LEXINGTON, Ky. — Conventional wisdom had 5-star power forward E.J. Montgomery headed to Duke, like so many other elite prospects in the last three recruiting classes, and Kentucky on the wrong side of that rivalry yet again. Then Montgomery committed to the Wildcats early Monday morning.
“Duke was his leader for a long time,” Larry Thompson, Montgomery’s Wheeler (Ga.) High School coach, told SEC Country. “I think it kind of changed after the McDonald’s [All-American] game, after just being around the guys. E.J. had a little concern about the Zion [Williamson] situation: Is he a four? Where’s he going to play? Is he a five? So that was one of the concerns, and I think ultimately the relationship that was built with Coach [Kenny] Payne and Coach Cal since January kind of helped seal the deal.
“That, and having an opportunity to sit and think about it and look at the potential roster at Duke, he felt a little bit stronger going to a situation where he knows opportunity is going to be there for him to play his natural position, which is that stretch four.”
The Blue Devils already had commitments from the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 overall recruits in the Class of 2018 — and all of them are 6-foot-7 forwards. R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish play more like guards, but Zion Williamson is a like a super-athletic, shrunken-down NBA power forward or center.
Maybe that’s what UK coach John Calipari meant when he told Montgomery, “You’re not a want; you’re a need,” according to Thompson.
Montgomery, a 6-foot-10 forward who averaged 26 points and 13 rebounds as a high school senior, saw a clearer path to playing time at Kentucky. He also saw a coaching staff that has sent a parade of big men to the NBA, including all-stars Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
“He wanted to be in a winning program and be pushed every day. The thing that pushed E.J. over the edge was the track record with Coach Cal and some of those higher guys he was able to recruit and develop,” Thompson said. “They spoke a little bit about AD. He’s a kid that was shorter and had great ball-handling ability, then grew. E.J. is kind of in the same mold. [Kentucky’s staff] mentioned it and that’s one of the comparisons E.J. made himself, that he kind of patterns his game after AD.”
That’s high praise considering Davis was National Player of the Year as a freshman and led the Cats to the 2012 national title before becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and now a bona fide MVP candidate. But the massive growth spurt is a key piece of Davis’ story, and Thompson said Montgomery shot up some 5 inches one summer around the time he headed to high school, retaining his guard skills as a big man.
“It’s very, very hard to find skilled guys at that stretch four position,” Thompson said. “He can handle it at the top of the key, he can dribble handoff, pick and pop, pick and fade, pick and roll, make decisions from that high elbow, high-post area. A lot of people are playing through their fours [and] there’s a number of things Kentucky envisions E.J. being able to do for them because of that skill set.
“I think it’s a good situation for him, because the way it looks now, you’re going to have a few guys back and they’ll have some experience and won’t be as young as they’ve been in the past.”
Montgomery’s coach figures Kentucky will lose point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and shooting guard Hamidou Diallo to the NBA — in addition to small forward Kevin Knox, who already declared — but might get back former 5-star big men PJ Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Nick Richards.
Unlike Duke’s situation, that didn’t worry Montgomery.
“What intrigues E.J. about the Kentucky situation is the versatile pieces,” Thompson said. “Vanderbilt can play a couple positions. PJ played the four this year, but he’s more of a natural three. So it may help some of those guys get back to their more natural positions.”
And what it does for the Wildcats in the short term is give them the No. 2 recruiting class in the country. Montgomery is the highest-ranked piece at No. 12 overall in the 247 Sports composite — he’s as high as No. 6 in 247’s own ranking — followed by No. 13 Keldon Johnson, No. 15 Immanuel Quickley and No. 32 Tyler Herro.
“This is a significant pickup. It’s a guy they really wanted and a guy they really ramped thing up with in the last couple months,” 247 analyst Evan Daniels said. “E.J. fits what Kentucky wants and I’m not surprised he’s going to Kentucky. He wanted to find a place that’s known for developing NBA players and he built a good relationship with Calipari and Kenny Payne and wanted to get it over with.”
Montgomery hit 6 of 8 shots for 12 points and 5 rebounds in 18 minutes at the McDonald’s All-American Game two weeks ago, where Quickley and Johnson did some successful recruiting.
“He can impact the game on offense in a variety of ways. He can really score it on the block, can go over either shoulder, can step out and face the rim, make a jump shot, pass out of the high post or drive a defender,” Daniels said. “He’s become a really good rebounder, and part of that is his development over the last 12 months has been very impressive. He changed how he plays: a lot more aggressive, a lot more active in the paint.”
Adding a front-court piece like that, with what is expected to be a loaded back court, prompted Herro to tweet after Montgomery’s commitment: “It just got scary.”