MARIETTA, Ga. — To watch Ashton Hagans play basketball is to wonder where he hides the wind-up gears and tightly coiled springs. Hell, just to watch him run through drills for an hour on a random Tuesday night in the summer is to imagine the grin on John Calipari’s face as he concocts a plan to harness all that quick-twitchiness.
“And he hasn’t even lifted any weights yet,” father Marvin Hagans said with a self-satisfied chuckle. “We’ve been genetically blessed, and I figure I’ve got to leave something for them to do at Kentucky.”
That’s not to say Hagans hasn’t worked to turn himself into the No. 1-ranked point guard in the Class of 2019 — wait, make that 2018 after his official reclassification this week. Hagans’ father told SEC Country on Friday that his son has completed the last of four online courses to graduate high school a year early.
He’ll be on Kentucky’s campus by Sunday, which of course is huge news for the Wildcats, whose first prized point guard under Calipari — John Wall almost a decade ago now — is Hagans’ childhood hero.
“Once I realized he was going to be a big guard, I patterned his game after Wall,” the father said. “I’d tell him, ‘Always try to steal a basket, use your speed to your advantage, be strong.’ We used to do a lot of core work because I wanted him to be strong and use it, especially on defense.”
So while Hagans hasn’t really pumped much iron yet, he packed a lot of power into his 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame with something his dad called the Military 12.
Starting in seventh grade, Marvin would call Ashton down from his room and sit on the couch while the boy dropped to the floor in front of him and cranked out a series of push-ups and sit-ups: one of each, then two of each, then three of each, all the way up to a dozen of each — and then run it back.
“By the next year, you could see he was totally different,” Marvin said. “He was so much stronger than everybody else.”
And by last season, his junior year at Newton High School in Covington, Ga., he was the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year. He averaged 20 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds and 4 steals. He was a 5-star recruit coveted by every college program in America.
“I call him Young Bull II,” said Larry Thompson, a rival high school coach, referencing Alabama star and soon-to-be NBA lottery pick Collin Sexton. “This kid here is just the ultimate alpha male without the lip service. He’s active on both ends of the floor, plays hard. I like him because he’s an unselfish guy; I love him because of how hard he plays.”
A monster game by Hagans eliminated Thompson’s Wheeler High team in the state quarterfinals this spring. Five-star forward EJ Montgomery, Wheeler’s star who matched Hagans with 30 points in their showdown, was so thoroughly impressed that they became close friends and workout partners.
SEC Country was on hand one night in May when Hagans drove an hour each way to run through drills with Montgomery, developing chemistry that will come in handy now that they’re Kentucky teammates. In an otherwise empty gym, Hagans attacked each exercise as if another state title was on the line and could’ve filled a water bottle with the sweat in his shirt by the end of that session.
“The kid just plays the game so hard, with such a different swag than most kids his age,” Thompson said. “Kentucky is getting a kid that will bring it and leave it on the floor every single night, whether he’s making shots or missing shots — and that’s a big thing with kids these days. You can define how they’re playing by whether they’re making shots, if they’re scoring. You can never tell with Ashton.
“If he’s not playing well offensively, he’s still going to play with that same motor. That’s something you wish you could bottle up and sell at a local pharmacy and give to kids, because too many kids in today’s game only play hard when their number is called on offense.”
This description of Hagans reads like a checklist for Calipari’s dream recruit. And yet, even as Hagans calls Kentucky his “dream school,” he almost ended up elsewhere in the SEC. He was briefly committed to the University of Georgia.
That’s where his cousin, Trey Thompkins, had played and Hagans had developed a close relationship with Bulldogs coach Mark Fox, so staying home initially “felt right for me.”
“I always liked Georgia and Kentucky. The only UGA game I’d go to was when Kentucky came to town,” said Hagans, who watched Wall hit 8 of 10 shots and score 24 points in a 2010 win in Athens. “When Coach Fox left, Kentucky was the easy choice. It was definitely the best fit.”
No one has a better reputation for developing elite point guards than Calipari, who has coached five top-10 NBA draft picks at the position: Wall, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Knight and De’Aaron Fox. Additionally, Tyler Ulis, Andrew Harrison, Marquis Teague and Eric Bledsoe were drafted.
“To follow in the footsteps of all the great point guards that came before me is truly a blessing,” Hagans said.
Calipari knows a special floor general when he sees one “and he tells me he loves what I do,” Hagans said, but it isn’t unconditional love. The coach has critiques. “These last couple [AAU] tournaments I played, he was watching and then coaching me. He was telling me what I need to do, where I need to start catching the ball to make me a better player. Him and the coaching staff will do that, make me better, and that’s the right situation for me to take the next step to get where I’m trying to go.”
Marvin Hagans, who will drop his son off in Lexington on Father’s Day, was looking for a coaching staff that will continue the work he started so many years ago. From ordering the Military 12 that shaped his body to overseeing a daunting academic regimen that allowed Ashton to graduate early, it has been an unrelenting pursuit of success.
So when Calipari and assistant coach Joel Justus — the lead recruiter for Hagans — showed up for an in-home visit, their message was important.
“Cal said, ‘We’re not going to go easy on him. We’re going to push him to the limit. If he doesn’t want to be pushed to the limit, don’t come here,’” Marvin remembers. “He goes, ‘But if you’re willing to take that challenge and become a better player, come with us.’ I said, ‘Coach sounds like me, doesn’t he?’ You could just tell they’re genuine.
“I told Ashton, ‘Coach is super nice right now, but he’s going to be in your face yelling soon. You ready for that?’ He said, ‘Dad, I’m ready.’”
Described as a downhill point guard, like Wall, Hagans only knows one way to approach the game: full speed ahead, into the fray. He was drawn to the rest of Kentucky’s incoming freshman class because guys such as Montgomery and 5-star guards Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson have similarly aggressive reputations.
“We’re all dogs and want to get after it,” Hagans said. “That’s big, because I feel like when I’m on the court, there’s nobody but me and my teammates and I want to make them better and get everybody in the right position and be a leader.”
To watch him play is to know he means that. It is to be astounded by his athleticism but also slightly unnerved by his intensity. It is to imagine the possibilities with a player like that as the point man on a Kentucky team that will run 10-deep with talented players around him.
“He’s a bulldog,” Montgomery said. “He doesn’t stop until the final bell rings. You’d love to have somebody like that on your team.”
And suddenly, John Calipari does.
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) May 23, 2018