EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky basketball fans are rightly excited about a 2017-18 roster that includes eight consensus 5-star recruits. But Rex Chapman, who has been hanging out with the Wildcats this summer, is keeping his eye on the team’s least-heralded prospect.
“One thing that stood out is Jemarl Baker can really shoot,” said Chapman, former Kentucky and NBA star. “I could shoot it a little bit — most of the guys I played with could shoot it a bit — but he shoots it like Dell Curry. I’m surprised when he misses. He can really shoot the basketball. He shoots it like Tony Delk.”
Chapman ranks 10th in career 3-point percentage at Kentucky. Delk holds the school record for made threes. Curry, a former NBA teammate of Chapman and father of sharpshooter Stephen Curry, made more than 1,200 threes as a pro.
In other words, maybe the weakness of these Wildcats won’t be outside shooting after all. Baker, a former California commit and late addition to Kentucky’s 2017 signing class, was rated the 72nd-best player in the country by the 247Sports composite — a marquee addition for most programs but a ho-hum recruit by John Calipari’s standards.
Fans are more excited about the big-name players such as Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel, but less-hyped guys like Baker and fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could be the complementary pieces that make it fit.
“Shai, the kid from Canada, is the one I was maybe most surprised by,” said Chapman, who filmed a series of Horse with the Cats videos for CoachCal.com this summer and saw Kentucky practice as recently as two weeks ago. “I know [fellow Canadian and former NBA star] Steve Nash thinks an awful lot of him, thinks he’s got a real chance to be a special player. Shai is the one guy that maybe people aren’t as familiar with but at the end of the day could be better than all of them. He’s 6-5, 6-6 and long — and he’s a point guard.”
Which is not to say Chapman isn’t fired up about the more well-known players on the roster. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many of the former 5-stars are as good as advertised.
“I got to meet each of them and spend 30 minutes to an hour with them. First and foremost, what a great group of kids. Every one of them just bright-eyed, big smiles, very personal, very down to earth,” Chapman said. “I’m excited about this team. They’re all freshmen and sophomores, so Cal is always trying to temper expectations, but I’ll say this: This is going to be a fun team to watch because I think we’ve got a level of toughness this year that can do some really good things, along with our length and athleticism.”
In addition to Baker and Gilgeous-Alexander, Chapman offered SEC Country a glimpse at what to expect from several other key Wildcats:
PG Quade Green — “Strong-minded winner and he’s all about team. You can tell he’s a leader.”
SG Hamidou Diallo — “He’s going to need to make shots, and that’ll be interesting. I think he can, but he’s a different kind of player. We’re going to need him as one of our top couple scorers.” And who wins a dunk contest in his prime between Chapman and Diallo? “Just pure jumping, him. Creativity, I might get him.”
SF Jarred Vanderbilt — “Great kid, great smile, going to be a versatile wing player.”
SF Kevin Knox — “Kevin is one guy I didn’t get to shoot with, but I watched them practice and he’s just the guy you walk into a gym and go, ‘Who is that?’ He’s got that sort of air about him.”
PF P.J. Washington — “Just looks the part. He’s long and rangy, incredibly long arms but he’s put together well. He knows how to play the game, crafty.”
PF Wenyen Gabriel — “Wenyen’s had a great summer. I know Wenyen is going to need to make shots for us.”
PF Sacha Killeya-Jones — “Sacha looks like a different kid. He’s lean and mean.”
C Nick Richards — “Good grief, he’s a legitimate 7-footer with some muscle — but he plays way above the rim. He dunks it like [NBA star] DeAndre Jordan. You can’t throw it high enough that he can’t get it. And he plays with an edge.”
That last part about Richards, Chapman said, is most important of all. It’s a trait he said he sees almost across the board with this 2017-18 roster.
“The thing I like about all these guys: It’s sort of a ‘don’t let the smooth taste fool you’ thing,” he said. “They’re all very nice and personable, but these guys are killers.”
A final note: To address the Cardinal in the room, Chapman declined to comment on the latest scandal for former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and what appears to be the end of his career at Louisville. When we spoke to Chapman on Tuesday, as news of a college-basketball-rattling federal investigation was breaking, he simply called Pitino a longtime friend and left it at that.
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