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Jahlil Okafor

Trey Lyles photo courtesy Chris Howell/Bloomington Herald-Times.

Trey Lyles photo courtesy Chris Howell/Bloomington Herald-Times.

By LARRY VAUGHT

First came the DraftExpress.com speculation that Kentucky signee Karl Towns Jr. could possibly develop into the top pick in the 2015 NBA draft.

Now this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated lists what it considers the top five recruits for the next college basketball season. Towns is not one the list, but Indiana Mr. Basketball Trey Lyles — another UK signee — is along with Jahlil Okafor of Duke, Cliff Alexander of Kansas, Stanley Johnson of Arizona and Myles Turner, who has not picked a school (and remember that UK was actively involved in the recruiting of all five).

Here’s what Sports Illustrated had to say about Lyles: “Combines a diverse repertoire in the post (6-10, 245 pounds) with an advanced perimeter game. His strong ballhandling makes him an intriguing point-forward prospect.”

I got to watch Lyles play in three different events, including the Indiana state championship game, last season and came away more and more impressed. He will rebound. He will handle the ball. He will pass. He will make free throws. He can make 3-point shots. He will play defense.

And he understands the team concept because his father as well as his high school coach always emphasized that to him.

So while he’s not been as highly touted by some as say Anthony Davis or Julius Randle were, Lyles continues to impress more and more who see him and the idea of a point-forward in indeed intriguing.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Marian Catholic (Chicago) coach Mike Taylor thought everything about Tyler Ulis’ commitment ceremony to Kentucky Friday went well — including the school he picked over Michigan State and Iowa.

“I think he will work out great at Kentucky,” said Taylor Sunday. “Once he gets to campus, players are going to love to play with him. He is really creative.

“I am not sure he totally understands the great Kentucky basketball tradition. He doesn’t understand the complete history of Kentucky basketball, but the recent history is attractive to any kid. I think as the coaches lowered their eyes, they found a special player.”

The 5-9 Ulis is ranked No. 23 in the 2014 recruiting class by Sporting News. Scout.com has him No. 29. But Ulis showed his worth during the summer. He averaged 19.2 points and 6.8 assists at Nike’s EYBL Finals at the Peach Jam, including 22-point, 17-assist performance against top five prospect Tyus Jones, who countered with 24 points and seven assists.

Ulis always liked watching current NBA star Chris Paul play point guard and went to his camp last summer.

“He has started a relationship with him. He loves Chris,” Taylor said. “He came back and said if he had five more minutes playing one on one, he would have beat him. But you see a lot of the same things in their games. Never get in a hurry with the ball. Always in control of the ball. Kentucky fans are in for a treat when they see him.”

Ulis does not fit the size mold of one-and-done Calipari point guards. But there have been over 20 NBA players 5-9 or smaller and two — -3 Muggsy Bogues and 5-9 Nate Robinson were first-round draft picks. However, there has never been a 5-9 or smaller starting point guard on a national championship college team.

Taylor says not to worry.

“People will learn as they see him. His intelligence allows him to beat players to spots. Defensively, he knows where to be and how to beat people,” Taylor said. “There’s nothing wrong with cheating. Sometimes when you are short all along, you learn a lot of great ways to cheat on the basketball court, and they have served him well. He has played against bigger kids. He has played against big-name kids. He’s not vulnerable.

“I think he has impressed everyone who has seen him play. He challenges himself in every situation. A lot of people were just slow to get on him. I have been talking about him since he was a freshman. I knew how good he could be. It’s just funny how a lot of (recruiting) experts are afraid to take a risk because he’s 5-9.”

Taylor doesn’t think the spotlight at UK will overwhelm him, either.

“He stays in a nice circle of friends. He doesn’t see publicity,” Taylor said. “If he stays true to himself, he will be just fine and I think he will and will be good for his teammates. He has been a name player in Chicago. He’s used to a lot of eyes being on him.”

Those eyes include several other Chicago players that UK is also recruiting. Two of those players are 2014 centers Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander.

