LEXINGTON, Ky. — In nine seasons under coach John Calipari, rarely has Kentucky basketball not enjoyed a loaded backcourt. But last season, as good as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander turned out to be, qualifies as an exception to that rule.
“We were short on guards,” Calipari said Monday. “You guys all know it. And our skill set — we had more turnovers than assists most of the year, and that’s just unusual for one of our teams, based on the fact that most years I’m playing three point guards. Or three guards you could consider point guards. Most times last year, we had one on the court.”
The results were not pretty: the second-worst assist-to-turnover ratio and third-fewest made 3-pointers of the Calipari era. Neither of those things should be a problem in the upcoming 2018-19 season.
With the reclassification of Ashton Hagans, who arrived on Kentucky’s campus Sunday, Kentucky has another fully stocked backcourt: Hagans, fellow freshman Immanuel Quickley and sophomore Quade Green are all former 5-star point guards. Freshman Keldon Johnson is a versatile, 6-foot-6 McDonald’s All-American wing, while freshman Tyler Herro and redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker are both top-100 shooting guards who can fill it up.
“You have three legitimate point guards, but being able to handle the ball, Keldon Johnson, he could also be a point guard,” Calipari said, almost drooling through the phone. “He could be that big guard who starts your offense because of how he plays. But you’re also skilled with Jemarl, skilled with Tyler, and the other thing I’m hoping is that we will be the kind of 3-point-shooting team we’ve been in the past, where it’s a true weapon — we can shoot it in transition, can shoot it off ball screens.
“We just weren’t able to [last season]. And someone said, ‘Boy, you should’ve shot more 3s.’ We probably would’ve missed more 3s then. It just wasn’t what our strength was.”
That should change this season. The Wildcats also have sophomore forward PJ Washington coming back to prove to NBA scouts he can play away from the basket. And 5-star freshman EJ Montgomery, a 6-foot-11 forward who tells anyone who will listen that he’s a member of Big Guard Nation because of the skills that carried over to his pre-growth stint as a perimeter player.
Kentucky is also expecting a visit this week from Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis, a 6-foot-8, 245-pound power forward who made 18 3s last season. The Wildcats are trying to fend off reigning national champion Villanova for Travis’ services.
“I think we’re going to have some up-front guys who can play like guards, so I think we’re going to be a little different. Well, we’ll be a much different team than we were a year ago,” Calipari said Monday, perhaps alluding to Travis. “Which is why if we finish this out and we get all these guys in here, probably by next week, we’ll do some team stuff on the court. And the Bahamas trip should bode well for this team.”
With Hagans’ move and assuming Travis jumps on board — or even if he doesn’t — Kentucky should have its entire roster available to practice for and play in four exhibition games in the Bahamas in August.
Washington isn’t participating in pick-up games with his teammates right now because of an offseason surgery to fix a dislocated pinky and the related ligament damage. He has about two more weeks in a cast, then a week to 10 days of rehab and “he’ll be ready to go,” Calipari said. “We’ll be ready to go.”