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By LARRY VAUGHT
Even without Andrew Wiggins there still should not be any doubt that Kentucky has assembled the nation’s all-time best recruiting class.
Kentucky coach John Calipari still has a record six McDonald’s All-Americans — Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee — in this recruiting class. And don’t forget that junior Kyle Wiltjer and sophomore Alex Poythress were both McDonald’s All-Americans.
So there’s no shortage of talent for next year. Remember, sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein is also being mentioned as a possible NBA draft lottery pick and freshmen Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis have unique talents of their own. Plus, with no Wiggins, it should clear the way for both Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood to stay on scholarship one more year.
“The immediate impact of Kentucky getting Wiggins is that this is without doubt the greatest recruiting class of all time,” said Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy. “There’s no more room for argument about that.”
“Kentucky has got the No. 1 player (in the recruiting class) at every position on the floor except for Wiggins in a highly talented class,” Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy said. “There are certain years you could get the No. 1 guys and still not have an extraordinary year like the 2008-09 group. But this is a very highly talented group. You could take Andrew Wiggins out of this class and put Jabari Parker or Julius Randle No. 1 and it would still be very strong. Kentucky will still have overwhelming strength and athleticism at every position. ”
And as I suggested about a month ago, Kentucky’s chemistry could be better without Wiggins. Not because Wiggins is a problem, but because even Calipari can only work so much magic with a loaded roster. He has guys that expect to play, and should play.
The Harrison twins and Randle are all dynamic, forceful leaders. Johnson, Lee and Young all seem to be team-oriented, not me-oriented, players.
Cauley-Stein will be a leader in a less intense way than the Harrisons or Randle. Poythress may not be a vocal leader, but he’ll be a better player. And Wiltjer’s experience on and off the court could be invaluable to the freshmen.
Wiggins would have been a terrific addition. But let Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch put this in perspective for UK fans. Here’s what he said when I asked him what impact not getting Wiggins would have on UK: “Zero. It’s still the best class of all time.”
And still likely more than enough to have UK ranked No. 1 going into next season — even without Wiggins.
By LARRY VAUGHT
What impact will it have on Kentucky that Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, has announced he will not play for the Wildcats? Instead, the Huntington (W.Va.) Prep star announced today that he was going to play for Kansas and not UK, North Carolina or Florida State.
“I think not getting him takes away another weapon that Kentucky could have fielded, but Kentucky still will be overwhelming physically,” said Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy. “I think it forces (UK signee) James Young to accelerate faster. I have seen and like him, but I am not sure I love him. He is the kind of player that can grow into making people love him, but he needs time.”
Kentucky will return Alex Poythress at small forward and now he’ll also have a much bigger role with Wiggins not UK bound.
“Alex was never a natural fit at the 3, but a year of experience should let him know what works for him and what doesn’t and what works and doesn’t work for Kentucky. He can still be a great small forward. But that is the most difficult position in basketball to transition to. If you are an extraordinary talent like Carmelo Anthony, you can excel,” DeCourcy said.
“But if you are out of your comfort zone, there will be moments you might not excel. Alex still has ability because he’s a shooter and a great body. He has to work and know that. Kentucky has every other position covered at a very high level. Without Wiggins, they have maybe a little less playmaking. If they had Wiggins, there would be a little less pressure on (point guard) Andrew Harrison to be extraordinary. With Wiggins, you would have a creator at point guard and small forward. Now you don’t have that 3 man that can be a creator. You have to count on Harrison to be the creator, feed the post, run the break. It puts ore pressure on him, but (John) Calipari has done extraordinary work with extraordinary point guards.”
DeCourcy said from a Kentucky standpoint, having Wiggins pick Florida State and not Kansas would have been a better thing.
“I don’t think anybody looks at Florida State as a roster that can win a national championship even with Wiggins,” DeCourcy said. “They have young talent, but don’t have a great point guard or great inside depth. They will be a NCAA team and with Wiggins would have been capable of beating anybody they play. But I just couldn’t see them winning six games (in the NCAA) even with him.
“Put him on North Carolina and it becomes sort of like 2012. Pick your flavor. Like the young talent at Kentucky or the more experience but physically talented team North Carolina would have. The second best option for a Kentucky fan was having him go to Florida State.”
