We are back for another edition of Pilgrim’s Insider Notes, and thank goodness, we have a final decision to talk about with 2019 five-star forward Jaden McDaniels.
In this edition of the notes, we’ll close the book on the 6-foot-10 prospect out of Federal Way, WA and what his decision means for Kentucky moving forward.
Let’s dive right in.
Just after 1:00 a.m. ET today, McDaniels officially decided he was staying home to play for Mike Hopkins at Washington.
And if you’ve been following along with this recruitment, the final destination wasn’t a surprise, nor was it a shock in how he finally did it. He didn’t set an announcement date, didn’t tell anyone when it was going to happen, he just decided in the middle of the night that Washington was where he wanted to be and uploaded quick posts on Instagram and Twitter to make it official.
Now that the saga is over with, I wanted to shed some light on some of the things I have heard over the course of his recruitment about both McDaniels as a person and player that will hopefully make Kentucky fans feel a little bit better about how it all unfolded.
For starters, let me make this completely clear: this is not a case of a prospect turning down Kentucky and the narrative flipping to “we didn’t want him anyway.” The Kentucky coaching staff obviously wanted him and felt he would be a great fit in Lexington. Every interaction I’ve had with McDaniels and his circle has been positive, and from everything I know, he’s a great kid. I genuinely wish him the best of luck and hope he has a tremendous season in Washington.
That being said, there have been some serious red flags for well over a year about his playing style and personality and whether or not that would translate well to being in the spotlight at Kentucky.
I have watched him play in person about five or six times now on top of plenty more live game footage (not highlight clips on YouTube), and every time I have come away with more questions than answers. I’ve written about my concerns on the site before, but there are times that you genuinely forget McDaniels is even on the floor. He simply disappears for no valid reason. It’s something I just can’t figure out.
When he wants to turn it on, he takes the game over and turns heads like no other. At his best, he’s a sure-fire top-five NBA Draft pick, there’s no debating that. But for every one or two star-level plays we see from McDaniels, there are about six or seven more that leave you scratching your head. I felt the same way watching Romeo Langford at times in high school and during his time on the AAU circuit.
I was also told that at one of his AAU games last year, McDaniels was having an extremely rough time out on the floor (it happens), but his body language afterward was worrisome. When he’d miss shots or make mistakes, he’d sulk and wouldn’t respond well to coaching and constructive criticism from his coaches and teammates. Two Kentucky assistants watching him play actually stood up and left.
“I would’ve pulled him from the game in a heartbeat,” one opposing coach on the EYBL circuit said at the time.
From a pure competitive standpoint, there were genuine rumblings down at the McDonald’s All-America event in Atlanta back in March that McDaniels wanted to go home because he wasn’t performing well against other elite competition. When he wasn’t playing, the five-star athlete distanced himself from the other participants, had one of the event coordinators by his side during the media sessions to make sure he wasn’t getting overwhelmed with questions, and looked uncomfortable every time he was around too many people. To say it was strange would be an understatement.
As a player, McDaniels has arguably the highest potential of anyone in the class, and his draft stock will likely reflect that going into next offseason. In terms of pure on-court impact for the one year he’s expected to be in college, though, my worry is that he’ll find his footing just as the season comes to a close and his true stardom won’t be seen until he’s in the NBA. He’s still raw, extremely thin, shies away from contact, and has never been a fan of the spotlight. How much would that have truly helped Kentucky this season?
I would have been very interested in seeing what John Calipari could do with him, especially with the positionless/versatile basketball initiative he has been driving home over the last several years. Someone within the program told me late last season that Calipari is genuinely interested in going back to the dribble-drive offense, and McDaniels would have been a solid fit as a four-out forward.
That being said, I think Kentucky will be just fine without McDaniels, especially if they land another big man prospect and/or both EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards return to school next season.
And now, the book is officially closed on the Jaden McDaniels saga.
Kerry Blackshear Jr.
