Resetting the Kentucky basketball recruiting board. Will Calipari get his superclass?

Michael Clubb/

The July recruiting season is in full swing in the world of college basketball. That means the rumor mill is heating up, and some top prospects could be joining the ranks of the committed very soon.

Kentucky, as always, is right at the center of the conversation.

The Cats came into the month with two high-profile commitments and a talented list of players they’d like to add to their 2023 recruiting class. By the end of July, it looks like some of those prospects will have arrived at their college decisions.

John Calipari started last week scouting top UK targets at a FIBA event in Spain and wrapped up the weekend stateside to check out some elite players on the shoe company circuits. With Nike’s signature Peach Jam tournament starting next week and other major grassroots events on the calendar this month, Calipari and the Kentucky assistants will stay plenty busy.

Here’s where things stand with UK’s 2023 recruiting efforts.

Kentucky commitments

The Cats have commitments from a pair of star guards in the 2023 class, and that two-player (for now) group is good enough to rank No. 4 nationally behind Duke, UConn and North Carolina.

The Blue Devils already have four commitments — all from top-25 national prospects — and they’ll be tough to catch for the top spot in the team rankings, but there’s certainly a path to that No. 1 position for Kentucky, which is still firmly in the mix for several five-star recruits.

Early in the 2023 cycle, this looked like a group that could provide one of those old-fashioned Calipari superclasses. Now that some high-profile decisions are near — along with an expectation of considerable roster turnover following UK’s upcoming season — the Cats are looking to lock up several recruits who could make a major splash from day one in college basketball. They’re off to a good start.

Robert Dillingham is as electric a scorer as Kentucky has had in recent years, and he’s the No. 7 overall player in the 2023 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. The 6-foot-2 combo guard from Hickory, N.C., can fill it up from all three levels and should contend for top scoring honors as a Kentucky freshman no matter who else is on the team for the 2023-24 season. He committed to UK last month.

Reed Sheppard was the first member of Kentucky’s recruiting class and is the son of former UK basketball stars Jeff Sheppard and Stacey Reed Sheppard, announcing his commitment to the Cats last fall, just a few months after earning a UK scholarship offer. Sheppard led North Laurel to a Sweet Sixteen appearance last season and has been one of the top players on the Adidas circuit the past two summers. He’s a versatile guard who can play multiple positions and should fit nicely with whoever ends up in Kentucky’s backcourt a year from now. Sheppard is No. 21 in the composite rankings.

Who’s next?

While all of the following four recruitments might not be wrapped up by the end of the month, a conclusion for each of these players should be coming very soon.

Aaron Bradshaw: The word in recruiting circles last week was that an Aaron Bradshaw commitment to Kentucky was imminent. There was plenty of credibility behind that buzz, but, obviously, the weekend has come and gone and Bradshaw is still —publicly, at least — open in his recruitment.

UK has received a few predictions from national analysts in the past several days and should still be considered the favorite to ultimately land his commitment. Louisville keeps pushing hard, however, and the Herald-Leader was told late in the week that not everyone in Bradshaw’s camp is fully on board with a college decision at this time.

That has prolonged the recruitment, but for how long? We’ll see. This could still be wrapped up for the Wildcats in a matter of days, though it’s also possible the 7-footer from New Jersey completes a couple more campus visits. Kentucky has reason to feel good about its standing, but any serious delays could alter the landscape. And the professional route — specifically, the G League — remains an option, too. Bradshaw is No. 15 in the 247Sports composite rankings.

Justin Edwards: Philadelphia-area star Justin Edwards ascended to the No. 3 spot in the newest 247Sports rankings and sounds like he’s closed in on a college decision. The 6-7 wing told that he plans to make his announcement sometime during the Nike Peach Jam, which is scheduled for July 17-24. Kentucky and Tennessee have been considered the two favorites for the past several months, with Auburn catching on as a possibility in recent weeks.

Edwards has said that Calipari has taken a much larger role in his recruitment recently, leading to speculation that the Cats are closing the gap on Tennessee, which emerged in the spring as the possible frontrunner. Last week’s revelation of a set commitment time frame hasn’t done anything to move the prediction needle in Kentucky’s direction. Yet. While the analysts who have already picked the Vols are sticking to that for the time being, there is certainly a sense of confidence emanating from UK’s camp, especially over the past few days.

Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso: Calipari’s first recruiting stop in the United States after returning from Spain late last week was Atlanta, the site of an NBA Academy event featuring Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso. The near-7-footer from Nigeria has skyrocketed in the 2023 rankings — now No. 22 in the 247Sports composite — and Kentucky is clearly establishing itself as the team to beat.

In fact, there remains considerable talk in recruiting circles that Onyenso could soon reclassify to 2022, pick the Wildcats, and be on UK’s campus for the 2022-23 season. If that happens, the immediate expectations would be minimal — the Cats have Oscar Tshiebwe, after all — but it would give the rapidly improving big man a chance to get adjusted to the next level without the pressure of playing in games, setting him up to be an impact player on the 2023-24 roster.