And what will he do for Kansas?
“Kansas still has a young roster, but Bill Self is a championship coach. Bill has done it and will have a lot of very good, young players. He’s bringing in an excellent class and Wiggins will make Kansas a national championship threat,” DeCourcy said.
Could UK’s team chemistry be better without Wiggins since Calipari could still go nine to 10 deep easily any game?
“With Wiggins, he would have had a lot of guys to keep happy. I think James Young would have been the odd one out,” DeCourcy said. “You have to use the experience Alex brings and Dakari Johnson under any scenario is probably a 15- to 18-minute (per game) player. The one who struggles to get minutes if Wiggins had been there would have been Young. But even for Wiggins it will be a struggle to make the transition to small forward. He is good enough, but that’s the toughest spot in college basketball to transition to because of the defensive assignments being so different from game to game.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Can Kentucky’s historic recruiting class get even better? Kentucky fans and coach John Calipari will find out Tuesday when Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s top prospect, announces his college choice.
He’s down to Kentucky, Florida State, Kansas and North Carolina and Huntington (W.Va.) Prep coach Rob Fulford confirmed on Twitter Sunday that Wiggins would “sign Tuesday at around 12:15. He will not hold a press conference type ceremony. Just classmates, family and friends.”It’s no surprise that Wiggins, who many already expect to be the first pick in the 2014 NBA draft, is not making his decision on ESPN or having a setting where fans and media members could converge on him. Instead, only one local reporter will be in attendance to see which team Wiggins picks.If it is UK, the talk about a national championship and unbeaten season will only escalate. Kentucky has already signed McDonald’s All-Americans Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee, Julius Randle, James Young and Dakari Johnson along with in-state players Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins. Add returning players Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer and Jarrod Polson and Calipari will have more depth than in any previous year at Kentucky as well as the all-time No. 1 recruiting class.
Wiggins has kept a low profile throughout the recruiting process and has never told coaches, teammates or friends where he would go to school. His parents attended Florida State, and Huntington Prep and teammate Xavier Rathan-Mayes signed with the Seminoles.
Kansas has a solid five-member recruiting class that features 7-footer Joel Embiid and perimeter players Wayne Selden and Brannen Greene.
P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo decided to continue their careers at North Carolina and signees include forward Isaiah Hicks and center Kennedy Meeks. Wiggins would boost North Carolina into a top five recruiting class.
So what will Wiggins do?
The guess here remains that he picks UK. It gives him the best chance to win a national title in his one year in college. I also don’t buy the theory that he’ll be overwhelmed by the spotlight at Kentucky because he’s been in the spotlight for years. That won’t change at North Carolina, Kansas or Florida State, so why not join Calipari’s class, win a title and become another No. 1 overall NBA draft pick.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari issued a warning to next year’s opponents during an interview with his go-to guy Andy Katz of ESPN.
“We’re going to be much stronger physically at all positions,” Calipari told Katz. “Our post presence will be there with Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. He’s a lot like Nerlens in terms of blocking shots and going after balls. He’s bouncy with great energy, but he’s not as big.”
And remember that Lee is probably considered No. 6 among the incoming UK McDonald’s All-Americans. However, two NBA scouts recently told me they thought in five years he could be the best player of any of UK’s incoming freshmen.
Lee and Johnson are also going to help Willie Cauley-Stein.
“Willie is coming back with one thought in mind,” Calipari told Katz. “He wants to do something on the basketball court and in the tournament. He’s got something to prove to himself. He’s got a great frame of mind. He understands he’s got to do it and do something different.”
Calipari also told Katz he might play 6-9 Julius Randle at small forward and Cauley-Stein at the power forward to give UK a big, big lineup.
“There will be a lot of teams ahead of us, but we’ll be deeper and the bench will be a great friend of mine,” Calipari told Katz. “I’ll be able to play like we played at Memphis. We’ll be pressing and getting after people because we have more people. We’re going to have competition.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
LSU-bound Jerrell Martin played with or against six future Kentucky Wildcats in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago and then went against two more — Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins — in the Derby Festival Classic in Louisville.
