaching him and what he meant for the program.
With just one more year of eligibility left, the 6-foot-9 forward wanted to go to a place where he could make that kind of impact both on and off the floor. When exploring his options, Kentucky was the first and main priority, and if they wanted him, he was very much open to making this process quick and easy.
The visit happened, he loved his time just as much (if not more) than he expected to, the staff thought he was a great fit, Kentucky extended the official scholarship, and the decision was finalized the very next day.
While it seemed pretty straight forward on the outside, I am a little surprised at how fast this process actually moved on Kentucky’s side of things given the magnitude of what it means for next year’s roster. With two fairly huge prospects left on the board (we’ll touch on that in a minute) and open roster spots dwindling down, I expected this visit to happen and not hear anything till at least the weekend while both sides mulled it over.
Apparently there wasn’t much to think about, as Sestina pulled the trigger as soon as he returned home (there might have even been a silent commitment yesterday afternoon). No other visits, nothing left to think about, the Bucknell graduate transfer knew Kentucky was home.
With Sestina’s addition, it obviously has a significant impact on Kentucky’s recruiting efforts moving forward to close out the class of 2019.
Before this decision, I was told Kentucky wanted one more guy to solidify their confidence in next season’s roster. Keion Brooks Jr. joining made things easier and allowed them to be a little bit more selective in the process, and considering how fast this visit came together and the ridiculous turnaround on a commitment, it’s obvious they like Sestina quite a bit.
With five-star power forward prospects Matthew Hurt and Jaden McDaniels left on the board, however. The latest whispers (as late as last week at the McDonald’s All-American Game and into the weekend) were that Hurt’s decision would come down to Kansas, Duke, and Kentucky, while McDaniels had no idea what he wanted to do, but certainly favored Kentucky and Washington.
Future Wildcats Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney told KSR they felt more confident in Hurt joining, though when talking to both uncommitted prospects, McDaniels also said he really respected how Kentucky was recruiting him and respected his space compared to some of the other schools involved. If they want to talk with him, they’ll jump in the plane and fly to Seattle to talk to him face-to-face, not badger him with phone calls and text messages.
No matter who is more likely to choose Kentucky, I’m told that even after Sestina’s commitment, the UK coaching staff can still make room for either Hurt or McDaniels if they want to join.
In fact, when asked about whether the frontcourt was complete this afternoon, one strong source within the program specifically said there was “plenty of room” to bring on more.
Does this mean Kentucky expects a surprise NBA decision? A transfer?
Or does it simply mean they’re cool with loading up the roster with talent and just seeing what happens, a la 2014-15?
It’s certainly interesting, nonetheless.
We all know PJ Washington is almost certainly entering the draft and Reid Travis is graduating. That takes care of two frontcourt spots.
We also know Keldon Johnson, projected as a mid-first round selection, is very likely to keep his name in the draft. Tyler Herro, despite having a bit of a wider draft range, is also likely to go.
From there, though, it’s a toss-up.
Ashton Hagans shouldn’t go, but his post-Auburn comments seemed to indicate he was certainly considering it. Immanuel Quickley and EJ Montgomery struggled to fit in the system at times, while Nick Richards, who certainly had his ups and downs last season, played just five minutes in Kentucky’s final two games in the NCAA Tournament. Jemarl Baker seemed to enjoy his role and can only go up from here, but you never know with him being so far from home.
All four would improve immensely playing another season at Kentucky. Judging purely off recent history, however, that doesn’t always mean it will end up that way.
If we assume Travis, Washington, Johnson, and Herro are gone, this is what the roster is looking like for next season:
PG: Ashton Hagans/Immanuel Quickley
SG: Tyrese Maxey/Jemarl Baker/Brad Calipari
SF: Kahlil Whitney/Keion Brooks Jr./Dontaie Allen
PF: Nate Sestina/(McDaniels or Hurt)
C: EJ Montgomery/Nick Richards
Thanks to Sestina’s addition, that’s a loaded roster for the Wildcats. You have shooting (Maxey, Quickley, Baker, Sestina, and Hurt or McDaniels), scoring (Brooks Jr. and Allen), and athleticism (Hagans, Whitney, Montgomery, and Richards). Defense is there, rebounding is there, versatility is there, and playmaking is there.
Not a bad problem to have at all.