Yes, it’s that time of year again. Those stressful few weeks where everyone tries to sit back and figure out who will leave Kentucky’s basketball program, who will stay and what the next roster will look like. Every year there is drama. Every year there is intrigue. And every year there are a few surprises.
Yet despite this process always being wacky, doesn’t it feel like this year is especially bonkers?
Rarely have we entered the home-stretch of the declaration period with this much uncertainty at what the roster will look like. We know that Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be going pro and not looking back, and we also know that Nick Richards and Jemarl Baker will definitely be returning.
What we don’t know however is what the heck the future holds for P.J. Washington, Wenyen Gabriel, Quade Green and Jarred Vanderbilt. The first two have declared for the draft but haven’t hired an agent, Vanderbilt is still pondering his decision, and Green, well, he’s got one of the most confusing futures of anyone in college basketball. Although Green hasn’t said anything publicly, there continues to be rampant, RAMPANT speculation that he will transfer at some point this off-season, with the latest news coming that LaSalle could be a potential landing spot (REALLY!?!??!) if he decides to leave. The rumors simply don’t stop, even as Green remains quiet.
But in looking at these four players, it’s time to ask: Which player is the most important for Kentucky’s success next season? Here is this writer’s list:
4) Jarred Vanderbilt
Call me crazy, but I kind of feel like all four guys are relatively interchangeable throughout this list, but let’s stick Vanderbilt at No. 4 because, well, we saw what Kentucky looked like without him last year. Obviously you want J-Vando on the floor whenever possible, but the Wildcats were also relatively successful without him, beating tournament teams like Virginia Tech and Texas A&M with him on the sidelines and winning two NCAA Tournament games as well. If anything, Vanderbilt is like dessert at the end of a good meal. You don’t realllllllllly need that chocolate cake after the big meal you just ate, even if you do want it.
At the same time, if Kentucky can get Vanderbilt back next season and also get him fully healthy, woooooooooah buddy, that is a hell of a cherry to stick on top of the 2018-2019 sundae (or to stick with the previous theme, it’s a darn good piece of chocolate cake after a meal). That’s because when Vanderbilt was on the court last season, well, you all saw what I did. He was one of the most relentless rebounders anywhere in the country, and – once he finally got healthy – a truly dangerous low-post threat on offense as well.
Since the beginning of this draft process I’ve said that I certainly don’t envy Vanderbilt’s decision going forward. But I also believe that if he believes he can stay healthy, than he is a short to medium range jump shot away from being a first round pick next year. And Kentucky will be much, much better because of it.
3) Wenyen Gabriel
There are a couple reasons why Gabriel’s return is so important. The first, which KSR’s Tyler Thompson did a great job of explaining on Thursday, is simple: Someone has to break this non-sense trend that if you stay at Kentucky for more than a year or two, you’re an absolute failure. We’ve seen players like Marcus Lee, Charles Matthews and Isaac Humphries pass on staying at Kentucky for options other than the NBA over the last few years, and it’s turned into a pseudo-alarming trend. Considering that Gabriel almost certainly won’t be drafted with one of the NBA’s 60 picks, he would be the latest. Although in Gabriel’s defense, only he knows his family’s personal situation. And if his family needs him to help out financially than neither I, nor anyone should blame him for leaving.
Then there is the basketball perspective here. And if Gabriel does come back, he would be a huge asset to next year’s team and – at least in my opinion – could do enough to earn himself a first round spot in next year’s draft. That might sound crazy, but Wenyen is already a guy who is big, strong, plays with a great motor and can hit deep three-pointers. He really isn’t that far off from being a legit NBA prospect, especially if he works on putting the ball on the floor and creating offense off the dribble.
We already saw how much Gabriel improved with one off-season at Kentucky. If he can improve that much this off-season, he could be a first round pick next year. And Kentucky could have a budding star.
2) P.J. Washington
To me, Washington and Quade Green are basically interchangeable at No. 1 and No. 2, and both are keys to the overall success of next year’s team. The only reason I put Washington (slightly) below Green is because I truly believe that with Nick Richards return and E.J. Montgomery’s arrival, Kentucky’s front-court next year will be OK, as long as one of the three big guys (Vanderbilt, Gabriel, Washington) currently testing the waters comes back.
However, of all three front-court guys, I don’t think any of the three will have a bigger impact if they actually do come back as Washington would.
The simple truth is that Washington was already pretty darn good last season, and after a slow and inconsistent start averaged a solid 11 points and six rebounds per game. He probably played his best game of the season in his last, with 18 points and 15 rebounds (sorry to bring it up). Outside of his free throw shooting, he was a flat out stud.
Looking ahead, as Washington goes through the NBA Draft process, you’d have to imagine that the No. 1 piece of feedback he’ll get is to work on his mid-range and deep three-point shooting. After all, as good as he is at 6’7, it’s hard to imagine him having much of an NBA future if he can’t hit from the perimeter.
Now, can you imagine if he does come back next year with improved mid-range and three-point shooting to go along with what he already showed this past season? I truly believe he could be an SEC Player of the Year candidate.
1) Quade Green
Like Wenyen Gabriel, this one is multi-layered. Part of it is the simple fact that if Green decided to leave, the optics would look bad. Keep in mind, Green wasn’t a kid who was projected by anyone to be a one-and-done when he got to Kentucky and is also a guy that no is projecting right now, to have a future in the NBA. Therefore, if John Calipari can’t keep a guy in his program who everyone knew wasn’t a one-and-done and a player who doesn’t have an NBA future, who can he keep?
(Just to be clear, if Green decides to leave I won’t blame him. Kentucky already has one point guard committed for 2018, Immanuel Quickley, and another one, Ashton Hagans who could possibly come. When Calipari then decided to offer Tyrese Maxey and try to convince him to reclassify for next season, what kind of message does that send to Green?)
Furthermore, there are actual basketball reasons which help explain Green’s importance next season as well.
The first – which no one is talking about – is that I think everyone is completely overstating the likelihood that Hagans is actually on Kentucky’s roster next season. Admittedly, I still think the possibility is “really good” but I wouldn’t put it on “lock” status yet, like so many others seem to be doing. Tyler Herro told me at Nike Hoops Summit last week that he talks to Hagans regularly, and that Hagans has told him that they might not officially know what’s happening until as late as August. Therefore, can you imagine what this roster would look like if Green left? It’d be Immanuel Quickley at the point guard position… and not much else.
But even if Hagans does come, the simple truth is that there really just isn’t a very good track record of teams in college basketball winning with really, really young players in the back court. Kentucky did it in 2012 with Marquis Teague, but also had a truly transcendent superstar (as we’re seeing in this year’s NBA playoffs) playing with him in Anthony Davis, as well as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who ended up being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft that season. Duke did it a few years later with a freshman point guard, but also had a senior playing beside him.
Otherwise??? You need a veteran or two in your backcourt. Just this year, Villanova had four third or fourth year players help lead them to a title, and Michigan’s starting point guard was a 23-year-old senior. Heck, Kentucky’s last few teams up until this season at least had a sophomore, with Tyler Ulis in 2016 and Isaiah Briscoe in 2017.
Therefore, it’d be bad news on a number of different levels if Quade Green elected to transfer.
Of all the Kentucky players mulling his future right now, Green is the most important.