By LARRY VAUGHT
Maybe he’s not as fast as past Kentucky point guards John Wall and DeAaron Fox because few players are. But just to have his speed compared to those two says a lot about Kentucky freshman guard Ashton Hagans.
Hagans, a one-time Georgia commit, can be a relentless defender as he showed in the Bahamas in August when he led UK in steals.
Kentucky coach John Calipari says Hagans, who is 6-3, reminds him some of Tyler Ulis because no matter what opponents tried, Ulis stayed with them just like Hagans can do.
“All of a sudden, he took the ball from you. Like, where did he come from? Tyler had to play angles and really had to be advanced in what was happening next because of his size,” Calipari said. “Ashton hasn’t done that yet. Ashton just mauls you. He knows to stay in front and to body you. He’s not afraid to be physical.”
That’s the way former UK guard DeAndre Liggins played. He was already at UK when Calipari took the job but was a key player on the surprising 2011 team that reached the Final Four.
“DeAndre was a little longer. DeAndre could guard three positions, maybe four if we had to,” Calipari said. “Ashton off the ball isn’t the same as he is on the ball, where DeAndre could keep you from catching it. He’d be just as good off the ball, but this kid (Hagans) just turned 19 and my man was 23 at the time, so in four years, I bet you Ashton would be able to do all that.”
He has the size Calipari likes in point guards to go with his speed and physical play.
“He’s a bullet. He has so much speed in the open floor. He’s a great two-way player, the kind Cal loves,” ESPN recruiting director Paul Biancardi said.
Hagans only took 15 shots in four games in the Bahamas in August but he had 17 rebounds, 10 assists and eight steals. His aggressive defense and court hustle impressed Calipari so much that one game when Hagans only had three points, Calipari still told the team Hagans had the biggest impact on the game of any player.
Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy says Hagans is unique defensively.
“I don’t know think I have seen many players with hands like that. He just has a real feel for how to get the basketball away from his opponent. One of the ways you can measure this is by the number of different angles he takes when he was taking he ball away from guys. It isn’t always the same thing and not many guys can do that,” DeCourcy said.
Hagans says Kentucky has been a “crazy, eye-opening” experience for him since arriving on campus in June. He was amazed when some UK fans “flipped” a car after the UK football team beat Florida in September to end a 31-year losing streak.
“I was shocked by flipping the car. I can only imagine when basketball season comes around what it might be like after big wins,” Hagans said. “The older guys have been telling us about the fans and how everything will be. They said Big Blue Madness is when the crazy really starts and then never lets up until the season ends. Anywhere you go, somebody knows you. The fans are friendly, but they like to talk to you a lot.”
Not only has Hagans never played with as much overall talent as he is this year, but he’s also not had chances to play with elite bigs like UK has with P.J. Washington, Reid Travis, Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery, another freshman from Georgia.
“Now I have four beast-like guys on the inside,” Hagans said. “That’s why I am so ready for the season to start already. With the bigs being that good and the guards we have, it is just going to make my job easy. I don’t have to score but when the chance to score comes, I can and I will. But I will be happy just to feed my teammates the ball. That just makes my game better and easier. Cal told me I just have to play my role and I have told him I will do anything for my teammates. They all know that, too.”
Getting a chance to play with Montgomery has special appeal to Hagans. They tried to play AAU together but it never worked out and Hagans even said they had talked about going to high school together.
“We had a lot of discussions before he committed to Kentucky (in the spring) and I was trying to get finished with everything (school-wise). Once he made his decision to come, I knew that was my chance to play with him finally. I have always wanted to play with somebody that could open up my game with the ability he has. That’s just going to make this year even more fun for me.”