It has been both a weirdly busy and weirdly slow last couple weeks for Kentucky basketball.
In the “weirdly busy” category, the annual churn of players leaving Kentucky has picked up in recent days. Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey have both announced their departures in recent days, with the assumption that Nick Richards isn’t far behind. Immanuel Quickley and EJ Montgomery are still both weighing their options, with the deadline coming in a couple weeks.
Yet in the “weirdly slow” category, there really hasn’t been all that much talk on who will replace those departures. Sure, there are the returns of Keion Brooks and Dontaie Allen, plus a loaded six man freshman class that has a ton of talent (BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke have the chance to be really special at UK next year). At the same time, that’s still only eight players – not even enough to run full five-on-five scrimmages, and nowhere near the maximum allotted 13 scholarships.
Therefore it only seemed like it would be a matter of time before Kentucky got more active in the transfer game, and on Monday that became the case. After reaching out to UNLV’s Amauri Hardy in recent weeks, a new name came onto the radar of Big Blue Nation on Monday, after Matt Haarms a 7’3 center from Purdue entered the transfer portal. According to multiple reports, Haarms has received interest from just about every major college basketball program in America, including Kentucky.
With so much interest it feels like Haarms is still a ways away from narrowing down his list, let alone choosing a school. Still, that doesn’t mean that we can’t at the very least get to know who he is, what his game is like and how he could potentially fit in at Kentucky.
Let’s take a look at “who” Matt Haarms is, as he gets set to see his transfer profile pick up in these next few days.
Credit to the big man: Haarms became a bit of a cult sensation these last few years in the Big Ten, both because of his big 7’3 frame, his haircut (which some might call “goofy” but I’ll instead reference to as “eccentric”) and his easygoing nature.
Originally from Amsterdam, the 7’3 Haarms played a short time in the United States high school system before eventually enrolling at Purdue as a redshirt during the 2016-2017 season. During 2018 he served as a back-up to All-Big Ten center Isaac Haas during what was essentially a dream season for the Boilermakers, where they reached as high as No. 3 in the polls, and were a legit title contender until a Haas injury late in the season. They still made the Sweet 16 that season, before bowing out to Texas Tech.
Then last season came, and Haarms moved into the starting lineup for Purdue. In the process he played a major role in the Boilermakers’ run to the Elite Eight, scoring in double-figures in three of Purdue’s four NCAA Tournament games. That included an 18-point, nine rebound performance against Villanova in the second round, and 11 points against Villanova in the Sweet 16.
Then there was this season, where Haarms’ numbers fell across the board. That was in part due to both injuries and other players stepping up, which all factored in to his numbers reduction. On the injury front he missed two games (and was limited in several more) thanks to a hip flexor injury, and on the other player front, there was the emergence of fellow big Trevion Williams. Williams is every bit the big, physical, old-school low post center that the Big Ten is (still) known for, as he stands about 6’9 and weighs 270 lbs, and averaged a respectable 11.5 points and just under eight boards per game. He simply provided bulk that Haarms couldn’t down low. Who knows as to why Haarms transferred, but I would suspect that Williams return next season at least played a role in that.
Still, despite injuries and role change, let’s not discredit Haarms, who had some big games in what was arguably the toughest conference in college basketball. He dropped 26 points against Minnesota, which has a potential first round pick down low in Daniel Oturu. He also had 15 against Iowa, which featured arguably the best big man in college basketball Luka Garza (who the Kareem Abdul-Jabaar Award as the nation’s top center on Tuesday), as well as 11 against Wisconsin, which ended up winning a share of the Big Ten regular season title.
Point is, this kid has game. Which leads me to:
What is his game
While the term “stretch five” is essentially never used (unless we’re talking about Kristaps Porzingis) it really is the only way to appropriately describe Haarms’ game.
For starters, while Haarms will never be confused for Shaq down low, he does have a low-post game. On the season he did manage to shoot over 50 percent from the field, with all but 32 of his shots coming from inside the three-point line. But it’s that last part which is nearly as important: He can in fact stretch the floor from behind the three-point line. On the year, he attempted 32 three-point shots, connecting on 10 from beyond the three-point line. This, after attempting 25 this past season.
The other thing that’s worth noting – at least in my opinion – is that the kid does in fact play hard. He has a motor, and while his skinny frame does create limitations in the low-post, the one thing that I never questioned when watching him is how in fact hard he plays.
How he would potentially at Kentucky
And this is where it gets complicated. Because while I want to paint the rosy, “he would be a mega addition” picture here, I just can’t do it. That’s not a knock on the kid, or Kentucky, but just a reality. I honestly just don’t see the fit at all.
The bottom line is that while the kid does play hard, and can play in the post, it seems almost certain to me that he is looking for an expanded, more diverse role at his next college stop. He said as much earlier today when he told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, that his number one prirotiy at a new school is finding a place to showcase an “NBA ready skill-set.”
Call me crazy, does a kid ready to showcase an “NBA ready skill-set” seem like the kind of kid who wants to go to the low post and call for the ball? Or hang around the three-point line and shoot threes?
To me it sounds like the latter, and the one thing we’ve learned through the years is that John Calipari likes his big guys to, well, play “big” down low. The biggest issues Calipari has had with big guys is when they want to hang out on the perimeter and shoot jumpers. It happened with EJ Montgomery these past two seasons, and Skal Labissiere during his season in Lexington.
Put a different way, think about it like this: While Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony Towns have since evolved into maybe the two most versatile big men in the all of basketball, they never really showcased that talent at Kentucky. In total, they took a combined 28 total three-pointers in their time on campus, fewer than Haarms attempted last season.
Well, if two future No. 1 overall picks didn’t have the freedom to play on the perimeter in Lexington, why would anyone think a grad transfer from Purdue would?
What would be realistic expectations if he committed?
Despite what I just wrote above, I can’t deny that – while it’s far from a perfect fit – there are also plenty of reasons that the two sides could make it work next year in Lexington.
First off from the Wildcats’ perspective, the bottom-line is that they just need big bodies. EJ Montgomery’s return is very much up in the air, and while Lance Ware and Isaiah Jackson are both talented incoming freshman, it’s a lot to ask those two to have success Day 1, playing against big guys in college hoops. Even without Montgomery’s return it’d be great to have another big body down low, and without him it’s imperative. Fit or no fit, this program could do a lot worse than adding a soon-to-be 23-year-old who spent the last four years in the Big Ten.
And for Haarms it’s the same too.
Whether Calipari ultimately let’s him do everything he wants to do or not is independent of a completely different question, which is, “would the plus of being at Kentucky outweigh the minuses?” Considering that the Wildcats are on the biggest stage in college basketball, and will – quite literally – be on a global stage next season with a game in London (at least as of right now) it certainly doesn’t hurt. Add in the preseason draft combine, NBA scouts at every game, matchups with Kansas at the Champion’s Classic and either UCLA or North Carolina in the CBS Sports Sports Classic, and again, Haarms won’t be able to find a bigger stage to showcase what he can do.
So while I know that the fit may feel like a reach, as long as both sides know what they’re getting from each other, it can still be an incredibly productive relationship.
The question right now: What is next for Haarms? And will Kentucky be in those plans?