“Everybody impressed me,” said Martin, who had 20 points and five rebounds in the Louisville game. “Everybody could make a big push in college. They are all very good. I am really excited to play against them. I am glad they are over there. It will be tough games, but I can’t wait to see what happens.”
Jordan Mickey, another LSU signee, had a game-high nine rebounds and four blocked shots along with eight points in the Louisville game. Tennessee signee Robert Hubbs made three three-pointers and South Carolina pledge Sindarius Thornwell had 12 points off the bench.
“Kentucky isn’t the only school in the SEC with good players coming in. The SEC is going to be great and one of the strongest conferences around,” Martin said.
Willis certainly came away impressed with Martin.
“To be honest with you, I thought he was going to be more of a back to the basket post player, but he is really versatile. He is going to be real good for LSU, probably even better than I realized,” Willis said.
Still, UK has six McDonald’s All-Americans — Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Marcus Lee, James Young, Dakari Johnson and Aaron Harrison — joining the program. That’s the most any school has ever added in one year.
“Yeah, that is pretty unfair. nobody has that,” Martin laughed and said.
How did he think UK pulled that off?
“Well, Kentucky is a good school. They have a lot of guys in the NBA and more on the way. I guess that is why they went there for that. They are just trying to get to the next level and they know the coaches at Kentucky are really good for doing that,” Martin said. “Calipari is a great coach overall. Anybody would probably want to play for him that wants to get to the NBA. That’s probably what sold all those guys on going there.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
I loved the way Jason Nahra, UK signee Dakari Johnson’s middle school coach at Sayre, answered this question about the future Wildcat.
Question: What do you think UK fans will like best about him on and off the court?
Nahra: “Dakari is unique in that he is unlike most big men coming through college right now. Since he has been tall most of his basketball life, he has developed great feet and hands for the game, and has sound post moves, and can score in a variety of ways. He will be a supportive teammate, and will have no problem fitting in to play his role to help achieve common team goals. Off the court, I hope he gets the opportunity to show people his personality, and his enthusiasm for the game. He doesn’t desire the spotlight, but he isn’t afraid to step into it if need be.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky signee Dakari Johnson — a McDonald’s All-American — played middle school basketball in Lexington at Sayre and coach Jason Nahra was impressed even then bymore than just his court skills.
“It would seem obvious to say that having a player with Dakari’s size and skill made a coach’s job easy, but what impressed me about Dakari was something less obvious,” said Nahra. “Dakari worked on his game every day, and his effort rubbed of on the players surrounding him, and they quickly realized that they had to work extra hard to make up what they lacked in matching his physical size. He had always been a leader because he drew a lot of attention based on his size, but he quickly became aware of how to lead by example.”
Nahra has remained friends with the family and even went to Chicago last month to watch Johnson play in the McDonald’s All-American Game. He shared these insights on the 7-foot, 250-pound Johnson — the top-ranked center in the 2013 recruiting class who played at Montverde Academy in Florida.
Question: Was it obvious then that he would be a future star?
Nahra: “Nothing is guaranteed of course, and Dakari realized this, even in Middle School. It quickly became apparent that his physical tools could be the foundation of a bright future, but those needed to be combined with several other traits. I recall the very first day of practice with Dakari as a 6th grader. I told him he had to make one post move to make a game winning shot, and I asked him what would he do. He posted up, and I threw him the ball, and without hesitation, he did a baseline drop step, up and under, and scored. From that moment, I was cautiously optimistic that he was headed for something big.”
Question: What do you remember most about him?
Nahra: “Dakari draws attention wherever he goes, and initially it’s because of his height, but once you talk to him, you realize that its everything else that keeps you engaged. His personality is fun-loving, and a smile is always present. He genuinely takes an interest in whoever he is talking with, and you can tell that he’s listening to you, not just hearing what you’re saying. When he visited Sayre recently, he demonstrated that he could seamlessly transition between a conversation with a teacher, and the next moment, a second grader. I’m proud of Dakari the basketball player, but even more proud of the person he is.”
Question: What kind of relationship did you have with his family and much have you followed his career since he left Lexington?
