LEXINGTON, Ky. — Less than two weeks after scoring a major recruiting upset by landing 5-star forward Kevin Knox, Kentucky was on the losing end of a surprise Thursday when 7-footer Mohamed Bamba, the No. 2 overall prospect in the Class of 2017, picked Texas.
Here’s the thing: Missing on Bamba is a big deal for John Calipari and the Wildcats … but breathe, UK fans. There will be no shortage of talent (or big men) in Lexington next season. Let’s examine both sides of Bamba’s decision and its impact on the Cats.
A big deal …
Make no mistake: Calipari really wanted Bamba, because he would’ve been the kind of elite rim protector Kentucky has missed the last couple of seasons, the kind of guy Calipari loves coaching — a defensive presence like Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Bamba’s 7-foot-9 wing span and 9-foot-6 standing reach both would’ve been the biggest at this year’s NBA Combine (and historically freakish). He has a lifetime average of 4.1 blocks per 40 minutes, according to the Draft Express database.
The Wildcats have already assembled the No. 1 recruiting class in America, but Bamba would’ve been the cherry on top, the potential superstar of that group. Kentucky might’ve been preseason No. 1 in the polls with him on the roster. So yeah, missing on him hurts.
… but breathe
Two weeks ago, Kentucky fans would’ve been thrilled to get one of Knox or Bamba, and most assumed it would be Bamba. Well, the Wildcats got one of them, but it was Knox. In the end, it’s a probably a coin flip if you’re projecting which will have a greater impact in their (likely) one season of college basketball.
Knox is a 6-foot-9 small forward with a 6-11 ½-inch wing span and 8-10 standing reach, a fluid and high-flying athlete who is versatile enough to play (and defend) multiple positions. In other words, Calipari’s dream wing. And nobody thought he was coming to Kentucky. Now he is.
That brings us to the larger point: There is still a ton of talent on the Wildcats’ 2017-18 roster. At least two former 5-star recruits are back, and they’re big: 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel and 6-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones, both rising sophomores. Plus six incoming freshmen who are rated 5-star recruits by at least one major service: 6-1 point guard Quade Green, 6-6 combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 6-8 power forward P.J. Washington, 6-9 Knox, 6-9 Jarred Vanderbilt and 7-footer Nick Richards.
And if shooting guard Hamidou Diallo (6-5 with a 6-11 wing span and 44 ½-inch vertical) pulls out of the NBA Draft, that is nine former 5-star recruits on the roster. Oh, and two more top-100 guys — sophomore forward Tai Wynyard and freshman shooting guard Jemarl Baker — for good measure.
What is Calipari likes to say? There’s no crying on the yacht? Yeah, that.
Really, Bamba’s decision just opens the door for two McDonald’s All-Americans to seize the starting spot at five for Kentucky — or to share it. In Richards, a rugged defender and rebounder, and Killeya-Jones, a big man who can shoot, the Cats might get a combined impact that comes close to what Bamba would’ve brought by himself.
The big winner Thursday was Killeya-Jones, who oddly did not play in Kentucky’s final 19 games as a freshman but according to sources began to turn a corner in practice over the last month of the season. Coincidentally (maybe), he tweeted on Tuesday: “Keep sleeping on me. I love it.”
Here’s betting the Wildcats will be just fine in the talent department next season. And what about the future? That’s the biggest reason for Kentucky fans to breathe when it comes to Babma’s decision. There is actually some good news for Calipari in Longhorns coach Shaka Smart winning this recruiting battle.
“Coach Smart may not have been aware of it, but I put him through a week-long job interview last summer when he coached me on Team USA,” Bamba wrote in his announcement for The Players’ Tribune. “We instantly formed a bond.”
Well guess what? Calipari is now the coach of USA Basketball’s under-19 team this summer, where he can not only coach several of his incoming freshmen but a few of his top recruiting targets in the Class of 2018. Maybe form a few of those instant bonds that pay off coming signing day.
Remember the last time Calipari coached a national team? It was the Dominicans, and the roster included a promising teenager named Karl-Anthony Towns. He eventually picked Kentucky, led the Cats to a Final Four (almost an undefeated season) and was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
So sure, Calipari and Co. lost this one, and it’s a big deal … but breathe, UK fans. Things tend to work out for your coach and program in the long run.