Kentucky's No. 1-ranked freshmen class will have to grow up fast | Zagsblog
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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Tuesday / April 23.
  • Kentucky’s No. 1-ranked freshmen class will have to grow up fast

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    PHILADELPHIA — Throughout his time at Kentucky, John Calipari has been known for bringing in the best freshmen in the nation, developing them over the course of the season and building them into a team that is generally not only competitive but capable of making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament.

    It started with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in 2009 and reached its apex when the 2012 Wildcats squad led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist won the national championship.

    Calipari has relied on freshmen perhaps more than any coach since arriving in Lexington and that has led to four Final Fours and two national title game appearances. Nevertheless, this is Kentucky – a program with eight national championships and 17 Final Fours – and the expectation has been to win national titles with regularity, regardless of how inexperienced the roster is or not. Recent history suggests that the program may be at a boiling point having finished with a losing record for the first time in 32 years in 2021 then failed to get out of the opening weekend of March Madness in consecutive seasons, including the colossal upset at the hands of No. 15 St. Peter’s two years ago.

    Enter arguably the most talented and highest-ranked class of Calipari’s tenure led by five-star forward Justin Edwards, five-star guard D.J. Wagner, five-star forward Aaron Bradshaw (who has a foot fracture and may miss the start of the season), four-star guard Reed Sheppard, three-star guard Joey Hart, and a pair of high-scoring Overtime Elite prospects in Robert Dillingham and Jordan Burks. This is as deep a freshmen class as there is in the nation, but it is being tasked with bringing Kentucky back to national prominence.

    Maalk Wayns starred at Roman Catholic (Pa.) and then went onto a successful career at Villanova under Jay Wright. His first season as head coach at Camden (N.J.) after taking over for Knicks assistant Rick Brunson was Wagner and Bradshaw’s senior year that saw them play against many high-profile opponents, including Edwards and Imhotep Charter at Hagan Arena on the campus of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

    Wayns noted that Wagner, Bradshaw and even Philadelphia native Edwards have been playing at the highest level of basketball for close to four years now and the experience of having done that at such a young age already bodes well for them at Kentucky.

    “They have seen everything,” Wayns said this past weekend at the Philly Live event. “They have been playing on the national circuit and against all the top players in the country since they were kids. They put the work in, and they should have the ultimate confidence in themselves. DJ and Aaron should never waver in their confidence.”

    Wagner became the 42nd player in N.J. history to surpass 2,000 career points and joined his grandfather, Milt and dad, Dajuan, who is the state’s all-time leading scorer at 3,462, to reach that mark. The 6-foot-3 guard was once the top prospect in this class, and he brings a career average of 20.4 points per game and 227 three-pointers with him.

    Bradshaw, the 7-foot-2 forward, became a force with Camden after joining the program prior to his junior season and averaged. 12 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks as a senior. The two teammates helped Camden claim the NJSIAA Group 2 title, the 12th state championship of the Panthers’ illustrious history, as juniors. Bradshaw is dealing with a hairline foot fracture at the moment, but Wayns emphasized that he’ll be fine and “he’s going to work hard to come back.”

    Edwards is the most heralded of the incoming freshmen based upon his overall ability and 2024 NBA Draft stock. The 6-7 lefty forward is the highest ranked player of this group and projected to be selected in the top-5 of the 2024 NBA Draft, according to ESPN’s Jonathan Givony. He led Imhotep Charter to three Philadelphia Public League and two PIAA Class 5A state titles during his career. He averaged 17.7 points and 7.5 rebounds as a senior and finished second all-time in program history with 1,515 career points, behind only former Maryland guard Fatts Russell. His smooth shooting will be an essential element to Kentucky’s offense as evidenced by his 77 three-pointers made over the last two seasons.

    Imhotep head coach Andre Noble has won 472 games in 19 seasons and nine state championships – tied with Neumann-Goretti’s Carl Arrigale for the most all-time in Pa. basketball history. He feels Edwards will be doing exactly what he has been doing just at the next level as a nature progression in his career.

    “He’s the most accomplished player that we’ve ever had,” Noble said. “I think a lot of the things that he’s already used to he’s doing there. It’s him doing the same things he’s been doing but at a different level.”

    Calipari has flourished with his ability to relate to younger players and instill confidence in them. Noble stresses that Calipari gets players “to reach their potential over time and I think he’s going to do that with this group.”

    “The biggest thing for any kid is going to the best place that you want to go because you have that full buy-in,” Noble said. “Justin really believes this is the best place for him and he’s really excited about it. On those hard days or those days where it’s a grind, you have to believe in it, and he believes in Kentucky.”

    Sheppard averaged 22.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 4.0 steals and the 6-1 North Laurel (Ky.) product scorched the stat sheet in his career finishing with 3,727 points, 1,214 assists, 1,050 rebounds and 655 steals. Hart averaged 23.7 points per game as a senior in leading Linton-Stockton (Ind.) to the Class 2A state title game and the 6-6 wing closed out his career with 1,901 points. Burks avg. 27.1 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 52.6% from the field with the Bruins in Overtime Elite, which included a 42-point performance against the Falcons. The 6-1 Dillingham averaged 14.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.5 steals for the Cold Hearts. This Wildcats contingent is explosive and has the potential to score a lot of points, but they will have to rely on each other throughout the season with a thin returning roster.

    Compared to other Calipari teams, this group will have to grow up fast and develop as a cohesive unit if it hopes to contend as the roster will be extremely light on collegiate experience. Sahvir Wheeler transferred to Washington and CJ Fredrick decided to return to his hometown to play at Cincinnati. Oscar Tshiebwe, Cason Wallace, Chris Livingston, and Jacob Toppin chose to remain in the 2023 NBA Draft and Antonio Reeves could leave and play for another program as a graduate transfer. This will be an unorthodox season for the incoming freshmen as past classes had veteran leadership to look to when things weren’t going well.

    Wall and Cousins had Patrick Patterson to lean on while Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist could look to Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Darius Miller for support. Karl Anthony-Towns, Devin Booker and Co. had Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress during a season where it began 38-0 before losing to Wisconsin in the 2015 Final Four. That differed from the past two seasons as Tshiebwe was the leader of teams that relied on experienced players but came up well short of expectations in 2022 and 2023, and the only freshman who was an integral part of the rotation was TyTy Washington during that run.

    There is, however, one outlier in Calipari’s tenure where the majority of the rotation was freshmen and yet they played in the one game that matters most, both to the program and fanbase. Kentucky made it all the way to the 2014 national championship before losing to UConn and that team was led by five key freshmen in Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, and Dakari Johnson along with sophomores in Cauley-Stein and Poythress, who had just come off a loss to Robert Morris in the opening round of the NIT the year prior.

    It’s a lot to ask of any freshmen class to play with veteran maturity in their first collegiate season, but if there is one thing that makes Calipari better than almost any coach in the history of college basketball is his unmatched ability to get freshmen to buy into what he’s preaching and become a team. Wayns thinks that will eventually happen and more so because this group has been playing at this level for much of their careers.

    “These kids are gamers and they’ve been big-time kids for a while,” Wayns said. “These guys are competitive, and the thing is they like to play defense. That’s the biggest thing when you go to college is that sometimes stars don’t want to play defense, but these guys take pride in defense. They will be able to come in and compete from day one.”

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.

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