Kentucky Basketball: Life Without Kerry Blackshear Jr.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 16: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #22 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Rupp Arena on December 16, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 16: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #22 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Rupp Arena on December 16, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Kerry Blackshear says no to Kentucky Basketball and chooses SEC rival Florida. What does life on the court look like without the Virginia Tech big man?

One week ago, back on Wednesday, June 20th, Kerry Blackshear Jr. from Virginia Tech was on campus visiting Kentucky. During the visit, murmurs spread: Hey, I think we’re getting Blackshear. The visit is going really well, think we’ll have a commitment by the end of the week. Comments of that nature were spewing from the behind-the-scenes faces of Kentucky basketball. Heck, even the dude that runs the official UK Athletics Twitter account followed Blackshear. Real important stuff, guys. Kentucky was going to land Blackshear…until they didn’t. Until Tennessee was the favorite, and then Virginia Tech players started chirping with some confidence, and then, out of nowhere, the mysterious big man silently committed to Florida, officially launching the 2020 Florida Basketball Hype Train.

So What?

KBJ was always going to be a luxury addition to an already loaded 2020 Kentucky Basketball squad. Generally, Calipari doesn’t bank on unusual recruitments in the summertime to find crucial pillars of the following year’s team. Yes, Blackshear would have been a welcome and positive addition to the 2020 roster, but he’s far from necessary. Without him, the frontcourt is a bit slimmer and Calipari will have to play a little bit differently than he’s accustomed to.

Alright, so how does losing Blackshear impact the current group?

Kerry Blackshear, despite not filling the typical Calipari one-and-one template, still holds the DNA of a Kentucky big man. Excellent rebounder, can score inside, 6’10-7’0, big bodied, tough, super skilled. Over the years, the names have rotated in and out of the program but the traits remain the same. Without Blackshear and stuck just with the current crop, Kentucky really doesn’t have a scoring big man. The three bigs we do have–Nate Sestina, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery–will each contribute in crucial ways but none of them will be the leading scorer, or heck, even one of the top three scorers next year. That is not a common occurrence for a Calipari-coached team.

Let’s just look back at our big men who have been one of the three leading scorers since Calipari arrived:

  • 2010: DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson
  • 2011: Terrence Jones
  • 2012: Anthony Davis
  • 2013: Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress
  • 2014: Julius Randle
  • 2015: Karl-Anthony Towns
  • 2016: Alex Poythress
  • 2017: Bam Adebayo
  • 2018: PJ Washington
  • 2019: PJ Washington

Every year, at least one of the big men has breached the top three on the team in scoring. Next year, as our roster sits, I wouldn’t expect one of the Sestina/Montgomery/Richards triumvirate to finish s one of the best three scorers on the team. Of course, my word means nothing and after this prediction, it’s probably more than likely that those are our three leading scorers.

Either way, I don’t see the post being a focal point in the offense like it’s been since the dawn of Kentucky basketball. I didn’t check past 2010, but I’m sure 90% or more of Kentucky basketball seasons have seen a power forward or center finish top-three in scoring. Next year, the attack will be, like I said, different than in previous seasons under the current regime–but that definitely doesn’t mean the team will be any worse. In fact, I’m fascinated to watch the 2020 team.

I actually believe next year’s club will be a lot more fun to watch on a daily basis. With scoring dynamo Tyrese Maxey and veteran defensive catalyst Ashton Hagans in the backcourt, Kentucky will be a terror on both ends of the court in that department. And this season we are loaded with wings. Kahlil Whitney is the blue-chip prospect of the bunch, and there’s even a documentary about him already. Meanwhile, Johnny Juzang is someone who’s been incredible in practice since reclassifying and looks the part of a serious multi-phase scoring threat. And Dontaie Allen is the in-state marvel who averaged over 40-points per game (before tearing his ACL) and won Mr. Basketball. I haven’t even mentioned Keion Brooks who could carve out a starting role as a rangy and switchable forward. Point being: the perimeter is in great shape. The bigs only need to provide complimentary play.

Here’s where I get excited. SMALLLLLL BALLLLL! Can we finally? Coach Cal, can, can we actually play some small ball? Well, it looks like we are going to have to. With the depth of talent on the wing, to get everyone their fair share of minutes, guys like Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks are going to have to play the 4. Both Brooks and Whitney are big enough to man the power forward position, but each is capable of playing on the perimeter as well, making the entire lineup much more versatile.

Say we throw Hagans, Maxey, Juzang, and Whitney out there together with a rim protector (Montgomery or Richards). That team is running, pushing the tempo, shooting three-pointers, and spacing the floor for Maxey and Hagans to penetrate. Offensively, it would be pure art. So many different ways to get a bucket and a seasoned Hagans setting the table. Defensively, this group might struggle, but both Montgomery and Richards showed enough last year to inspire confidence in their ability to rim run and block shots in a smaller role.

I left out Sestina, but he was a sniper for Bucknell from beyond the arc. Shooting the long ball at 38%, big Nate can specialize as a high-IQ stretch big man on offense who has the mental tools and physicality to compete on defense while also possessing above-average rebounding chops. He can be the modern stretch-4 that opens up the court for everyone else and can occasionally catch fire himself.

It sounds ludicrous, but I genuinely believe the pieces of the 2020 team fit better without Blackshear, a ball-stopping big man who has never played with another forward next to him. Seriously, at Virginia Tech, Buzz Williams played 6’5 three-point gunners at the 4-spot.

With the floor-spacing and versatile combo of Sestina/Whitney/Brooks at the 4 and a rim protector at center (Richards/Montgomery) combined with the potent offensive perimeter attack, Kentucky fills out one of its most diverse teams under Calipari. Even without Kerry Blackshear Jr., Kentucky is a title-favorite and every bit one of the two or three most talented teams in the entire country.