By LARRY VAUGHT
Not many single days have shaped the future of Kentucky basketball quite like Monday did.
First, it was good news. Georgia five-star forward E.J. Montgomery surprised many — but probably not those who had been listening to what the player or his father had been saying — by picking Kentucky over Duke.
Combine him with signees Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickley and Tyler Herro and coach John Calipari has a 2018 recruiting class filled with versatile player who area also outside shooters. It’s obvious — at least to me — that Calipari is putting more emphasis on recruiting shooters rather than just terrific athletes.
However, just a bit later Sacha Killeya-Jones was given his unconditional release from Kentucky and will transfer. To me, this was a big blow to Kentucky because Killeya-Jones certainly played well the final few weeks of the season when he got extended playing time because of Jarred Vanderbilt’s injury.
He would have been a third-year player with physical toughness and a knowledge of the system. He would have been the type of veteran player UK had with former in-state players Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins.
But Killeya-Jones, a former McDonald’s All-American, never seemed to be a player that Calipari was totally in love with. Certainly he praised him at times but he always seemed to have less tolerance for mistakes from Killeya-Jones than some other players.
Killeya-Jones had to figure — even with his productivity late in the season — that he would be behind Nick Richards going into next season as well as Wenyen Gabriel. Plus, he has to believe Montgomery was recruited to play, not play behind him. It could also tell us that Killeya-Jones believes P.J. Washington, who has put his name into the draft, and Jarred Vanderbilt both will be back next season.
Just a few hours after Killeya-Jones’ transfer was announced, word finally came that guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was putting his name into the draft and like Kevin Knox did last week, would hire an agent and not be back at UK next season.
Gilgeous-Alexander was easily UK’s best player the last three months of the season. Much like Eric Bledsoe, Marquis Teague and Devin Booker did, Gilgeous-Alexander played his way into the first round of the NBA draft and likely into the lottery. He might have exceeded expectations more than any first-year player has at UK under Calipari because almost everyone thought he would play behind Quade Green and Hamidou Diallo. Instead, he became UK’s leader and go-to player.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s departure was no surprise. His draft stock may never be higher. Same with Knox. Both enjoyed being at UK and I’m convinced seriously considered staying, but the money is just too much to walk away from.
Of course, his loss could perhaps be partially negated by Tuesday morning’s verbal commitment from Georgia five-star point guard Ashton Hagans. He’s a junior but is working academically to reclassify to the 2018 class so he would be at UK next year.
Getting Montgomery is a huge plus. After watching him three days at the McDonald’s All-American Game, I learned he’s a lot better than I thought he was and what a steal he would have been for Auburn if he had not recommitted after the FBI investigation hit before the season started.
Count me as one, though, who thinks losing Killeya-Jones is a big blow. Don’t underestimate what his experience and maturity could have meant. Willis contemplated the same type move after two frustrating seasons before blossoming into a key player for UK.
Unlike some UK fans who are throwing barbs at Killeya-Jones and wishing him good riddance, I am like more fans who hate to see him leave and believe he would have been a key part of next year’s team.
But Calipari survives. He adjusts. He reshapes the roster and a lineup of P.J. Washington, Keldon Johnson, Quade Green, Wenyen Gabriel and Montgomery would work for me. If Vanderbilt is back — and that’s not certain — or if Diallo decides to stay — and I don’t think he will — then the roster is really deep when you add Quickley and Herro plus maybe Hagans.
Kentucky is still going to be just fine next year without Knox, Gilgeous-Alexander and now Killeya-Jones. But it might have been even “finer” if Killeya-Jones was still going to be around.