The roster is finally set (maybe), and we’re just over a month away from Kentucky revealing its 2022-23 team with a four-game exhibition trip to the Bahamas, which means it’s officially Whisper season. Now that the workouts and workouts have begun, the little birds of Lexington are chirping and Athleticism listened closely to three of them nesting inside the Joe Craft Center to get a sense of how these Wildcats are moving forward.
There are six returning scholarship players, including five juniors or seniors, plus one senior transfer, making it a super veteran team, and “our returning guys look really good, really focused, and they’re just a very good group of children, ”explains a source close to the program. Five-star freshmen Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston impressed with their college-ready physiques and “will be playing great,” says another. “Both have big benefits that you can see in little flashes.”
We can also confirm that newcomer Adou Thiero, who became a major recruit almost overnight thanks to a strong growth spurt, continues to grow actively. Everyone in the building is thrilled to see what it finally becomes. And John Calipari, 63, who coached Thiero’s father in Memphis and is entering his 14th season at Kentucky, is energized by what he’s seen so far. “He’s already training them like it’s December,” said one observer. “He trains them hard as hell.”
It’s easy to be hopeful with the Unanimous National Player of the Year returning for another season. Oscar Tshiebwe averaged 17.4 points, 15.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks as a junior and has been the most dominant rebounder in college basketball for decades. With a dorm full of trophies, how motivated will he be this season? “Oh, we challenge him,” a source said. “We make it really uncomfortable. He’s on the floor, dribbling, passing, shooting, making decisions. We stretch it.
Tshiebwe is back in school thanks to both his NIL value and his lack of NBA value, as he’s not seen as a modern big man with perimeter skills. He averaged less than one assist per game during his career and never attempted a 3-pointer in college. He was a 37.3 percent (19 of 51) shooter on 17-foot jumpers at the 3-point line last season, in the 87th percentile for big men. He clearly wants to prove he can do more, but it will be interesting to see how Kentucky balances out allowing him to expand his game without losing too much of what he does best. For now, if the desire to develop new skills is keeping the nation’s most productive player hungry, that seems like a worthy endeavor.
Sahvir Wheeler, who has led the SEC in assists each of the past two seasons, also wants to show off improved outside shooting. He will become a 1,000 point, 500 assist guy in the first month of this season and is a major pest on defense. He started 72 games and recorded nearly 2,700 combined minutes at Georgia and Kentucky. But he’s also a career 27.5 percent 3-point shooter. The good news is that Wheeler became much more sensible and efficient pulling him in the second half of last season. He hit 12 of 29 3s (41.4%) to end the year after starting 4 of 22. Now what?
“He shoots well,” a source said. “He is as balanced as he has been. He looks really good, like what a veteran all-league playmaker should look like. The goal is to improve another 10% (shooting), and I think he will because he has a much better balance right now.”
Where the undersized Wheeler must rely on speed and craftsmanship, his two new McDonald’s All-American teammates, Wallace and Livingston, marched around the already built-up campus like brutes. They also play like that.
“Chris’ ability to get down and Cason’s feel and strength, they’re really good,” a source said. “Chris is getting used to the terminology and the pacing of things, but his physique when he goes down is real. He and Cason are a problem to keep in front of you. They’re not normal freshmen. And this is the first time Cason touches the weights. What you see is just natural. You know what’s really impressive about him? He’s so stable, mentally and emotionally, like nothing’s going to shake him. Nothing’s too big for him. this child.
Jacob Toppin, the late-blooming athletic freak, might be the most intriguing player and biggest X-factor on the roster. He averaged 6.2 points and 3.2 rebounds in just 17.7 minutes per game last season splitting the time four with Keion Brooks, but he had several ‘wow’ moments and averaged 14 .0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per 40 minutes. Toppin declared himself for the NBA draft this spring, trained in California and worked for several teams before returning to school. The word is that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with a “show us what you can do as a full-time guy” consensus.
“Jacob’s confidence is at an all-time high right now. These workouts have helped him a lot, given him a lot of confidence in who he can be,” a source said. gym,” said another, “and has been a really good leader for us since coming back.” Toppin also regularly puts on a jaw-dropping dunk show in practice, unsurprisingly. The next evolution of his game: Although Toppin attempted just 23 3-pointers in two seasons at Kentucky, the rebounding 6-foot-9 forward becomes a much more intriguing prospect (and difference maker for the Cats) if he can turn his percentage around ( 34.8) on more trials.
