LEXINGTON, Ky. — As the search for at least one more frontcourt player for Kentucky’s 2020-21 roster continues, the fact that the Wildcats have two pretty talented power forwards coming in next season should not be forgotten.
With all of UK’s recruiting focus on adding a big (or two) who can have an immediate impact, the names Isaiah Jackson and Lance Ware have become secondary to the discussion over John Calipari’s next team. What can fans realistically expect of the incoming duo? And what type of addition would best complement each of their skill sets?
Jackson and Ware — both 6-foot-9 power forwards — are ranked No. 27 and No. 32, respectively, by Rivals.com in the 2020 class. They’re both high-upside players who are still just scratching the surface of their basketball potential. They’re also — as of now — the only true frontcourt players for Kentucky’s roster next season.
The next-biggest player on UK’s projected 2020-21 roster is Keion Brooks, who is listed at 6-7 and 205 pounds. Though he played some as an undersized “4” last season, Brooks was recruited as more of a wing and projects to play more from the perimeter in the future.
Calipari will surely add someone else to the frontcourt mix before next season begins, but Jackson and Ware are the only sure things so far.
Jackson — listed at 200 pounds — has the reputation as one of the most athletic post players and best frontcourt defenders in the 2020 class. Rivals.com analyst Dan McDonald recently called him “the most underrated post player in the class.” There are still questions about his game, especially if he’s forced to play the “5” role.
“This first thing is — is he ready physically?” Rivals.com national analyst Corey Evans told the Herald-Leader. “He’s always been a long and slender big man, so he’s not someone who’s going to be able to hold his ground great in the post. Offensively, I think he’s better than what people realize. I think he’s a bit more skilled than people realize. But, at the end of the day, the defensive side of the floor — that’s what’s made him who he is. He’s one of the best shot-blockers, and probably the nearest thing we have to a ‘1’ through ‘5’ defender in the high school game. So, I just think his range of capabilities on the defensive end is what’s going to get him on the floor.”
Evans said those defensive skills should translate immediately to the college game. He also said it would greatly benefit Jackson to play in a lineup with another big man — a common Calipari combination that could allow Jackson to do his thing defensively while taking away some of the offensive expectations.
Ware — listed at 215 pounds — could be a good complement in the post. Evans said he’s a solid offensive producer around the basket and “really, really good” out of the short corner and high post.
“He’s someone that Cal hasn’t had at that spot in a while, in regard to someone you can just throw the ball to and let him go to work,” he said. “We saw how great it was to have a developed Nick Richards this past year. He might not be to that extent — a junior year Nick Richards — but he’s a much more developed, polished freshman compared to Nick. I just think that his ability to play and produce in the half-court setting, his feel for the game, it’s all going to translate.”
That’s two promising power forwards. But they’re not centers, and — other than sticking Brooks or maybe four-star recruit Cam’Ron Fletcher at the “4” for a few minutes a game — there are no other players on the team to take those minutes. To put it bluntly …
“There’s no one on that roster capable of being a 25-minuter-per-game guy at the ‘5’ spot for next year,” Evans said.
Plenty of names have been thrown out there to bolster Kentucky’s future frontcourt.
The Wildcats are already among the finalists for Evansville transfer DeAndre Williams — a 6-9, 190-pound forward — and 7-footer Frank Anselem, who recently reclassified from 2021 to 2020. They both remain possibilities. Five-star center Makur Maker has been linked to UK, but he’s still likely to play professionally instead of college next season. Five-star junior Moussa Cisse — a 6-10, 220-pound prospect — also has UK on his list of finalists and is contemplating a move to the 2020 class.
“He could be that ‘5’, but again, we’re talking about a guy that — for as talented as he is — he should still be playing high school basketball,” Evans said. “So you’re asking him to go from being a high school basketball player to being a 25-minute-per-game guy in the SEC. That’s difficult, when it comes to maturity and experience and also confidence, which we’ve seen with Nick Richards.”
The “5” position, especially, is difficult to transition into at the college level. Post players typically mature and evolve a little bit more slowly than guards and wings. Expecting a re-class guy to have a major impact as the main “5” at a place like Kentucky would be asking a lot.
“I think your IQ and feel for the game — the speed of the game is really fast,” Evans said. “And to be a ‘5’ as the back-line defender, to read and see things, that’s difficult.”
Evans also expects Cisse to end up at Louisiana State, if he reclassifies. “I still feel pretty confident that it’s LSU,” he said, adding that he didn’t really see any other 2021 re-class possibilities that could fill such a role for Kentucky in year one.
Wake Forest center Olivier Sarr appears to be the best option, by far, for Kentucky to fill that void. Evans said landing Sarr, who has confirmed his intent to test the transfer waters, would be the “ideal scenario” for the Wildcats. The 7-foot, 255-pound junior averaged 13.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game this past season. He wouldn’t be a sure thing to play right away next season, but he will apply for an immediate eligibility waiver with the NCAA and should have a good case after Wake Forest fired his head coach, Danny Manning, a couple of weeks ago.
Sarr has ample experience playing — and excelling — against the nation’s best competition and is willing to do the dirty work in the paint. “If there is a 20- to 25-minute guy out there for their needs, Sarr is the guy,” Evans said.
Every other major program in need of frontcourt help will also be pursuing him, however.
If the Cats can’t land Sarr, they’ll probably need another talented “5” to emerge as a transfer possibility. Or they’ll have to go with a smaller — or thinner, at least — frontcourt than Calipari is accustomed to playing.
Anselem is an intriguing prospect, but he weighs in at 205-210 pounds and is in only his fifth year of playing basketball. Rivals ranks him as the No. 133 player in the class.
“I don’t know if I would expect a whole lot out of Frank as a freshman,” Evans said. He did note that Anselem is used to being a utility player — he played alongside five-star recruits Jalen Green and Nimari Burnett this past season — and is unafraid to grind it out in the paint. “He’s accustomed to not being ‘the guy,’ and I think that’s fine with him.”
Williams averaged 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds as a sophomore for Evansville this past season, but Evans says he is far from the player UK needs to fill its “5” spot. “He wants a point-forward type of role,” he said, noting that he can play some around the basket but would rather play facing the rim. He would also need an NCAA waiver to play right away, but — like Sarr — his coach, Walter McCarty, was fired, so he could have a solid case for immediate eligibility.
For Jackson and Ware, landing any of these frontcourt prospects would help open up their games in their freshman seasons. Sarr seems like a perfect fit to play alongside the two newcomers. Anselem could provide a little help and possesses plenty of long-term potential. Williams wouldn’t solve UK’s need for a “5,” but he’d be another long, tall forward to share some of that load. And the Cats clearly haven’t stopped looking for help.
“I think that’s all Cal wants, really,” Evans said. “Anyone who has size and length and can make for an impact of any sort right now, they’re going to recruit.”
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