“He’s friends with them all and they all find ways to get together and play,” Taylor said. “If I was a kid, I would want to jump on board with him and play at Kentucky. Why wouldn’t you? And we are going to get him stronger and physically ready. But you open the gym door, and every day you’ll see a different play and pass from him. He can do what he needs to do.”

Ulis and Marian Catholic will be in western Kentucky Jan. 11 for the McCracken County Festival of Hoops.

“Tyler will get an early taste of fans in Kentucky and see how passionate they are, but it will also be a great introduction for fans to see him play,” Taylor said.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky coach John Calipari has indicated he wants to sign six players in 2014 because of expected early defections to the NBA again.

Despite the loss over the weekend of point guard Emmanuel Mudiay to SMU, he’s already got a good start with 7-foot Karl Towns of New Jersey, a consensus top 10 prospect in the 2014 class who has a wide array of skills and potential.

Kentucky seems well positioned with Indianapolis power forward Trey Lyles and is now a player for Indiana shooting guard James Blackmon. Both were Indiana commits at one time before re-opening their recruitment.

California small forward Stanley Johnson, like Lyles, is a consensus top 10 player. He was the first small forward in the 2014 class Calipari offered and doesn’t seem deterred by offers Calipari recently made to five-star Houston area small forwards Justise Winslow and Kelly Oubre. B

Johnson doesn’t plan to sign until the spring, but could give a verbal commitment sooner. He has Florida, Arizona, USC, Kansas, Oregon and UCLA on his final list with UK and most recruiting analysts think it will come down to UK or Arizona.

And don’t forget Mississippi shooting guard Devin Booker and Chicago centers Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander. Plus, Calipari had already offered Chicago point guard Tyler Ulis before Mudiay picked SMU.

Calipari has been so successful recruiting that losing Andrew Wiggins to Kansas last spring and now Mudiay to SMU could indicate a dent in his recruiting prowess to some. And there’s no way any coach can land six McDonald’s All-Americans again like Calipari did in this star-studded recruiting class that is now all on campus with the arrival of James Young along with twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison.

Losing Mudiay was a surprise, but it won’t be the end of Calipari’s recruiting success.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky has only one verbal commitment in its 2014 recruiting class — New Jersey power forward/center Karl Towns.

Yet perhaps the best indicator that Kentucky coach John Calipari is convinced he can put together an elite recruiting class again is looking at who is not coming to UK, especially since several sources close to Calipari have indicated that UK will likely sign six players in 2014 because of anticipated departures to the NBA.

Start with Angel Delgado, a 6-8 power forward with multiple ties to Kentucky who has committed to Seton Hall. He is a consensus top 50 player. Dana Dingle, one of Calipari’s former players at Massachusetts, is Delgado’s AAU coach. Dingle was also a high school teammate of UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua.

He had offers from Louisville, Miami, Virginia and several others before committing to Seton Hall.

Next there is 6-8 power forward Craig Victor, who committed to Arizona over the weekend.

He’s a top 25 prospect from Louisiana and had UK in his final five even though the Wildcats had not offered a scholarship.
In case you may have forgot, Victor is the player who said during the summer that”Kentucky is America’s team for all high school players. That’s the dream to play at Kentucky.”
He said high school players respect the job Calipari has done developing players and putting them quickly into the NBA. However, he apparently figured out a UK offer was not coming despite his lofty recruiting ranking.
Colorado four-star point guard Josh Perkins, who will play at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep this season, has UK in his final five along with UCLA, Minnesota, Gonzaga and Connecticut. He’s set to make his college choice Sunday, but still has no Kentucky offer.
While ignoring players that good would be puzzling for most schools, it’s not for Calipari and Kentucky.
Most recruiting analysts believe 6-4 Dallas point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, ranked No. 1 in the 2014 recruiting class by one recruiting service, is leaning to UK. He’s athletic, finishes at the rim and has a good mid-range jump shot.
California wing forward Stanley Johnson is a superb shooter from 3-point range who also has a terrific inside game. He’s also a potent rebounder.
Mississippi guard Devin Booker is a shooter/scorer who could play either guard spot.Chicago center Jahlil Okafor,  a top three player, continues to insist he is not a Duke lean and will visit UK in early September.Point guard  Tyus Jones, who wants to play with Okafor and is ranked only slightly behind Mudiay, can get inside to dish and finish shots. He’ll visit UK, too.

