Incredibly, we are officially less than a month from the start of the college basketball season (get here soon please, Kentucky-Duke). But as far as I’m concerned we’re just hours away from the unofficial kickoff of the college basketball season: Kentucky’s Pro Day.
That’s right, every year there are signs that college basketball is near – the changing of the leaves, flipping back clocks, a couple key players suspended a game or two for vague “violations of team rules” offenses – yet nothing really makes it feel like its basketball season is right around the corner quite like seeing UK line up in the practice gym/Rupp Arena with a bunch of scouts encircled with pens, pads and stopwatches taking in the whole thing.
This year, the buzz of the combine is down a little bit. The combination of a potentially historically great football team with the fact that we already saw these Wildcats in the Bahamas has killed some of that buzz.
Still, there are things to watch out for. And as we get set for the combine on Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET on SEC Network, here are the things that I find intriguing heading into the event:
Has P.J. Washington continued to develop?
It’s no secret that I love P.J. Washington more than I do some of my own family members. I was buying PJW stock after last year’s draft combine and I doubled down (or was it tripled down?) after Washington decided to return to college for his sophomore season. As I said throughout the summer, I truly believed if Washington just took care of the things he had to, I could see him as an SEC Player of the Year candidate in 2019 and kid who could go in the Top 15 of next year’s draft.
Well clearly, Washington hung on every word I wrote (or maybe he’s just self-motivated, who knows?) and in the Bahamas we saw the overall development of his game we were all expecting. He’s still menacing down low (he averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game) but also showed a much improved outside shot (3 of 7 from behind the three-point line during the trip) and an ability to put the ball on the floor.
Still, as good as he was in the Bahamas, NBA scouts are still going to want to see him prove that his play in the Caribbean wasn’t a fluke, and this is who he “is” as a player now. There is a long way between now and next year’s draft, but if he can consistently do that, again, don’t be surprised to see Washington flirt with the lottery next season.
Will Tyler Herro stay hot
Outside of the emergence of Sophomore Nick Richards (cc: Drew Franklin) there wasn’t a bigger stunner in the Bahamas than watching Tyler Herro emerge as quite possibly this team’s best scorer. Herro finished the trip averaging 17 points a game, on 57 percent shooting. Considering how many of his shots came beyond 15-feet, it was a staggeringly good performance.
Now, like so many others on this roster, Herro has to translate what he did in the Bahamas to the hardwood of Rupp Arena Sunday night in front of NBA scouts.
The important thing about Herro’s Bahamas performance is that he showed that he wasn’t just a cliched “shooter” but instead, a complete scorer. Yes, he can pull up from 20 feet and drain the deep three whenever he wants. But he is also so much more than that. He’s a guy who also has a nice mid-range game, can take people off the dribble and score at the rim as well.
Like Washington, if Herro can translate his Bahamas performance to Sunday night (and in turn, the regular season) he will end up drafted much higher than most of the mock drafts currently have him projected.
What will we get from Reid Travis?
So I know I’m going to throw out a bit of an unpopular opinion here, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by Reid Travis in the Bahamas. Now I know what you’re already thinking: “Torres, the dude averaged a double-double. What are you talking about?” And I get it, I really do. Unfortunately it also seemed like he was a bit overwhelmed in the early portion of the trip, before finding his sea legs (terrible pun!) late.
Now in Travis’ defense, it’s important to note that he was the last guy to join this Kentucky team, and that he was thrust into the process relatively late. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that his younger teammates had – quite literally – months of experience playing and practicing together before the trip that Travis just wasn’t privy too. At the same time, Travis is also the most experienced player – by far – on this roster, so I don’t know how much that excuse holds water.
Looking ahead to this weekend, it’ll be important to see not just how good Travis looks on Sunday night, but also what his game looks like. Remember, this is a guy who has already been an All=Pac 12 caliber player. He didn’t come back to college just to put up stats, but to continue to evolve his game. Like Washington, if he wants to make it to the NBA, he’s got to be better from beyond the arc, more comfortable handling the ball and taking people off the dribble.
