Kentucky fans, as you bid farewell to an astounding seven NBA draft entrants, rest assured that your favorite team still figures to be quite stacked and remain quite elite next season, thanks to coach John Calipari’s unmatched recruiting prowess.
UK’s three-man 2015 class is already ranked No. 1 by ESPN.com and No. 2 by Scout.com, and the Cats will be adding an undetermined number of top players to it in the coming weeks.
Here’s a look at who the Wildcats have signed for next year and who they are still chasing, in order of our best guess on the likelihood they pick Kentucky.
Skal Labissiere, C, 7-0, Memphis, No. 3 (Scout.com)
Labissiere, a highly skilled, athletic, smart center, who can play above the rim, handle the ball, shoot from deep and block shots. He’s the centerpiece of UK’s 2015 class, and he’s as good (albeit thinner) of a replacement for Karl-Anthony Towns as Calipari could hope to find. Pair him with, say, Marcus Lee in UK’s frontcourt, and that’s an athletic duo to be reckoned with. Labissiere, a native of Haiti, has dazzled in practices with the World Select team at this week’s Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, and he’s now projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft by DraftExpress.com. He could still challenge for the No. 1 high school ranking in 2015. Expect to see him have his own “I’m going pro” press conference this time next year.
The only concern with Labissiere are questions about eligibility derived from how his American guardian, Gerald Hamilton, has handled his schooling and recruitment. Hamilton admitted in December that he believes the NCAA is looking into Labissiere’s case, but he believes he’s done nothing improper.
Isaiah Briscoe, PG, 6-3, 215 pounds, Roselle, N.J., No. 18
Strong, crafty, competitive McDonald’s All American is arguably the best point guard in the country. He’s a competitor and a winner, having led his club team to the Nike circuit championship last summer and his high school team to the all-divisions New Jersey state title this spring. Briscoe is a good scorer and distributor and should thrive as a lead guard or as a complementary off guard to Tyler Ulis.
Again, as good a replacement as Calipari could have landed in the backcourt.
Charles Matthews, SG, 6-5, 171 pounds, Chicago, No. 65
Matthews is not as highly regarded as most Calipari recruits, but he is a tall, athletic, skilled guard who the coach has liked for a long time. He excels at dribble penetration, and he’s a really good passer. Matthews is a former club teammate of Ulis, and they have good chemistry already. Should be a capable player off the bench next season.
WHO COULD COME
Stephen Zimmerman, C, 7-0, Las Vegas, No. 9
Zimmerman, a McDonald’s All American, has UK in his final five along with UNLV, Arizona, UCLA and Kansas, but his family’s strong relationship with Calipari could help the Cats’ cause. He’s a big, skilled center who can pass and step away from the basket, and he showed considerable athletic ability during McDonald’s week. Clearly UK needs at least one more big man, and someone surely is going to jump at the opportunity to be maybe the starting center at Kentucky. The bet here is it’s Zimmerman, who’s said that he wanted to wait to make his decision until after all NBA decisions had been made. Now that just about everybody on Kentucky has gone pro, what else does he need to see? Furthermore, the Cats’ passive recruitment of McDonald’s All American center Thomas Bryant – UK didn’t call him for 2 ½ months before he committed to Indiana last week – seems like a sign that Calipari is confident he’s getting someone good. Hometown UNLV probably UK’s biggest competition for Zimmerman.
Malik Newman, SG, 6-3, 175, Jackson, Miss., No. 8
Arguably the nation’s best perimeter scorer, Newman has not even announced a definitive list of finalists, although UK, Mississippi State, LSU, Kansas, Ole Miss and NC State are some of the teams he’s considering. Newman’s dad played at Mississippi State, but that doesn’t seem to be an overriding factor. He’d hoped to announce by the end of this month, but he’s taken no official visits, so the process may extend to May. After losing Aaron and Andrew Harrison and Devin Booker, it’s hard to imagine Calipari would go into next season without at least one more high-level guard. But he’s recruiting none but Newman, so maybe Cal’s confident there?
The key with Newman will be whether he wants to play point guard and get a ton of shots for a team like Mississippi State or play off the ball on a more balanced team like Kentucky that figures to win a lot more games. LSU, which has already landed elite recruits Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney, is a threat because it offers a combination of both; Newman could play point and be on a talented, up-and-coming team.
Thon Maker, PF, 7-0, Mono, Ontario, Canada, No. 6
Arguably the most famous player in high school basketball, Maker is still in the process of reclassifying from 2016 to 2015. Very skilled and athletic for a player of his height, Maker figures to consider UK, Kansas and Indiana closely if he goes to college at all. His guardian has said Maker will consider playing for a foreign professional team if there is any question about the NCAA eligibility of an Australian import who has attended multiple high schools. If he goes the college route, UK will have a great shot.
Jaylen Brown, SF, 6-7, 220, Marietta, Ga., No. 1
Brown, the most physically imposing wing player in high school ball, announced a final eight this week of UK, California, UCLA, Kansas, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Michigan and North Carolina. He said last week before the McDonald’s game that he believes UK has the best basketball program in the country but that he’s also more than a basketball player. So if he makes purely a basketball-based pick, UK figures to be the choice. But if he wants to carry a team and be the man from Day 1, he could go elsewhere. It’s also worth mentioning that Brown is the premier player on the Adidas club circuit, and he’s always held Adidas-sponsored colleges in high regard. UK is outfitted by Nike.
Calipari, for all his recruiting brilliance, has never landed a great small forward with the skills on offense that Brown possesses. If he comes to UK and joins a lineup of Ulis, Briscoe/Newman, Labissiere and Lee/Zimmerman/Alex Poythress, the Cats would be just about anyone’s favorite for the 2016 title.
Cheick Diallo, PF, 6-9, 230, Coram, N.Y., No. 10
Diallo is not the most skilled big man, but he’s supremely athletic and no one plays harder. The McDonald’s All American Game MVP is down to UK, Kansas, Iowa State, St. John’s and Pittsburgh, and he could decide at or around next weekend’s Jordan Brand Classic. He’ll reportedly have another round of in-home visits before he picks. Diallo doesn’t do many interviews, so it’s hard to gauge where he’s leaning. It wouldn’t be shocking if he picks Kentucky, but Kansas seems like a better prediction.
Brandon Ingram, SF, 6-8, 190, Kinston, N.C., No. 13
In-state schools Duke, North Carolina and NC State and out-of-state bluebloods UK, Kansas and UCLA are the finalists for Ingram, who plans to have one more round of in-home visits before making his pick. Ingram likes Calipari a lot, but the bet here is he ends up staying home for college. He could step in and be an instant contributor for national champ Duke, which is facing its own mass exodus of pros. Ingram was a superstar during McDonald’s week, and his combination of height and skill makes him one of the best long-range prospects in the class.
Tai Wynyard, C, 6-10, 260, New Zealand (2016)
Wynyard is verbally committed to UK in the 2016 class, but New Zealand’s academic calendar is such that he’ll graduate high school by December at the latest. If UK ends up short-handed in the 2015 class, maybe Calipari will encourage him to try to graduate early or join the team at the semester break next season.