Former Indiana commit Trey Lyles, a power forward and top 10 player, will visit UK and might even be a UK lean. Chicago center Cliff Alexnader continues to have UK  high on his list. He was at Big Blue Madness last year and also came to the UK-Florida game.
Texas scorer Kelly Oubre got his scholarship offer in July. He’s not set a visit date.
Rashad Vaughn, a 6-6 wing player who will play at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas with Oubre,  has unlimited shooting range and some think he’s much more interested in UK that he has let on since he has yet to narrow his college choices.

And now there is Indiana guard James Blackmon Jr., the son of former Kentucky player James Blackmon,. He originally committed to Indiana when he was a freshman but has  decided to open his recruitment. He is a prolific shooter and made it known quickly he wanted the offer from UK that he got.

That list of prospects is why having Delgado, Victor and Perkins pick other schools is not seen a problem by Calipari because he believes he’s well positioned still to make another run at a No. 1 recruiting class.

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2013/08/17/2771362/cats-recruit-delgado-picks-seton.html#storylink=cpy

By LARRY VAUGHT

Chicago center Jahlil Okafor, the consensus No. 1 player in the 2014 recruiting class, now plans tol take an official visit to Kentucky on Sept. 9, the same time UK will host a bevvy of NBA players for what has turned into an annual alumni charity game.

The 6-11 Okafor has UK, Duke, Arizona, Baylor, Michigan State, Kansas, Ohio State, Kansas and Illinois left on his college list.

Okafor, who has also planned an official visit to Baylor, has become friends with 2014 UK commit Karl Towns and has said numerous times the two could play together in college. He’s also good friends with Tyus Jones, one of the top point guards in the 2014 class.

 

uk basketball logoBy LARRY  VAUGHT

One of the top prospects in John Calipari’s 2014 recruiting class, center Cliff Alexander of Chicago, will play twice in Kentucky this season.

His Curie Metropolitan High School team will return to the Marshall County Hoopfest in Benton Dec. 6-7 and again for the Jan. 10-11 McCracken County Hoopfest.

The 6-9, 230-pound Alexander played this summer with 6-11 center Jahlil Okafor, the nation’s No. 1 prospect. Yet he’s still become one of the nation’s top targets because of his size, power and mobility. He’s an aggressive rebounder.

Alexander is being pursued by Michigan State, Duke, Ohio State, Illiniois, Louisville, Arizona, Baylor, DePaul, Kansas, Memphis, Arizona and others.

Recently Alexander told media members at an AAU tournament what he liked about UK and Louisville.

On Kentucky: “Coach Cal is a great guy. I love the campus. A great practice facility. I worked out there when I went down there. He’s a great guy. I love the coaching staff.”

On Louisville: “Louisville, same thing with those guys. Me and coach (Rick) Pitino have a great relationship since they started recruiting me. We’ll go there from there.”

He’s been working on developing a mid-range game, something he indicated at last year’s Marshall County event that he needed to improve. He’s listened to high school coach Mike Oliver’s plea for him to get a 12- to 15-foot shot.

Also scheduled to be at the Marshall Hoopfest is Dallas Prime Prep Academy and star point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, another target of both UK and Louisville. Prime Prep also features 6-0, 235-pound junior forward Elijah Thomas, a top 10 player in the 2015 recruiting class.

Huntington Prep, and five-star prospect Jalen Lindsey, is also scheduled to be back at Marshall County and will also play in the first McCracken County event.

Louisville Ballard and guard Quentin Snider, who just de-committed from Louisville, is also scheduled to be back at the Marshall event.

By LARRY VAUGHT

One player Kentucky coach John Calipari paid particular attention to at the Peach Jam was California small forward Stanley Johnson, who will visit UK for Big Blue Madness. He’s ranked the No. 8 player in the 2014 class by Scout.com and Rivals.com. Johnson led all scorers at the Peach Jam with a 25.6 points per game average in five games. He also was third in rebounding at 10.2 per game — just ahead of both Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander, two other UK targets.