Virginia Tech forward and potential graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. is currently finishing up his time at the Professional Basketball Combine out in California, where he is going through tests and drills in front of NBA scouts.
Last night, Blackshear measured in at 6-foot-11, 247 pounds to go with a 7-foot wingspan, a 32.5-inch max vertical, and a 27-inch standing vertical.
Here he was testing his max vertical:
— Pro Bball Combine (@ProBBallCombine) May 21, 2019
In terms of his NBA Draft decision, the expectation is that Blackshear will leave this combine, gather his thoughts with his family, and ultimately go through more individual workouts with various teams in hopes of earning a draft promise. Even if he doesn’t get that (he likely wouldn’t), he will still gauge interest with teams about a potential two-way contract and taking the G League route.
In an interview with Jon Rothstein, Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young said that he’s still in discussions with the 6-foot-11 big man about his future plans and will support him in whatever he decides to do.
“Here’s the bottom line with Kerry [Blackshear Jr.],” said Young, “He’s a very good student. He graduated from Virginia Tech. He’s had a heck of a career. He’s done everything possible to give his best effort in the classroom, on the floor, as a citizen in the community. Whatever he decides will be up to him and I will applaud him in whatever he does.”
”Do we want him back? Oh you betcha. He’s terrific. And I would love the chance to coach him. Those conversations are ongoing. It’s still very much in the air. We’ll be supportive of Kerry and we want to see him get it right. I’m sure he will,” said Young.
Last week in my insider notes, I said that Kentucky is in a great spot with Blackshear if he decides to go back to college, and that remains true. But him returning to school is a big “if.”
Corey Evans of Rivals.com said that the general thought right now is that the potential graduate transfer will keep his name in the NBA Draft, as he’s perfectly content with carving out his own professional career the hard way.
“Sources have told Rivals.com that Blackshear seems to be leaning toward keeping his name in the NBA Draft,” he said. “While he may go undrafted, the feeling is that he would be OK spending a year in the G-League instead of spending next year at a new college program.”
One week later, I continue to feel that the NBA route is still the most likely for the Virginia Tech product. He has already developed and thrived at the college level, he turned into a key player in the ACC, and he made a splash in the NCAA Tournament this past season.
In fact, he touched on that in an interview yesterday.
At the Professional Basketball Combine, Blackshear told reporters that he “wants to see where he can take” his opportunity at the event and in future NBA pre-draft workouts.
“I feel like each season I’ve grown and I was fortunate to play on a really good team,” he said. “They helped me place myself in a position where I can try out for this opportunity and I wanted to take advantage of it and see where I can take it.”
He also added that it’s “exciting” to be able to work toward his NBA dreams.
“Everybody’s approach is different,” the Virginia Tech forward said. “There is a fine line between making it and not being able to have that opportunity. Everybody is working towards something so much bigger than where we are now so it’s exciting to be a part of.”
Unlike Reid Travis last offseason, who had never played for a contender in his entire career, Blackshear Jr. has checked a lot of the boxes college basketball players have on their respective lists. He could be dying to compete for a championship and feel the need to give it one last shot, but he certainly seems to be enjoying the idea of trying to reach his NBA dreams sooner rather than later.
College programs, including Kentucky, will continue to recruit him until he makes a final decision, but I’d put my money on the 6-foot-11 prospect keeping his name in the draft.
EJ Montgomery/Nick Richards
We are now officially one week away (at most) from finding out whether or not Kentucky big men EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards will be back in Lexington next season.
For the latter, Richards is expected to return to Kentucky for a junior season, and we could hear news of that coming at any point in the very near future. He got honest feedback from NBA scouts and teams on what they were looking for out of him moving forward, and with that blueprint, he’s hoping to turn it into a first-round selection next summer.
As for Montgomery, things have always been a bit tricky with him since he put his name in the draft last month. At the start, he said he would come back if he wasn’t a first-rounder. From there, though, there were significant rumors that the 6-foot-11 big man would leave his name in the draft even if he received a guaranteed contract in the second round.
