LEXINGTON, Ky. — Last man out of the Wildcat Lodge, turn off the lights. Kentucky basketball is in the midst of its most massive exodus yet under coach John Calipari, and that’s saying something. But is it over now?
Seven players from the 2016-17 Elite Eight team are gone: seniors Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder, plus underclassmen De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries, all of whom announced intentions to pursue professional careers and hire agents.
Freshman Bam Adebayo is likely leaving, too, but he is the Cats’ only 2017 NBA Draft entrant who left the door open for a return to school by not hiring an agent. We’ll start with Adebayo and cover the other former 5-star recruits still on Kentucky’s roster — Hamidou Diallo, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones — based on what we’re hearing about their plans for next season.
Calipari landed another ridiculous recruiting class, stocked with 7 top-100 players, 6 top-40 guys and 4 McDonald’s All-Americans. And, it is likely to grow by at least 1 more elite prospect. Those newcomers will need someone to lead the way in 2017-18. So what kind of core returns?
Don’t get your hopes up for an encore from the 6-foot-10 forward who averaged a double-double over the final 13 games of his freshman season. One source close to the program told SEC Country this week he is surprised Adebayo hasn’t made it official, hired an agent and cashed in on the autograph-tour money the other departing Wildcats are enjoying.
In other words, Kentucky does not expect him back. That makes the recruitment of 5-star big man Mohamed Bamba even more important, and the Cats remain the favorite to land him. ESPN projects Adebayo as a top-20 pick in this year’s draft and Bamba as a top-5 pick in 2018.
If Adebayo doesn’t hire an agent, he has until May 24 to return to school. We don’t think that’s happening.
This is an interesting case. A top-10 recruit in the 2017 class, Diallo enrolled at Kentucky in January and was eligible to play but elected to sit out. He practiced with the team, aiming to improve his game without damaging his NBA draft stock for 2018 by playing before he was ready.
Diallo, who did a post-graduate year at prep school before coming to Lexington, has said he plans to lead the young Wildcats next season. However, he is eligible for this year’s NBA draft. If he declares by 11:59 p.m. ET on April 23, Diallo can participate in the NBA combine and work out for teams to get feedback before deciding whether to stay in college.
Word is, Kentucky’s staff believes Diallo will be back, but it’s not a lock. Because pro scouts want to see Diallo make shots — he was a below-average 3-point shooter in high school — and because a weaker 2018 draft gives him a greater chance to become a lottery pick, our prediction is he stays.
A 6-foot-9 forward and former top-15 recruit nationally, Gabriel had an inconsistent freshman season. After starting 23 games early on, he started none of the Wildcats’ final 9. He scored 23 points against LSU, had 16 rebounds against Auburn, had 10 games with multiple blocked shots — but then averaged 6.5 minutes in 4 NCAA Tournament games.
Gabriel seemed to lose confidence late in the season and admitted he was thinking too much.
Kentucky will have a crowd at forward next season with the addition of 5-star recruits Jarred Vanderbilt and P.J. Washington. Gabriel could get lost in the shuffle unless he improves — he made just 5 of 31 shots to close the season — but sources tell SEC Country he has no plans to transfer. The NBA draft is not a realistic option for Gabriel this year.
No player was the subject of more transfer speculation than this 6-foot-10 former McDonald’s All-American. Killeya-Jones scored 40 points all season and didn’t play a minute after Jan. 21. He never left the bench for the Wildcats’ final 19 games.
Now here’s the good news: One sources tells us the staff is not concerned about a transfer and, in fact, Killeya-Jones made major strides in practice over the final month of the season. While some assumed he’d checked out, this 5-star forward was working on his game behind the scenes.
We’re told if Killeya-Jones continues progressing, given his skills at that size, there is a significant role for him next season. He never considered himself a 1-and-done candidate and planned all along to be in it for the longer haul at Kentucky. That remains the plan.