LEXINGTON, Ky. — The biggest question for this Kentucky basketball offseason is a conditional two-parter.
First, will star guard Immanuel Quickley return to UK for a junior season?
If the answer to that one is “no,” the follow-up question is obvious: would the Wildcats have enough at the point guard position to justify their expected preseason standing as a Final Four-caliber team and top contender for a national championship?
“I think it would certainly be a little bit of a concern,” Rivals.com national analyst Eric Bossi told the Herald-Leader this week. “Devin Askew is coming in, and obviously he’s highly decorated and is going to be a good college player. But, at a place like Kentucky, that’s a lot of pressure on a freshman who’s maybe — at the college level — a little bit more of a combo guard than a true point guard, at least to me.
“And you’d be relying then on guys like BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke, who are very good handlers for wings, to be your secondary ball-handlers. So, ball-handling would certainly be a bit of a concern.”
Kentucky has a much-celebrated — No. 1 ranked, in fact — recruiting class led by those three backcourt prospects: Boston and Clarke, who are both top-10 national players, and Askew, a talented, competitive recruit ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 26 player in the class.
If Quickley — the Cats’ leading scorer this season and reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year — returns for a third year of college, he’d probably be the leading candidate to be UK’s starting point guard. And no matter how the positions shook out, the Cats’ backcourt would be loaded. His return remains a big “if,” however, and some of the latest rumblings surrounding his stay-or-go decision suggest that keeping his name in the NBA draft is the most likely scenario.
Quickley probably played himself into the draft with his stellar sophomore season, but there are still questions about how his game translates to the next level. At 6-foot-3 and 188 pounds, point guard would be his most likely NBA position, but he barely played that role in college. The uncertainty surrounding this year’s pre-draft process — Will there be a combine? Will there be individual workouts? — could make it difficult for Quickley to show NBA decision-makers what he can do at the point.
John Calipari acknowledged last week that Quickley played only about 5 to 8% — that was the UK coach’s estimate — at point guard this past season, because Hagans and Tyrese Maxey “were better in pick-and-rolls and creating shots for their teammates.”
Hagans and Maxey will almost certainly keep their names in the draft. Askew will be a very young college freshman, and there could be some growing pains. Everyone is pretty much in agreement that a Quickley return would allow him to showcase his on-ball skills while giving Askew someone to learn from as he transitions into the fishbowl nature of playing point guard at Kentucky.
Calipari might benefit most from a Quickley return — he’d have one of his best backcourts in a UK tenure filled with great backcourts — but the Wildcats’ coach says Quickley shouldn’t let that play a role in his decision.
“Would we be a better team, him being a point guard on this team coming back? Yes. But that’s not why he should make a decision,” Calipari said. “His decision is: ‘Is this the right time? Am I ready to succeed in that league? Am I mentally ready?’ Which I know he is. ‘Am I physically ready?’ Yeah. ‘Have I mastered my skills the way I need to?’ That’s the decision he would have to come back to. I think, again, one of the great kids that I’ve ever coached. One of the most grounded young men that I’ve ever coached.”
Let’s say Quickley goes pro. That would leave Askew, who doesn’t turn 18 years old until late July, as the only point guard on the roster. The 6-3, 195-pound prospect from California projects as an impact freshman and is as competitive as they come, but he’s not quite on the same level — at least, according to the recruiting experts and NBA draft analysts — as some of Calipari’s other highly touted point guards. Playing the lion’s share of the minutes at the most important position on the floor for UK right away would be a challenge.
“It’s a lot to ask for several reasons — not because he’s not talented enough or not willing to step up to the challenge,” Bossi said. “But he would kind of be the only guy, unless they could find a grad transfer or something like that to help him out. And he’s got nobody to mentor him on the team, in the process of, ‘Here’s what it takes to become a college point guard.’ There’s a lot to be said for having someone to learn by example and push you every day and things like that.
“Obviously, there will be other guys pushing him there, but no one at his position who can really understand what he’s going through in that adjustment.”
And even if Askew does pan out as a point guard capable of playing 30ish minutes per game right out of the gate, what does UK do when he’s not on the floor?
“That’s a really good question,” Bossi said. “I don’t know enough about how John Calipari would handle that to even hazard a guess.”
Boston and Clarke could play on the ball in a pinch, but that’s not the strength of either player. And it seems unlikely Calipari would go into a season with so much uncertainty at a key position.
There are (seemingly) no high school point guards left in the 2020 class that could come in and play right away at Kentucky, and there are no such players who are expected to reclassify up from 2021 in time for next season. That means, if UK needs another point guard, the transfer route would be the way to go.
There are plenty of names out there — more than 500 were already in the NCAA transfer portal, as of this week — but even that path, under these circumstances, could be difficult.
The biggest obvious problem is that very few of those prospective transfers could help UK next season. In a post on Rivals.com this past weekend, Bossi and two of his fellow analysts debated how much of an impact graduate transfers have really had over the past few years. The consensus: not much of one.
“The thing with grad transfers is — at the highest level — these guys haven’t really been difference-makers for teams that are trying to compete for national championships,” Bossi told the Herald-Leader. “They can plug a hole, and they can certainly be a role player and fit a need, but kind of relying on these guys to transform a team to a next-level team, it’s just been proven that that’s not the case so far. Now, there’s always going to be an exception to the rule, and somewhere along the way someone is going to break it. Texas Tech had a couple of guys as grad transfers that they almost won a national championship with, but they’re an outlier so far.”
Bossi acknowledged that there could very well be a “big name” point guard out there who isn’t yet in the transfer portal. (And keep in mind that — if the NCAA approves its “free transfer” rule — there could be additional, immediately eligible point guards to consider). But would UK bring in such a player to possibly play over Askew? Would such a player want to take the risk of coming to Lexington and losing minutes to the talented freshman? Would any player sign on — especially in his final year of eligibility — for a backup role? It could be a tough sell on UK’s end.
“But it may be something that they have to look into doing,” Bossi said.
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