INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky’s recruiting pitch to elite big men is becoming easier with every passing NBA draft.
In his first eight years, John Calipari had seven power forwards or centers picked in the lottery, with Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns going No. 1 overall. Davis, Towns and DeMarcus Cousins already have become NBA All-Stars.
So what do Calipari and assistant Kenny Payne — the Wildcats’ big man whisperer — say to 6-foot-10, 250-pound Vernon Carey Jr., who is ranked the No. 1 or No. 2 overall recruit in the Class of 2019 by every major service? Some version of: You’re next.
“[Calipari] texts me every other day,” Carey said. “He just says look at Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, just take parts of their game and add it to mine. It feels pretty special for me to get recognized and kind of compared to them.”
But it’s a more recent Kentucky star who seems to be having a bigger influence on Carey, son of a former Miami Dolphins offensive tackle by the same name. When he took an unofficial visit to Rupp Arena for Big Blue Madness two years ago, Payne connected Carey with then-freshman Bam Adebayo.
They’ve stayed in touch and Carey watched Adebayo become a star for the Wildcats, get picked 14th overall after one season and emerge as one of the NBA’s top rookies last season.
“[Adebayo] says if you’re trying to go to the league after your first year, that’s the school to go to. Coach Cal is just going to help you develop,” Carey said. “I feel like if you want to go one-and-done, then you just go there.”
His father’s alma mater, Miami, and the latest one-and-done factory, Duke, are among the other top contenders to land Carey. But Kentucky appears very much in the mix to earn his signature — even if the Wildcats also land his biggest competition for the No. 1 ranking: 6-foot-10 James Wiseman.
“Me and James talk a lot, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we go to school together,” said Carey, who has averaged 17.3 points and 6.3 rebounds and even made four 3-pointers through eight games on the Nike AAU circuit this spring. “He’s going to do the best thing for him and I’ll do the best thing for me. [If they play together], I feel like it would just be interchangeable.”
Oh, and since every top player in the Class of 2019 seems to either be reclassifying to 2018 or rumored to be on the verge of doing so, Carey went ahead and cleared that up.
“Probably not. There’s been rumors,” he said, “but I’m probably not reclassifying. I just probably want to get the experience of playing another high school year and just developing my body a little more.”
Carey, who looks like he could’ve played opposite his father on an NFL offensive line, has shed some baby fat since last summer and a toned-up physique is showing up in his performance on the court. Whoever gets him is getting a dominant force in the paint.
And even if Kentucky isn’t the choice, the Wildcats will have gotten something out of all their time tracking Carey and his Nike Team Florida squad: a good enough look at Class of 2020 small forward Scotty Barnes, his teammate, to make a rare early offer (last week) to a rising high school junior.
“It’s always going to be a blessing to get an offer from one of the best coaches that ever coached,” said the 6-foot-7 Barnes, who is averaging 15.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists on the Nike circuit. He’s made 5 of 8 threes, too. “So it’s a blessing in my life. They saw the type of player I am. I guess they like the way I play and think I fit into their style. I’m very versatile, I can do multiple things.
“I can pass the ball really well, play defense, bring intensity to the game; my presence on the floor, it picks up the energy for my whole team.”
Carey said despite being the younger of the two, Barnes brings the best out of him. And how did the No. 7 overall recruit in the Class of 2020 react to that scholarship offer from the Wildcats?
“He didn’t show it, but I feel like he’s probably really excited,” Carey said, “because he likes Kentucky.”