Johnson is considering attending Arizona, Duke, Florida, Kansas, Oregon, UCLA and USC along with Kentucky. He’s expected to make his college choice in January after making his five official visits.

“He is athletic and skilled at both ends of the floor with a motor,” long-time college basketball  Dick Weiss said. “Cal is always looking for the next Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Johnson is a USA Basketball kid who played on two championship teams. He was the sophomore of the year in California. He was the best player at Peach Jam. His nickname is ‘Showtime’ and he really is highly skilled on both ends of the floor.”

Weiss isn’t sure who else Calipari might target the most in the 2014 recruiting class even though many are already speculating that Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison could all be lottery picks in the 2014 NBA draft.

“My guesses for other targets would be power forward Cliff Alexander of Chicago, guard Rashad Vaughn of Minneapolis, power forward Trey Lyles of Indianapolis, guard Devin Booker of Mississippi and point guard Emmanual Mudiay of Texas. And it won’t be long before 7-0 Myles Turner of Dallas, who some people are calling the second coming of Anthony Davis,” Weiss said. “Kentucky will try for Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, but I am guessing Duke for both.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

New Jersey prep standout Karl Towns Jr. got a feel for what Kentucky basketball was like when he was part of the Dominican national team last summer that trained at UK and was coached by John Calipari.

However, he knows he’ll get an even better feel for the UK fans Saturday when he plays in the Red State Blue State Series at Broadbent Arena in Louisville. His St.  Joseph’s team will take on Ballard featuring Louisville commit Quentin Snider at 3 p.m. followed by Whitney Young (Ill.) that features Jahlil Okafor, the nation’s top-ranked junior, against Evangelical Christian (Tenn.) and top five sophomore Skal Labassiare.

“I  just really can’t wait to play in front of my soon to be home crowd,” Towns, a 7-0 junior said. “I can’t wait to see the turnout and to be in the Kentucky atmosphere. It will be a special moment. My team is very excited to be coming to Kentucky. They can’t wait to see where I will be playing in a couple of years, and we get to play a great team. I had no idea something like this would happen. I thought they were just playing with me when they told me at school we had a game in Kentucky. I can’t wait.”

Kentucky fans likely cannot, either. He is an extraordinary player who felt comfortable playing against NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in an Olympic exhibition game last season. Earlier this season he had a quadruple double — 16 points, 17 rebounds, 11 blocked shots and 11 assists. To put that in perspective, there’s never been a quadruple double at UK and has only been one triple double. In NBA history, there have been only four quadruple doubles.

Towns had another game in January where he had 31 points, 17 rebounds, eight blocks and four assists. After his quadruple double, he came back with 23 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks. Last week he had a game with 20 points, 18 rebounds, 12 blocks and eight assists — and didn’t play in the fourth quarter because his team had such a big lead. His coaches and athletics director even reviewed that game tape to see if he might have had more assists to have made that game another quadruple double.

Towns said the quadruple double was “one of those special moments” he won’t forget.

“It’s something I will probably tell my kids and family about for years. It was kind of surprising and made me realize all the work I’ve put in has paid off,” Towns said.

He announced in early December that he would play at Kentucky and reclassify from the 2015 recruiting class to the 2014 class. He says those decisions have taken a lot of stress off him this season.

“I am not worrying about anything except basketball. I have some flaws in my game, but at the same time they will be strengths in our championship run,” Towns said. “I am putting up good numbers, have pride in myself and am trying to make sure I play well and give my team all I have every game.”

He plans to have that same philosophy against Ballard, one of the top teams in Kentucky, and knows what he hopes UK fans will leave Broadbent Arena saying.

“That I am a very versatile player. I didn’t just go to Kentucky because I am big guy. I am very versatile and can do anything on the court that the coaches ask. People from Kentucky know I can play. I just want to play the game I know how to play and play St. Joe basketball. We win and lose as a team. I want to do best and let Kentucky fans see I always try to do my best,” Towns said.

He’s not sure how much time he’ll have to interact with UK fans, but he wants to meet as many as possible.

“I always enjoy meeting fans. I just hope it happens so I can. think at end of day I will push Coach to do it. I love interacting with fans. When family is not there, the Kentucky fans be there and supporting you. I try to give back to fans all I can,” Towns said.

