LEXINGTON, Ky. — So just how crowded will Kentucky’s back court be next season? It’s going to take a while before we know for sure.
Recent Wildcats commit Ashton Hagans, ranked as the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2019 by the 247Sports composite, is widely expected to reclassify and play college basketball this fall. That would make four top-40 guards, including three 5-star prospects, joining Kentucky’s back court for the 2018-19 season. But it’s not quite a done deal.
“We won’t let anybody know until July what the game plan is,” Chris Williams, Hagan’s AAU coach, told SEC Country on Friday afternoon. “Right now, he’s just focusing on being a 2019 and finishing out the school year strong and playing the spring season with AAU.”
Hagans is in Dallas this weekend for the first stop on the adidas spring circuit, where John Calipari will keep a close eye on the 6-foot-4 playmaker from Georgia who reminds Kentucky’s coach a little bit of John Wall.
There is still some academic work to complete for Hagans to be in position to reclassify, but “he will be [done] by July,” Williams said. “He’ll have the option to do so by then.” A source told SEC Country that while it might seem like a foregone conclusion to many, Kentucky’s staff is still not certain whether Hagans is coming to Lexington this year or next.
But if Hagans pulls the trigger and sophomore Quade Green doesn’t transfer, the Wildcats would have four former 5-star guards on the roster — incoming point guard Immanuel Quickley and wing Keldon Johnson are the others — plus 4-star sharpshooters Tyler Herro (freshman) and Jemarl Baker (redshirt freshman).
“It would be a helluva team,” Williams said. “He’s friends with Keldon and knows Tyler from going to camps, and obviously we know Immanuel from playing against him last summer on the adidas [circuit]. They’d have a helluva squad, especially with him and E.J. [Montgomery, a 5-star forward] coming in together, because they’re good friends also. They could match up with any team in the country, on paper.”
Imagine, then, if yet another 5-star guard joins the fun. Tyrese Maxey, the No. 2 point guard in the Class of 2019, is very high on Kentucky and also has talked with Calipari about reclassifying and playing for the Wildcats this fall. What would Hagans think of that?
“Regardless of if it’s a teammate or an opponent, Ashton’s going to compete,” Williams said. “No matter who it is, he ain’t ever backed down from a challenge. Actually, he plays his best games when there is a challenge.”
There aren’t many bigger challenges than graduating high school a year early and being asked to lead a Kentucky team with national-title aspirations — potentially without much veteran help. The Wildcats already have lost starters Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo to the 2018 NBA Draft and reserves Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard to transfer.
Four key decisions loom: Green is considering a move to a program that isn’t so stacked in the back court and forwards PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt all are testing the NBA draft waters. It seems unlikely but nevertheless possible that all of them will be gone by the end of May.
“I think Cal going through what he did this year with all the young guys [UK started five freshmen], he’ll be more prepared if those guys do leave,” Williams said. “He’ll be more prepared with a game plan to put in place more so than last year. He’ll be ready to step up to the challenge.”
Having a Wall-like point guard wouldn’t hurt Calipari’s latest reloading effort. Williams broke down his star’s game for SEC Country:
“Great kid on and off the court, but a totally different person on the court. He’s a dog,” the coach said. “He plays defense 94 feet and makes everybody else around him better on the other end. He’s a true point guard, pass-first point guard — but if you need him to score, he can go out and lead your team in scoring as well. Whatever you need from him, that’s what he’s going to give you.
“And if he does graduate early, he can step on any Division I campus right now and lead a team with no issues.”
So just how did the Wildcats swoop in and scoop up this top-10 overall recruit — ranked as high as No. 6 by 247Sports — after he de-committed from in-state Georgia? The same way Kentucky landed Quickley and Johnson and have a great shot at signing James Wiseman, the No. 1 overall player in the Class of 2019: assistant coach Joel Justus.
“Me and Joel are fairly close,” Williams said. “This is something he’s been working on since Ashton was in the ninth grade. Me and Joel have had a relationship since then, talking on a consistent basis, and he’s someone Ashton’s dad and I trust [because] he’s honest and he’s been keeping it 100 from Day 1. He’s a player’s coach.
“He establishes those relationships with guys from a young age and stays in constant contact with them, always checking up on them and building those relationships, and it pays off.”