Kentucky coach John Calipari will be expecting big things from his returnees next season and it starts with Ashton Hagans.
“I think will have a breakthrough year based on the fact that he gets it now,” Calipari said Tuesday. “He’s going to be much more focused on things.”
The Kentucky coach also hopes Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Immanuel Quickley will follow the lead set by Hagans and added that Richards has an opportunity to experience a breakthrough campaign.
“The opportunity, the minutes, and where he is maturity wise and physically — he only started playing basketball when he was 14,” Calipari said. “He wasn’t like these other guys playing since like eight and nine. This kid started when he was 14.”
Richards drew comparisons to former Kentucky standout Willie Cauley-Stein, who didn’t start playing basketball until later in his prep career.
“Those similarities are there, but they’re different kinds of players,” Calipari said. “Both of them. If Nick is in the kind of position that is physically and mentally ready to do this, he blocks shots and rebounds above the rim.”
Calipari said it will be up to Richards to turn the proverbial corner and make an impact in what will be his third season in the program.
“He’s got this opportunity in front of him,” Calipari said. “He’s going to have to go and take it, but it’s still an opportunity. It’s his job to go take it. I believe he will. I believed in the kid probably in the first two years more than he believed in himself. I’m not the only one. I think a lot of people are saying with his size and length, who’s like him in the country? There is nobody. There’s no one like him in the country, so now it’s his chance.”
Of the four returnees, Calipari said EJ Montgomery was border line on coming back for a second season with the Wildcats.
“EJ (Montgomery), who went through the whole process, which I was happy he did, could’ve left his name in and would’ve had a chance for a first-round draft pick,” he said. “It wasn’t in the position that he thought it would be in, or wanted it to be in, so he comes back.”
He added that Montgomery “will be a difference maker on both ends because he can block shots (and) he’s quick to the ball.”
“He’s got to get physically stronger and mentally a little tougher,” Calipari said. “He’s got to be in some wars, all of those kinds of things. The upside for him is ridiculous, and I said it many times, I’ve got to find more minutes for him last year. I said it over and over. He’d come out and do stuff and I’d say he deserves more minutes, but it’s hard.
“The two guys he played behind were men, like grown men. He physically and mentally wasn’t where those two were. I told the people that were with him, you have any team call me and I will tell them why he should’ve played more. I would have supported him in any way because I think his upside is as much as (anyone). I’ve had about four or five guys maybe I would say were beyond where he is, but there’s not many that have the upside that he has.”
Calipari said Montgomery faced the same decision PJ Washington encountered last season when he opted to come back to improve his draft stock one year later.
“I told him, ‘This thing’s on you now. What’s happened for PJ (Washington) and the changes that he made for him and our team, I expect the same if not more from you,’” Calipari said.
He expects the same from Quickley.
“He played well, shot the ball well (and) he’s gotten better,” the Kentucky coach said. “Again, I expect him to have a breakout year. He did some really good stuff last year. A lot of this for these young kids is just a mentality you have to have.”
Calipari will have his most experienced team coming back since the 2014-15 season, one that will have plenty of size on both sides of the court.
“This could be one of the longest teams that I’ve coached,” he said. “I looked at Keion (Brooks), and shoot he looks at least 6-9, maybe 6-10. I mean, he’s long. So, we’re going to have a pretty long (group). When you talk the guys that we have, a pretty long team too.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.