* * *
Tickets for Saturday’s games are available at http://www.ticketmaster.com and at the box office at the Kentucky Expo Center.

By LARRY VAUGHT

Chicago talent scout Daniel Poneman was the first to post videos of a rising star named Anthony Davis on YouTube and predicted that Davis’ growth spurt after his sophomore season was going to turn him into a future star.

He was right as Davis led Kentucky to a national championship and became the first pick in the NBA draft. Now he’s following another Chicago product, 6-9 junior Cliff Alexander, that is making a dramatic climb in the recruiting rankings much like Davis did.

“The thing I love about Cliff is his competitive spirit and joy for playing basketball,” said Poneman. “In middle school, he was not even playing organized basketball. There was no projected career of greatness. Coach (Mike) Oliver pulled him off the playground and changed his life. I saw him as a freshman and could you see his raw talent. It was scary.

“He was almost a forgotten guy in the 2014 (recruiting) class in Chicago to contending for the No. 1 spot in America. Chicago might be one-two (with him and Jahlil Okafor). He is a hybrid of Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard. He attacks relentlessly. He has such a great frame at a young age. In a lot of classes, he would be ranked No. 1. Okafor is out of the world good. I saw (former Ohio State star) Jared Sullinger at this age and Okafor is far ahead of him and taller.

“But the thing I love about Cliff is that he is still creeping up the recruiting rankings and when I first brought it up to him that Okafor is at top of the rankings, he was quick to say, ‘I am coming for him.’ He wants the spotlight and wants that top spot.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari found time while working on a projected monster 2013 recruiting class to offer Alexander a scholarship this summer. Michigan State has been considered the leader for Alexander — just like it has for 2013 Chicago star recruit Jabari Parker.

“A lot of other kids might hide what schools they are leaning to and he has come right out and said it’s Michigan State and Kentucky,” Poneman said. “His profile picture on Twitter is him and (Michigan State coach Tom) Izzo.

“I think he would be a new type player Kentucky has not had because of his personality. He really loves the spotlight. He is natural. He believes in his ability and will talk your ear off and not take himself seriously. I think if Kentucky got him, Kentucky fans would love his personality and electrifying dunks. Put a good team around him, and Kentucky would, and I could see him being one of Kentucky’s all-time favorite players.”

Poneman, 20, has developed a wide network of contacts from high school players to high school coaches, AAU coaches, college recruiters and other scouts since he ventured into this realm at age 14 when he was a high school freshman basketball player. His name first went national in 2007 when he was featured in a Sports Illustrated article and his work has been written about many times since then.

He first went to see Alexander play when he was a freshman and Alexander did not play in the game.

“After the game the whole team was pointing at Cliff and saying he was the one I had to come back and see. He did not say a word. The first time I did see him play, it was immediately apparent he would be a special, special player,” Poneman said. “With Anthony, the first time I saw him he did not score a point. It took a few years before I realized how special he could be. With Cliff, it was clear right away and was just a matter of time before the rest of the nation figured it out.”

Poneman thinks Davis’ success at UK could impact Alexander, but not because both are from Chicago.

“Any player can see what happened with Anthony at Kentucky and that is a big plus,” Poneman said. “I worry about any guy trying to follow Anthony. I feel for Nerlens Noel next year because the bar is set so high. I hear people say he is a better shot blocker than Anthony, which is ridiculous considering Anthony just had the best shot blocking season of any college freshman ever. I think Nerlens is a nice player, but is no way is he Anthony Davis.”

He’s not saying Alexander is the next Davis, either.

“I think Cliff could come in at Kentucky and do great. I am not saying he will be the center piece of a national title team because he still has a long way to go,” Poneman said. “I think he will enjoy recruiting and not take himself too seriously. He is not a kid that will draw out the process. He’s taking all the attention with a grain of salt. He realizes all the big-time schools want him and he’s the kind of kid that when he knows what he wants, he’ll let everybody know. And right now he’s making it clear Kentucky and Michigan State are the teams at the top with him.”
* * *
Follow Poneman on Twitter @swagair.

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