Those are skills that Travis really didn’t show in the Bahamas, but ones that will certainly be critical in getting him drafted next spring. The good news is, he’s got plenty of chance to show that his game has evolved – starting on Sunday night.
What about Ashton Hagans?
Hagans is another one who joined the team late, and another one who – to be blunt – looked a little lost out on the court during his time in the Bahamas. While there is no doubt that he’s a sparkplug defensively that is going to give opposing team’s backcourts some bad nightmares, he is also wildly raw offensively. Hagans averaged just five points per game during the trip, and his entire offensive game basically consisted of “driving recklessly to the hoop and throwing up a wild layup hoping to get fouled.”
While you can get away with that at the high school level (especially when you have the speed and athleticism of Hagans) you can’t at the college level.
And if Hagans wants to reach his NBA potential and be a major contributor to this year’s Kentucky team (which he’s certainly capable of being), he’ll need to get better on the offensive end of the court.
Is Sophomore Nick Richards still a thing?
As mentioned at the top, the emergence of Sophomore Nick Richards was the single most stunning development of the Bahamas trip. Had you asked me for the 1,000 most likely storylines to come out of that trip, “Nick Richards evolving into a combination of Shaq, The Incredible Hulk and Spike from the movie ‘Little Giants’” wouldn’t have been one of them.
To Richards’ credit however, it’s a testament to a few things. Specifically it showed that its ok if every high school superstar isn’t a finished product by the end of his freshman year. Sometimes it takes more time to develop. Sometimes it takes time to get more confident and build up faith in yourself.
That’s why it was so great to Richards evolution in the Bahamas. A few months after wrapping up a freshman year where he was shy and timid on the court, there he was in the Caribbean confidently flying all over the court, grabbing monster rebounds, throwing down thunderous dunks and blocking shots with two hands.
If he can keep that up, he will be one of the fastest risers of all NBA Draft prospects this season.
Will Keldon Johnson take anyone’s soul?
I really don’t have much to add here about Johnson that you don’t already know. The bottom line is that he is already projected as the best NBA Draft prospect on this team, and he showed why in the Bahamas. He not not only played well in the four-game exhibition slate, but exceeded expectations. In the process, he also threw down a couple of the most ridiculous dunks we’ve seen in a long time, and basically took the soul of anyone who dared to step up to him. Hopefully he takes it a little easier on his own teammates on Sunday.
And since there really isn’t all that much else to say about Johnson, let’s just watch more videos of his awesome dunks.
And then Keldon Johnson took another poor man's soul. MERCY! pic.twitter.com/GlEutG8ksE
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) August 12, 2018
How is the health of Jemarl Baker and E.J. Montgomery?
Unfortunately, we really didn’t get to see all that much of either of these guys during their stay in the Bahamas. Baker didn’t play at all and Montgomery was limited to just a few minutes in the first game before getting shut down for the rest of the week.
Ultimately both have NBA dreams (even if Montgomery’s are a bit more realistic at this point), and it’s important for both to get on the court in front of NBA scouts – and more importantly, look healthy – for those dreams to come true.
With Baker specifically, let’s just hope he’s healthy at all, as it’s been a struggle for that poor kid to stay on the court.
Finally, who will emerge as a leader?
When you look at this Kentucky team as a whole, there isn’t a whole lot to pick apart. They have size, shooting, physicality, athleticism and mental toughness. Their sheer force of will melted other teams during their trip to the Caribbean and that will likely continue against a lot of opponents during the season.
However at some point the Wildcats will actually be tested – maybe in the opener against Duke, maybe down the road against UNC or Louisville, or maybe in the SEC in a hostile road environment at Auburn or Tennessee.
And what will be interesting to see is who is the guy who will step up and take control of the huddle. The guy who says “I got this… we got this” and then goes out and delivers.
We won’t get the entire answer on Sunday, but we should get signs of who the leaders will be and who will be counted on the most.
College basketball’s unofficial tip-off is this weekend, and I for one couldn’t be more excited.