MARIETTA, Ga. — There was a long pause and EJ Montgomery looked at both of his parents to ask without words how much he should share.
The question was simple: So what happened the week of the McDonald’s All-American Game that changed your mind about Duke? The answer is complicated.
“Ummmmmm …” said the 5-star forward, stalling. “Just didn’t think it was a great fit for me. Just … I don’t know. I couldn’t see myself in that situation. I … don’t know how I want to say it.”
Going into that week in late March, the Blue Devils were considered the favorite to land the 6-foot-10 Montgomery, the nation’s No. 1 power forward in the Class of 2018, adding to a ridiculous haul that already included three top-five players and the best point guard in the country.
Less than two weeks later, Montgomery committed instead to Kentucky. So what happened? His mother, Glenda, a former junior-college coach, stepped in to explain.
“After having the opportunity to play with some of the guys that he would play with in college, I think that kind of helped him solidify his decision,” she said during the family’s wide-ranging interview with SEC Country last week, “understanding the type of players he wanted to play with.”
There have been rumors since Montgomery’s commitment to the Wildcats that something about Duke’s four burger boys — forwards R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson and point guard Tre Jones — turned him off during the lead-up to the McDonald’s game.
“Duke was his leader for a long time,” said Larry Thompson, Montgomery’s coach at Wheeler (Ga.) High School. “I think it kind of changed after the McDonald’s game, after just being around the guys. EJ had a little concern about the Zion situation: Is he a four? Where’s he going to play? Is he a five? So that was one of his concerns.”
Also of note: Montgomery was one of three elite recruits who left prep powerhouse Montverde Academy in the summer of 2016 after playing a year with Barrett, the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 class. Montgomery and his family did not discuss that departure on the record with SEC Country.
Rather than focus on whatever he didn’t like about the future Blue Devils — although his father conceded it’s “fair to say” an incoming freshman class that now features four 6-foot-7 small forwards and one guard was a real concern — the Montgomery family talked mostly about what they did like about Kentucky’s other two McDonald’s All-Americans: wing Keldon Johnson and guard Immanuel Quickley.
“We were just thinking about which group he would fit best with, and it’s those tough guys who really get after it. He really got that feel from the Kentucky guys,” said his father, Efrem Mongtomery. Added mother Glenda: “Guys like Keldon, who goes hard all the time. Not to say those [Duke] kids aren’t, but he just felt those are the type of players that he wanted to play with.”
After one McDonald’s practice, Johnson told SEC Country that he aims to “dominate and kill” when he’s on the court. Then he demonstrated that during high school basketball’s most famous all-star game by playing defense like a championship was on the line. That included locking down Barrett late in a close game.
“That was really my first time speaking to him and meeting him, and we just had that good vibe — and I saw what he was about on the court,” Montgomery said. “I’ve been knowing Immanuel, and he’s like that too: He picks up 94 feet [defensively]. So I just feel like I can win with those guys.”
Duke has the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class and Kentucky’s ranks No. 2, but they’ll be in a virtual dead heat when the top point guard in the Class of 2019, Ashton Hagans, officially reclassifies and enrolls at UK this summer. That’s the plan.
So which group is better? We won’t have to wait long to find out. The Blue Devils and Wildcats collide in the first game of the season, Nov. 6 at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Montgomery is well aware.
“I’ve circled it big-time,” he said. “I’m ready to play against those guys. It’s going to be a lot of trash talking going on. Just a good competition.”
* EDITOR’S NOTE: SEC Country traveled to Georgia last week to spend time with both Montgomery and Hagans and profile both future Wildcats. We’re rolling out a series of stories to help you get to know them better. Stay tuned.