I don’t want to say that he had one foot out the door, but it certainly felt like he was looking for a reason to explore his professional options.
Since then, though, I’ve heard that the momentum of Montgomery likely keeping his name in the draft has shifted back the other direction. NBA teams love his potential and think he can be a high-impact player in the league eventually, but he’s simply not ready for that yet, and that message has been conveyed to him. In the eyes of those around the league, there is a draw in buying low on the Wildcat big man late in the second round or as an undrafted free agent, but the risk of him getting lost in the shuffle is one they are certainly hesitant about. He’s still working out for teams (he’s actually working out with the San Antonio Spurs today) and it just takes one team to shake things up, but the general consensus is that they’d rather let him mature as a player and climb a little closer toward his ceiling one more year at Kentucky before getting more serious with him after next season.
To take it a step further, former KSR writer TJ Walker said on Kentucky Roll Call this morning that those within Montgomery’s inner circle believe that he will be back for a sophomore season, which is certainly a bit of significant news. He said that while the Kentucky coaching staff still isn’t certain it’s a done deal, it’s certainly trending that way.
Based on everything I know, I believe Kentucky returns both Montgomery and Richards.
If (and when) that happens, I strongly believe the Kentucky staff will still make a push for Blackshear, but they’d be content going into the season with the pieces they have already.
While the key targets to close out the 2019-20 roster are Blackshear Jr. coming on as a graduate transfer and both Montgomery and Richards returning to school, the next plan in place for Kentucky should they miss out/lose two of the three would be to look at the remaining reclassification options. The four big frontcourt prospects with those rumblings? N’Faly Dante, Cliff Omoruyi, Makur Maker, and to a lesser extent, Isaiah Todd.
Kentucky has been associated with Dante for quite some time, but I was told a while back that they preferred the 6-foot-11 center for the class of 2020 so his game can develop a bit more. Since then, though, Dante has been phenomenal to close out his junior season and on the Nike EYBL circuit over the last month or two and he certainly looks college ready.
The reclassification buzz is still strong with him, but most of the momentum seems to be with Oregon and LSU. As of today, I’d expect him to make the jump and land at one of those two schools.
As for Omoruyi, who received an offer from Kentucky back in April, there have been a few quiet whispers at the EYBL events that we could see him make the jump to 2019, as well. One source told KSR that Omoruyi was nearly in tears when Kentucky extended a scholarship and that there is a significant chance he ends up in Lexington when he does go to college. He hasn’t publicly said Kentucky is his dream school, but that’s certainly the feel at this point.
As far as his talent is concerned, though, the 6-foot-11 center is extremely raw and it’d be tough to envision him as an immediate-impact player right away in college. He has a ridiculous motor and is a workhorse on the glass, but he still has a lot of polishing to do when it comes to his offensive game. I’d expect him to stick with the class of 2020 and commit to Kentucky in October.
2020 five-star forward Makur Maker also received a visit from John Calipari in April, and an offer could be coming in the very near future. Already 19 years old and originally from the class of 2019, the reclassification rumors with him have always been there, but we haven’t heard much more beyond whispers since then. His situation would definitely be worth looking into if Kentucky needs frontcourt help.
When it comes to 2020 five-star big man Isaiah Todd, he has already shut down reclassification rumors, but then left the door slightly cracked again at the Nike EYBL event in Atlanta.
Todd told reporters that while he was “100%” sticking with 2020, he would have to think about the opportunity if a college coach came in at the last second and needed him for the upcoming 2019-20 season.
“I can’t really tell you what might happen, I don’t know,” Todd said with a smile. “But I guess it all just depends on what my mom and I decide to do. … My mother’s (opinion matters most to me). I know she has my best interest, and I trust her more than anybody.
We should find out updates on Montgomery, Richards, and Blackshear Jr. over the next week or so. Should a nightmare scenario present itself for the Kentucky coaching staff where they need another piece or two in the frontcourt, look for them to turn up the heat on some of the names above.