EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a 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. — If it seems like 5-star power forward E.J. Montgomery might be the missing piece to what could be another super team at Kentucky next season, that’s apparently how coach John Calipari is selling it to the 6-foot-10 McDonald’s All-American, too.
“Cal’s words were, ‘You’re not a want, you’re a need. We need a guy like you that can take the scoring load off of some of the wings, some of the guards.’ To hear words like that coming from Coach Cal, I’m not sure he uses those words all the time or often,” Montgomery’s high school coach, Larry Thompson, told SEC Country on Tuesday. “When I heard that, that takes precedent over being a want, a luxury piece. ‘No, you’re a guy that’s going to come in here and help anchor what we’re doing.’ So I think those are some pretty strong words that Cal used. Looks to me like they’re doing the job to try to get him.”
Montgomery took an unofficial visit to Kentucky during the weekend to watch the Wildcats pummel Missouri at Rupp Arena. Before the game, Montgomery and his family sat on the bench with assistant coach Kenny Penny and had a long chat while UK’s current players warmed up.
Thompson said he hasn’t talked much with his star about the trip but knows what Montgomery was thinking heading into it: that Calipari and Payne, who works with the Wildcats’ big men, have a long and impressive track record of getting guys like him ready to succeed in the NBA.
Monday night’s box scores certainly did not hurt that argument. Former Kentucky big men Anthony Davis (53 points and 18 rebounds), Karl-Anthony Towns (26 and 17), Julius Randle (19 and 10), Skal Labissiere (20 and 4) and Willie Cauley-Stein (17 and 5) all shined on the same night as pros.
“That’s probably the thing that intrigues E.J. and his family the most,” Thompson said. “The things they’re big on are development and style of play. A lot of schools recruiting him didn’t have the resume that showed the development at that position, so they didn’t really get a fair shake at recruiting him. I think it’s huge. You can’t not give Kentucky a wholehearted look if your ultimate goal is playing at the next level.
“Development is key, and I think Coach Payne has proven and shown that’s going to be a point of emphasis with EJ.”
Montgomery, who backed out of a commitment to Auburn in the fall, is averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds for Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga., and has his team in the state quarterfinals. He has squeezed in unofficial visits to UK, Duke and North Carolina in the last two weeks, but Thompson said Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing and Wake Forest coach Danny Manning — two guys who know something about how to become an elite big man — are pushing to get visits before he makes a decision.
It’s easy to see why. Montgomery is a versatile forward ranked as high as the No. 6 overall prospect (by 247Sports) in a 2018 recruiting class that is woefully thin on talented post players.
“He’s a skilled back-to-the-basket big guy who can step out and hit the three ball, handles the ball like a guard, and I think one of his best attributes is his passing ability,” Thompson said. “He’s been our low-post presence, shooting about 75 percent from the field, putting guys on his back and jump-hooking them to sleep.”
The coach says Montgomery is a capable 3-point shooter but hasn’t taken many this season because it’s just too easy to dominant inside against high school competition. But Calipari, whose favorite buzzword is “positionless,” can envision him becoming something more.
“Kentucky wants big guys that are not one-dimensional, that can play multiple positions. Cal mentioned that when he came in to see him,” Thompson said. “His jump shot is good enough to be a wing — needs to get in the lab and get more consistent with it — but as a typical stretch four, he’s probably the best you’re going to get right now. Dribble handoff, pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll, pick-and-fade, he does all those things and does them well, He gets in traffic and makes the right plays.”
If it seems like that is exactly what the Wildcats might be needing next season, a Swiss-Army big man to join three elite guards they’ve already signed for 2018 (5-stars Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson and top-40 Tyler Herro), that’s what Calipari is telling Montgomery, too.
A freshman class featuring those four players, plus what is expected to be a larger-than-usual number of guys returning from this season’s team, could leave Kentucky with few (if any) holes in the 2018-19 roster.
So how good should Big Blue Nation feel about its chances of cheering for Montgomery in the fall?
“Teammates rib him all the time, ‘Here you are right now with us and a year from now you’re at Kentucky and a year later you’re in the league,’ ” Thompson said. “I think E.J. is smart enough to understand that it takes hard work and nothing is given. Talking to Coach Payne in the weeks and months he’s been recruiting him, I think it has instilled in him that it’s tough. Kentucky is a different place, the spotlight is on you in a different way than some other paces.
“You’re in basketball heaven, but you could also have basketball hell when things ain’t going well, so you just have to understand that it comes with a different level of stress, so to speak, and I think E.J. does understand that.”
Oh, and by the way: If Montgomery does pick the Cats, they’ll have signed the Nos. 6, 14, 15 and 37 players in the country (per 247Sports) and likely end up with the second- or third-ranked class nationally. In what has been called a down year for Kentucky recruiting.
Wouldn’t it be nice to struggle the way Calipari and company struggle?