CJ Fredrick could help him with that. The Big Ten’s most accurate marksman over two seasons at Iowa, Fredrick is on a steady acceleration toward a full return to practice after tearing his hamstring in November. He started 52 games in college and shot 46.6 percent from 3 in his career, but missed all of last season at Kentucky. Could the layoff have affected his stroke? “Not at all,” replies an observer. “He can really shoot it. Yeah, he really can. Like, yes, he really, really can. Word is that the program’s new strength and conditioning coach is also helping Fredrick take a smart and safe approach to coming all the way back so he can last a full season for the Wildcats – which will be critical to the success of this team. “He’s a better defender than I thought,” a source said, “but he’ll play because of his shooting.”
Illinois State transfer Antonio Reeves will be another guy Kentucky is counting on for buckets. He was one of the top 20 scorers in Division I last season, averaging 20.1 points and shooting 39% from 3-point range, 81.8% from the line. The 6-foot-6 All-Missouri Valley selection has improved in field goal, free throw and 3-point percentages every season in three years at the mid-major level. The question is whether he can level up seamlessly. Early signs indicate yes.
“Antonio is better than I thought,” a source said. “Much better. It’s just his shooting ability, his ball handling. He can play the point if you need to, even at this size, which is nice to have in your back pocket.
Another luxury these Cats have: Daimion Collins, a 6-foot-9 pogo stick with a 7-4 wingspan and a 43-inch vertical, a former top-15 rookie, back as a sophomore after playing very little last season. Once a 180-pound green bean, he has now eclipsed 200 pounds and says he feels much more comfortable around college-sized big men. “He’s going to play more,” a source says. Collins averaged just 7.4 minutes as a rookie, but he showed some flashes: 14 points, six rebounds, four blocks and three assists in his second college game against Robert Morris; 10 points and six rebounds in just nine minutes at Alabama. His per 40 averages are encouraging: 15.5 points, 10.9 boards, 4.0 blocks. Interestingly, Collins is under heavy scrutiny as a legit fourth stretch this summer.
“He’s getting stronger and stronger,” a source says, “and he’s been working on his shooting a lot. This sweater looks pretty good. Worth noting: Collins made 18 of 21 free throws last season (85.7%) and was a proficient shooter in high school, so there are encouraging signs he could become a real threat on the perimeter.
Kentucky’s other returning big man, junior Lance Ware, has apparently leaned into his role as a badass and dirty job. He’s been focused on bulking up and strengthening this offseason and gained some confidence on a basketball outreach trip to Brazil, where he dominated. The former top-50 rookie has played a minor role in two seasons with the Wildcats so far, but he’s an important locker room presence and an energetic guy whose per-40 averages were 9.5 points, 12, 0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. He also averaged 7.5 fouls and 3.2 turnovers per 40 minutes, indicating he might need to reduce his intensity a bit.
Ware and Thiero are probably the biggest mysteries, in terms of what role they can play. In Thiero’s case, much of it depends – pun intended – on how tall he is at the start of the season. The son of a former top-100 rookie (dad) and WNBA draft pick (mom) went from a no-star prospect to a four-star player during a high school season over the course of which he grew five inches. Listed at 6-foot-5, that’s already almost certainly wrong.
“He has knee pain due to growing pains because, yes, his growth plates are still open and, yes, he is still growing as we speak,” a source said. “And it’s not as much of a project as you think. Because he’s athletic, he can handle the ball and pass it, and nobody knows how big he’s going to get. Right now his shot is too flat, but we’re working on it. He’s an exciting guy to have on your schedule.
The late addition of Thiero gave Kentucky 10 scholarship players for the upcoming season. Many fans fear that this is not enough. But with no recruits available for 2022 and the transfer portal seemingly dried up, it looks like the roster is set. Where is it?
“I think we have enough parts – just gotta stay healthy,” a source said. “But recruiting is never over. There is always a possibility for one more.
(Top photo, left to right, Antonio Reeves, Jacob Toppin and Kareem Watkins: Courtesy of UK Athletics)