DJ Wagner: Still the most-talked-about prospect in the 2023 class, DJ Wagner remains in the No. 1 spot on the 247Sports composite list, and his recruitment is going to come down to Kentucky and Louisville. The narrative for the past several weeks has been that the Cardinals should be considered the favorites to land his commitment. U of L’s new head coach is Wagner family friend Kenny Payne, who quickly hired former teammate Milt Wagner (DJ’s grandfather) to his support staff. Up until last week, there had been predictions in Louisville’s favor from some prominent recruiting analysts, with varying degrees of confidence.

Through all that noise, Kentucky has remained steadfast in its own confidence that — when decision time comes — Wagner will be a Wildcat. Well, decision time is near, and the recruiting experts are starting to come around to UK’s way of thinking.

Starting Friday, there was a flurry of activity on Wagner’s national prediction pages, with several prominent analysts switching their picks from Louisville to Kentucky. That’s a major turn of events, especially with the expectation that Wagner has arrived at a decision and will make it public sometime during the Nike Peach Jam event that starts next week.

As much as this recruitment has gone back and forth — in the realm of public opinion, at least — it would be unwise for Kentucky fans to count Wagner in until he says so himself. But there’s no doubt the national recruiting community’s expectations are catching up to UK’s long-held belief that Wagner will be a Wildcat. And if that happens, Calipari could be on the verge of something very special indeed for the 2023-24 season.

Don’t forget about …

These recruitments might not end in the near future, but there’s been reason to like Kentucky’s standing up to this point in the process.

Ron Holland: A Texas forward with one of the biggest motors in high school basketball, Ron Holland bolstered his reputation as a hard-working player with his performances for USA Basketball over the past couple of weeks. He was one of the main attractions for Calipari on that trip to Spain and earned a UK scholarship offer during his visit to Lexington last month.

Holland is No. 11 in the composite rankings. Arkansas and Kentucky are getting the most buzz as of late as college destinations, while the G League looms on his list as a possible option. Even though Holland has already narrowed his options to five — Texas and UCLA are in the mix, too — it still seems like anyone’s guess as to where he’ll end up.

Ian Jackson: He’s not currently in the 2023 class, but no rundown of Kentucky’s top targets from that group can be complete without a mention of five-star shooting guard Ian Jackson, who was recently elevated to the No. 1 spot in the 2024 rankings and could ultimately reclassify up. The 6-6 prospect from Bronx, N.Y., was the leading scorer on the USA Basketball U17 team in Spain and has been viewed for a while as one of the most gifted offensive players in the country. He was also one of the very first players from the 2024 class to get a Kentucky offer.

Jackson, who turns 18 years old in February, has said he would like to visit UK soon after returning to the United States, and the Cats have made it clear that they would love to have him in either the 2023 or 2024 class. If UK does add Wagner — with Dillingham and Sheppard already committed — bringing Jackson into a crowded backcourt could be a tougher sell. He does have a lot of size and athleticism for the position, however, so perhaps Calipari could pull it off if the New Yorker does decide to reclassify.

There are a lot of moving parts here, and no decision — on a college or reclassification — is expected anytime soon, so this will be a waiting game, but one well worth following.

Others recruits to watch

Some additional 2023 players that Kentucky fans should still be keeping an eye on, with recruitments that — from a UK standpoint — range from wait-and-see to highly unlikely:

Xavier Booker moved up 35 spots — all the way to No. 2 overall — in the rankings, and Calipari made it a point to watch him more closely last month. There hasn’t been much indication that UK is poised to make a serious move in his recruitment, but the 6-11 power forward from Indianapolis is worth following for the time being.

Mookie Cook decommitted from Oregon late last month, and Kentucky was one of the first schools to re-establish contact. There was a time last year when UK looked like the clear favorite for Cook, who is from Portland, Ore., but plays for TyTy Washington’s high school alma mater in Arizona. Look for the Cats to continue to gauge the 6-7 wing’s interest, especially if they miss on Edwards, but all signs at the moment point to the G League as his next stop.

Kwame Evans Jr. was one of Kentucky’s original 2023 targets and visited Lexington last fall, but a commitment is likely coming next month and Arizona has emerged as the consensus favorite for the 6-9 forward from Baltimore.

AJ Johnson is a 6-5 point guard from Los Angeles who is playing like a possible top-10 national recruit this summer. There’s clearly some mutual interest between Johnson and Kentucky, and this is a recruitment that could heat up after the July period is finished, though UK’s future backcourt could already be full by then.

Isaiah Miranda — a 7-footer from Rhode Island — might have more upside than any other center in the 2023 class, and he’s No. 26 in the composite rankings. He’s moving to the Los Angeles area for his final season of high school, with Southern Cal getting some buzz as a possible favorite. There was a lot of Kentucky talk early in his recruitment, though that’s died down in recent months, with no scholarship offer coming Miranda’s way.

Andrej Stojakovic did earn a UK scholarship offer in April and has talked about plans to visit Lexington, but no date has been set yet. The 6-6 wing from Sacramento is the son of former NBA star Peja Stojakovic and ranked No. 25 in the 247Sports composite. UCLA is looking like a pretty clear favorite, though.

JJ Taylor — a 6-8 wing from Chicago — was one of the first 2023 players to land a UK offer, but he’s been absent from the grassroots circuit recently, and no one seems to have a handle on his recruitment. There’s been no indication in months that Kentucky remains a serious suitor.

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