Kentucky basketball: John Calipari has a lot to fix next season
CJ’s Dominique Yates and Jon Hale look at what went wrong for Kentucky this season and what needs to fix before next year?
Dominique Yates, Louisville Courier Journal
LEXINGTON – Perhaps no shortcoming of Kentucky basketball’s 2020-21 roster played a bigger role in the team’s abysmal 9-16 record than the lack of a play-making point guard.
It should come as no surprise then that John Calipari is searching for a high-level transfer to add to the position next season.
Minnesota point guard Marcus Carr is among the top options in the transfer portal, but he is first testing the NBA draft waters. Other options could emerge in the coming weeks and months, but there is no sure-thing available to the Wildcats as of now.
Could the solution to the problem already being the 2021 recruiting class?
One of Kentucky’s two McDonald’s All-Americans in the class is four-star point guard Nolan Hickman. The Seattle, Washington native averaged 16 points and 3.3 assists per game for Wasatch Academy in Utah as a senior.
“He can be a solid player as a freshman,” 247Sports national basketball analyst Travis Branham said of Hickman in a recent interview with The Courier Journal. “I definitely wouldn’t have the expectation of a one-and-done by any means, but he is skilled, he’s smart, he’s crafty with the ball in his hands. He functions both on and off the ball as a scorer and playmaker. Has ability to get to his spots on the floor, especially in pick-and-roll situations. He can finish around the rim. He can put some pressure on the defense where the defense is going to collapse where he can then kick out for open shooters.”
All recruiting classes are not created equal, but Hickman’s No. 31 ranking in the 247Sports Composite offers both hope and reason to worry if he is the primary point guard for Kentucky next season.
Former Wildcat Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was ranked as the No. 31 prospect in the 2017 high school class. He quickly proved to be Kentucky’s best freshman in 2017-18, outplaying higher-ranked classmates and working his way into the No. 11 pick in the 2018 NBA draft after just one season of college basketball.
However, Devin Askew, Kentucky’s primary point guard last season, was ranked as the No. 32 prospect in the 2020 high school class. It would be no surprise to see Askew still develop into a high-level college player – Askew announced he was transferring from Kentucky last week – but he was overmatched as a freshman.
Whether Hickman is more Gilgeous-Alexander or Askew will say much about Kentucky’s need to add another point guard to the roster.
“The expectations need to just be he’s not going to be a one-and-done by any means,” Branham said. “He’s not going to be this special point guard that people are used to seeing with Cal, but his skillset, his ability are going to be able to have an impact at Kentucky, especially with their current guard situation.”
When Hickman committed to Kentucky in August, he was ranked as the No. 51 prospect in the 247Sports Composite.
UK coaches were confident behind the scenes that Hickman would have been ranked much higher had the COVID-19 pandemic not canceled the 2020 spring and summer shoe circuit leagues. Those predictions were supported by his subsequent rise in the rankings, but he is still ranked behind three other point guards in the class.
While many high schools had their basketball seasons altered due to the pandemic, Wasatch was able to play something close to a normal season with several games against marquee opponents. Wasatch qualified for the GEICO national high school invitational and finished the season ranked 12th in the MaxPreps high school top 25.
In Wasatch’s season-ending loss to Montverde Academy at the GEICO national invitational, Hickman was limited to just four points but tallied nine assists, four rebounds and two steals while battling foul trouble.
“We actually got to see him in person several times,” Branham said. “…They played a national schedule, they obviously played at GEICO. So, I don’t think anything impacted him, necessarily. He played far more than many kids across the country. He still gained plenty of exposure.”
While no one in the Kentucky program is likely to rule out the possibility Hickman can follow Gilgeous-Alexander’s lead in exceeding expectations as a freshman, it would be dangerous to count on it. After watching Askew’s struggles as a freshman, Calipari will undoubtedly want to add a veteran to pair with Hickman at least.
Senior Davion Mintz proved he could play the point when needed after totaling 23 assists and three turnovers as the Wildcats’ primary point guard in the final three games of last season. He could offer additional insurance at the position if he elects to use the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility, but Kentucky will need his 3-point shooting ability off the ball.
Signing Carr, or another transfer point guard of his caliber, as a transfer would likely relegate Hickman to a bench role as a freshman, but he figures to be an key piece for Kentucky next season either way.
“Whether he’s a starter or a backup is obviously to be determined, but there’s definitely going to be some ability there for him to come in and get some minutes and produce,” Branham said.