LEXINGTON, Ky. — What a weird offseason for Kentucky basketball. With NBA draft decisions dragging on for another month, a rash of potential reclassifications in recruiting and John Calipari on some kind of talent-hoarding bender, the Wildcats’ 2018-19 roster remains very much in flux.
Five players from the 2017-18 team definitely are gone: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo to the NBA draft, and Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard to new schools. Three Cats are expected to return: Nick Richards, Quade Green and Jemarl Baker. Four top-40 recruits have signed for next season: No. 9 E.J. Montgomery, No. 11 Keldon Johnson, No. 20 Immanuel Quickley and No. 34 Tyler Herro.
That’s what we know. And then there’s this: three early NBA entrants could decide to return to Kentucky and three 5-star guards with high interest in, or commitments to, the Wildcats are considering a move from the 2019 class to 2018. What happens next season in Lexington will be shaped a great deal by those six upcoming decisions.
While we wait, why not have a little fun imagining the various possibilities? Here, now: your video game-like chance to create a roster from the available options. Try to imagine all of these pieces fitting together from a style and chemistry perspective, weigh experience vs. young talent, and choose your own adventure wisely.
NBA draft decisions (pick one)
Unlike Gilgeous-Alexander, Knox and Diallo, the trio of PJ Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt and Wenyen Gabriel — all former 5-star recruits — did not hire agents. They have until May 30 to pull out of the draft after working out for NBA teams and/or attending the scouting combine.
Obviously, Calipari and Kentucky fans would love to have all three back, which one scout told SEC Country is what they all should do, but for the purposes of this exercise you’ll be forced to pick just one (and in the next poll, you get to pick two) to come back.
Each of them is a power forward with varying degrees of success so far in a Kentucky uniform. The 6-foot-7 Washington averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds as a starter last season and finished with a monster game: 18 points and 15 rebounds — although he also missed a dozen free throws in that Sweet 16 loss to Kansas State.
The 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt averaged 5.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in just 17 minutes per game during a truncated freshman season. He averaged a stunning 18.5 rebounds per 40 minutes but missed 23 of 34 games with foot and ankle injuries. Those, and past, injury concerns are hurting his draft stock, but they also cast some doubt on his ability to stay healthy for a full season if he returns to Kentucky.
And the 6-foot-9 Gabriel has been a significant contributor for two seasons, averaging 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range off the bench as a sophomore. His 7 made 3-point-shots in the SEC Tournament semifinals, plus 16 points and 12 boards in the NCAA Tournament second round, are proof he can help the Wildcats win when it matters.
NBA draft decisions (pick two)
One source close to the program recently told SEC Country he believes that while Washington, Vanderbilt and Gabriel all want to begin their pro careers, two of them ultimately will realize they should return to school. ESPN ranks Washington as the No. 51 draft-eligible prospect with Vanderbilt No. 65 and Gabriel not in the top 100.
Each of their families has expressed that it would be much easier to make the leap from college if they had first-round assurances — “If they’re talking about second round, I don’t see it,” Washington’s father said — that seems unlikely for all of them, especially Vanderbilt and Gabriel.
It seems like all of the top guards in the Class of 2019 have at least some interest in moving up to 2018. And playing for Kentucky. Jalen Lecque, Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey, ranked the No. 9, 10 and 13 overall prospects in 2019 by the 247Sports composite, all fit that bill.
Hagans is already committed to the Cats and is widely expected to make the move and enroll this fall, but his AAU coach tells SEC Country an official decision/announcement isn’t coming until June. Maxey is considered a heavy Kentucky lean, and he teased that he and Hagans already call themselves The Duo and plan to pull the trigger on whether to reclassify as early as this week.
Lecque received his offer from the Wildcats during the second weekend of the spring AAU circuit, where he looked super athletic and aggressive on defense. But he, too, is pondering a reclassification and surely there would be no room for him at Kentucky if both Hagans and Maxey make the move. Right?
Consider also: Kentucky already has signed 5-star point guard Immanuel Quickley, 5-star wing Keldon Johnson and 4-star shooting guard Tyler Herro for next season — and returns former 5-star point guard Quade Green for his sophomore season and 4-star shooting guard Jemarl Baker, who will be a redshirt freshman.
If two 2019 guards, much less three, ultimately enroll this summer, it could test Green’s recent decision not to transfer out of a crowded back court.