LEXINGTON, Ky. — Type the words “John Calipari” and “Canada” into Google and you’ll find more results (147,000) than even the combination of “John Calipari” and “Drake” (70,000), although some of those will be related as the famous rapper and friend of Kentucky’s coach is also a Canadian. Point being, Calipari has become inextricably linked with our neighbors to the north.
He’s landed top recruits Trey Lyles, Jamal Murray, Mychal Mulder and (on this year’s team) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — all Canadians — and is in hot pursuit of the No. 1 player in the Class of 2019, R.J. Barrett, who coincidentally led Canada’s U19 national team to a stunning upset of the Calipari-coached Team USA earlier this month at the FIBA World Cup.
Then of course there’s Drake, who calls Kentucky’s coach a father figure and has designed special sneakers in his honor, and the United States’ new ambassador to Canada, Kelly Knight Craft, a close friend to Calipari and huge booster for the Wildcats.
Oh, Canada is a big deal to the Big Blue boss. And he’s headed up there again this weekend on a new hunting expedition. The target: 5-star 2018 forward Simi Shittu.
Kentucky is turning up the heat on the 6-foot-9 Canadian who is ranked the No. 9 overall prospect in the Class of 2018 by the 247Sports composite but does not yet have a scholarship offer from Calipari. That wait might be over soon.
The Wildcats reached out to Shittu and both his high school and AAU coaches this week and Calipari will travel to Canada — leaving Las Vegas, where most of the nation’s top prospects are playing on the final weekend of the July recruiting period — to see him.
“That’s a big deal,” said Alex Popp, Shittu’s coach at Vermont Academy. “Calipari called me [Tuesday] and they’re obviously very interested in Simi. He just said they want to continue to grow the relationship and see where it goes. He emphasized that he wants to get some face time with Simi to kind of explain what Kentucky is all about.”
Shittu averaged 20.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.3 blocks in 21 games on the Nike AAU circuit this spring and summer — he also made 11 of 26 3-pointers — and was an All-Peach Jam selection. If you think it odd that the Cats didn’t get more involved in his recruitment sooner, Popp agrees.
“I was kind of scratching my head, like, ‘Hey, when is this going to happen?’ I mean, he is that good,” said Popp, who played at Minnesota and coached at a handful of small colleges and in the NBA Development League. “I went to all three sneaker-company [AAU] circuits this year and understand what’s out there, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Simi is a top-three player in this class. I’m convinced. He wouldn’t just be another guy — he’d be a major-impact guy — for Kentucky, for Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Oregon, Arizona, whoever gets him.”
All of those schools except Kentucky have been heavily involved with Shittu’s recruitment for months. So what has Calipari seen lately that cranked up the Cats’ interest?
“The part that he emphasized most is that he’s positionless and that’s the trend with basketball today. They recognize that Simi is positionless on both offense and defense,” said Popp, whose prep-school program has sent players to Louisville, Miami, Wake Forest, Xavier, Butler, VCU, Harvard and Rhode Island in the last three years. “I genuinely believe he can guard one through five at the Division I level — and he’s smart and understands dynamic rotations, double- and triple-switches. He’s a strong leader as a defensive player, so I think they’ve recognized that.”
But now the most important question is whether Shittu will be as impressed with Kentucky and its coach as Calipari suddenly is with him. Popp said the Wildcats, as the nation’s “it” program, at least have his star’s attention.
“Any time you’re a top talent, you’re just curious about when are they going to call,” Popp said. “When they do call, it’s like a notch in a kid’s belt. It’s like, ‘I’ve arrived.’ ”
Soon, Calipari will arrive in Toronto for a showcase of Canadian talent and take another long look at Shittu — whose AAU team, CIA Bounce, is the same one for which Jamal Murray played. You might recall Kentucky was late to the party recruiting Murray, too, and that turned out quite well for the Wildcats.
“It was kind of the same way, but this process with Simi is actually a little bit earlier than when they started checking in on Jamal,” said CIA Bounce founder Tony McIntyre. “We know what Cal has done with Canadians. When anyone does well with Canadians, Canadians take note. Everyone watched Jamal when he was there [he became an All-American and NBA lottery pick]. If there is success, people often want to follow in the footsteps of where success is.”