Nahra: “I have watched from a distance as Dakari has gone through his high school career. I have remained in contact with his family, occasionally shooting Dakari a text wishing him good luck, or to let him know that I’m proud of him. Like anyone I coach, I am confident knowing that Dakari realizes I will be a fan of his as a person even when the basketball stops bouncing.”
Question: Did it surprise you that he picked Kentucky?
Nahra: “I had no indication of which school Dakari would pick, since he kept that type of thing quiet, as he should. Kentucky seemed to be a place with the perfect combination of things for him on and off the court, and I believe that the appeal of returning to a town with which he was familiar was a big plus. Having a group of friends he made in his days at Sayre was a big draw as well. Nervousness comes from a lack of experience, so if his transition to college was going to be made easier because he was familiar with Lexington and the people here, I was all for it.”
Question: How will he fit into the Kentucky mystique?
Nahra: “Having lived in Lexington, Dakari is well aware of many things that come with Kentucky basketball. I’m not sure anyone can properly prepare for all that comes with it, but he is arriving on campus with a deeper knowledge base than most. I know he will embrace all that comes with being a Kentucky Wildcat, rather than running away from it. And at 7 feet tall, it would be particularly tough to hide from the spotlight anyway!”
Question: How would you describe his mother and how big a role has she had shaping his academic/athletic career?
Nahra: “Dakari stands 7 feet above the ground, but he is as well grounded as they come, and in my opinion, this can be directly attributed to his family. I am always impressed by his relationship with his Mom, and his little brother, and their family is a close knit one. His mom has her values perfectly aligned, and her boys know that they are expected to be well-rounded young men in all they do. The boys have learned accountability, and this applies to each aspect of their lives.”
Question: What made you decide to go to the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago to watch him play?
Nahra: “I have attended 8 McDonald’s All-American games, my first in 1986 (Rex Chapman’s year), but this one had a much more personal feel. With Dakari playing in the game, I watched like an anxious parent, but I tried to soak up the entire experience, just as I had encouraged Dakari to do. It was exciting to get a glimpse of the future of Kentucky basketball, and it was truly special to know that Dakari is going to be a part of it.”
Question: What is one thing UK fans might not know about Johnson that you think would be interesting for them to know?
Nahra: “Rumor has it, Dakari is a solid ping-pong player, although he has yet to challenge me! I would imagine he has no problem covering all of the table, and I bet that any weakness he has in his ping-pong game would be tough to exploit. I’m sure he will be often found at the ping-pong table in the Wildcat Lodge.”
NBADraftblog.com’s Ed Isaacson correctly predicted that two of Kentucky’s freshmen (Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel) would put their name into the NBA draft and two (Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress) would return to UK for their sophomore seasons. Now he’s had a chance to watch Kentucky coach John Calipari’s next No. 1 recruiting class that includes six McDonald’s All-Americans and he offers his insights on those players and their futures.
Question: Which of Calipari’s newest players has the most work to do before he can reach the next level and which one perhaps has the most untapped potential?
Isaacson: “Marcus Lee has the most work to do, but you can see by the raw ability and athleticism why many are high on him. As for untapped potential, Lee is there, as well Dakari Johnson. Johnson has a lot of the physical tools you want, but he relies on the physical way too much right now. He has to put a lot of work into the skill part of his game.”
Question: Can all six of the McDonald’s All-American signees thrive on the same team?
Isaacson: “I don’t know if all six will ‘thrive,’ but in the best case scenario they all get better. The reality is there won’t be enough minutes for every one of the freshman to get exactly what they need to get better, but there will be enough for all to take some steps in the right direction.
Question: How good is Andrew Wiggins and could you see him fitting in well with the six UK commits if he decides to also sign with Kentucky?
Isaacson: “Wiggins is a very good player who still has plenty of room to keep getting better. I think Wiggins has the demeanor and attitude that he can fit in easily with whatever group of players surround him. If he heads to Kentucky, I would actually see him having few problems. He is versatile and can find ways to make an impact from a variety of spots on the floor.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
NBADraftblog.com’s Ed Isaacson correctly predicted that two of Kentucky’s freshmen (Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel) would put their name into the NBA draft and two (Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress) would return to UK for their sophomore seasons.
