Key Departures: De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Isaac Humphries, Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Quade Green (Fr.)
SG: Hamidou Diallo (RS Fr.)
SF: Kevin Knox (Fr.)
PF: P.J. Washington (Fr.)
C: Nick Richards (Fr.)
Key Reserve Players:
PG: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Fr.), PF: Wenyen Gabriel (So.), PF/SF: Jarred Vanderbilt (Fr.), PF: Sacha Killeya-Jones (So.), SG: Jemarl Baker (Fr.), PF: Tai Wynyard (So.)
The theme is the same every single year for Kentucky Basketball. Reload. This year is no different, and it might be Calipari’s greatest recruiting class to date. If you include Diallo (who showed up to campus for the latter half of last season), there are six five-star prospects coming in. So, if you haven’t been impressed by the Anthony Davis recruiting class, the Julius Randle recruiting class, or the Karl-Anthony Towns recruiting class (which you should be anyway), you better be impressed now. If you notice above, there are only sophomores and freshmen in the projected rotation. No upperclassmen whatsoever. The entire rotation from last year is practically gone. It is asking a lot from these kids to come in right away, and to be mature enough for the college game. However, as we know, Coach Calipari is just the man for the job. It is well-documented that he can get his players drafted, but he also is able to turn young egos into team-oriented players. We saw an extremely emotional De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo after a heart-wrenching loss in the Elite Eight to UNC this past year. They described their unbreakable bond, and that they are brothers for life. It takes time throughout each season, but Coach Calipari has such a unique ability to turn great, young talent into wins and success.
De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Bam Adebayo were all expected one and dones, and they ultimately turned into three lottery picks. With De’Aaron Fox now in the NBA, Quade Green steps in to take the reigns. He is the fifth ranked point guard coming in. Green is not quite the athlete or speedster that Fox is, but he can get into the lane and can create for others. He is a smaller point guard, but has the ability to run the offense. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is the ninth ranked point guard in the class, will be in charge of running the offense off the bench. He would probably start for the majority of other teams in the country. At 6’5″, the Canadian adds good size at the point guard position, and makes a nice complement to Green.
Hamidou Diallo, who actually tested the NBA waters without even playing in a single game for Kentucky last year, will be at the shooting guard position. Diallo probably would have been a first round selection in the 2017 NBA Draft because he completely blew away teams with his crazy athleticism, defensive potential on the perimeter, and with his absurd vertical. Instead, he decided to come back to Lexington. He will need to improve on the offensive end, especially with his outside shooting. However, his defensive upside is limitless. Kevin Knox, who I expected to go to Duke, will be playing the three. At 6’9″, Knox has terrific size and length. Comparisons usually get carried away and scare people, but I see a young Kevin Durant in his game. Maybe not quite the sniper, but overall I see some similarities.
Down low in the paint I have P.J. Washington and Nick Richards. Washington has stretch four ability, he can run the floor well, and can finish at the rim. He has good size and can be a versatile big man. Richards is explosive around the rim, and will need to be that necessary paint presence on the defensive end. He will definitely block/alter shots and protect the basket. I also expect him to get plenty of dunks this year, and probably lobs as well.
Jarred Vanderbilt has been described as the ultimate Swiss Army knife type of player. A play-maker, do-it-all type of guy at 6’8″, Vanderbilt oozes with versatility. Again, comparisons are scary, but I can see some Draymond Green in his game. There is not enough room in the starting lineup for him, but he will definitely get his minutes. Wenyen Gabriel, a former five-star recruit, seems almost like an afterthought with all of these talented freshmen coming in. However, he has apparently had a really good Summer, which is good to hear, after an up and down freshman year. Gabriel was inconsistent as a stretch four player last year, and lost his starting job to Derek Willis. Gabriel has a lot of talent and potential that he still needs to put together. Talk about an afterthought, how about Sacha Killeya-Jones. Another five-star recruit, SKJ played a totoal of 96 minutes last season. He just never made his way into the rotation. Perhaps Coach Calipari didn’t think he was ready, but regardless, he never really got much of a chance. He actually has really impressive ball skills as a big, and shooting range too. Hopefully he gets his time this year. Tai Wynyard is yet another big on this roster with talent, but he probably won’t get a ton of minutes on this team.
Jemarl Baker will be counted on tremendously with his shooting range/ability. Yes, this squad is loaded with five-star recruits and athletes all over the place, however, shooting will be an issue on this team. That’s why players like Kevin Knox, P.J. Washington, and others, will need to show some consistency in that department in order for this team to be successful. Shooting is the big question mark. Will Wenyen Gabriel be an improved shooter? The departures of Monk, Willis, and Mulder definitely hurt. Also, how will a young team like Kentucky match up against an experienced team like Wichita State? The talent is there no doubt, but there are big question marks that make me put the Kentucky Wildcats right outside of the top five at number six.