Now he’s had a chance to watch Kentucky coach John Calipari’s next No. 1 recruiting class that includes six McDonald’s All-Americans and he offers his insights on those players and their futures.
Question: Could you just give me your impressions of each future Wildcat?
Isaacson: “Julius Randle: Skilled with good size, he can create matchup problems in different spots on the court.
“Andrew Harrison: Love the size at the point guard position, let’s him see the court and options easily. Has shown comfort in both the halfcourt and transition, but he needs to make better decisions with the ball at the college level.
“Aaron Harrison: Though Andrew is known as the point guard and Aaron as the shooter, their games are very similar. Aaron has the ability to hit the open jumper, but has shown that he can create off the dribble and sees the floor well.
“James Young: Needs to get stronger, but likes to attack the basket and he is very good finishing around the basket.
“Dakari Johnson: A physical post player, he uses his body well to create space and looks to finish strong around the basket. Footwork still needs to improve, as well as understanding how to defend in the post.
“Marcus Lee: Athletic and raw. Needs to get stronger, but his leaping ability makes him a threat around the rim on both offense and defense.”
Question: Is it too early to for folks to be talking about Andrew Harrison and Julius Randle both being potential top 10 picks in 2014?
Isaacson: “Is it too early, absolutely, but that won’t stop it from happening. If both make the same progression their freshman year that they did during their high school years, it is a legitimate possibility.
Question: Are all six of these guys future NBA players?
Isaacson: “I will say all six have potential to be future NBA players, but if there is anything we have learned by now, is that you can’t tell how things will play out once they get to college.”
Saturday: More with Isaacson on which new player has the most untapped potential, how the super six can thrive on the same team and how Andrew Wiggins might fit at UK.
By LARRY VAUGHT
The more international basketball he got, the better Julius Randle figured it made his overall game. He averaged 14.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — both team highs — and shot 54 percent from the field in five games during the 2012 FIBA Americas Under 18 Championship to help Team USA win the gold medal in Brazil. He proved that was no fluke by scoring 19 points on 9-for-17 shooting, pulling down a team-high eight rebounds and blocking one shot for Team USA in a 112-98 loss to the World team in the Nike Hoop Summit April 20 in Portland.
“In international ball, the guys are big and stretch the floor with the way they shoot the ball,” said Randle, one of six McDonald’s All-Americans headed to Kentucky. “The international teams have players that can do a lot of things. Me playing against them shows me a lot of things. But no matter what, I always play to win. It is good, especially if you want to do something like play in the Olympics. It’s good to know how they play because what you see on TV is one thing but it is a different game playing against them. It won’t be like that at all in college. You see more international guys playing in the (United) States and they can play. So while I think playing these international games helps me, college and NBA are different games from the international game.”
Randle missed most of his senior season with a foot injury before returning in time to lead Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, to its third state title in four years. He played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and then was co-MVP in the Jordan Brand Classic.
“It was lot of hard work to get back here and I still have a long way to go. It has been an amazing experience and a great ending to my high school career. I could not ask for anything more,” Randle said. “I have signed with Kentucky, so all that stuff is settled. I am just happy to play basketball and focus on our team next year and helping us win. I was really honored when they asked me to play in the Nike Hoop Summit. I know all of the history of the players that have come through this game. It’s a huge honor for me.”
Randle knows the all-star games were also a chance for UK fans to get a look at him. ESPN has him ranked as the nation’s third best prep player, Scout.com has him No. 5 and Rivals.com has him No. 2
“It’s good for the fans to get a feel for how I play. Next year at Kentucky I am going to come hard. Just go out and play hard and help my team win,” Randle said. “But for our fans next year to get an early feel for how I play was great.”
He also got a chance to play with or against future UK teammates Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson and James Young in the last few weeks.
“They are all great players and can all do a lot of great things on the floor. It kind of surprised me how good they all are. I can’t wait to play with all of them,” Randle said. “I know there is a lot of excitement building about our freshman class, but we are not paying attention to that. We know we still have to go in and win. That’s all we are going to focus on is winning. We all like to focus on team play and getting better.”