Why Kentucky basketball's four incoming transfers decided to play for Wildcats in 2021-22

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — By now, Kentucky basketball fans have grown accustomed to John Calipari remaking his roster every offseason. 

But the Hall of Fame coach has embraced the latest trend in college basketball recruiting to try and build a 2021-22 team capable of returning the Wildcats to national relevance following an abysmal 9-16 season. There will still be All-American freshmen arriving in Lexington this summer with high expectations, but the bulk of the new faces on the roster have come through the transfer portal.

Calipari has signed four Division I transfers: West Virginia forward Oscar Tshiebwe, Davidson guard Kellan Grady, Iowa guard C.J. Fredrick and Georgia point guard Sahvir Wheeler. Recruiting top-level talent has long been a strength of Calipari’s, but wooing transfers to Kentucky brings its own set of challenges.

Here is a closer look at the role each transfer could fill for the Wildcats next season and while they picked Kentucky in their own words.

C.J. Fredrick

Iowa's C.J. Fredrick, left, dribbles past Ohio State's Justin Ahrens during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

How he fits at Kentucky: Shooting has frequently been a weakness for Calipari’s Kentucky teams, but the UK coach made no secret of his desire to fix that problem this offseason. Three of the four new guards on the roster are considered plus shooters, but Fredrick is probably the best of the bunch. Fredrick averaged 8.8 points and 2.3 assists per game in two seasons at Iowa after redshirting in his first season on campus. He shot 46.6% (83 for 178) from 3-point range. Fredrick is not guaranteed a starting spot next season, but the former Covington Catholic star should play significant minutes whether he starts or comes off the bench. 

Why he picked the Wildcats: “I just kind of wanted something new. I loved my time at Iowa. I had three great years there. I love the people there. They were great to me. They made me feel at home when I first stepped on campus. So, I’m forever grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me and how great the fans and the people were to me. I met my best friends at that school, so I wish nothing but the best for them. Obviously, they’re going to hold a special place in my heart for that. But like I said, I just wanted something new. I felt like it was best for me and my career to make this move and just develop more as a player, a teammate, a person.

“… Being around the area, I kind of know what it means to play on this team. I never thought it would happen. I’m just super excited that it did happen. But I knew that I was going to go to a team that needed me, and Coach Cal was actually one of the first people to call me when I entered the portal. The minute I talked to him, I could feel the genuine need for me to come in and help lead the team and help make shots and help spread the floor. That was something that I really liked and enjoyed talking with him about.”

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Kellan Grady

Mar 5, 2021; Richmond, Virginia, USA; Davidson Wildcats guard Kellan Grady (31) drives to the basket as George Mason Patriots guard Javon Greene (23) defends in the second half of a quarterfinal in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament at Robins Center.

How he fits at Kentucky: Worried about Kentucky’s normal lack of college basketball experience? How does a fifth-year senior with more than 4,000 career minutes played sound? Grady averaged 17.4 points per game while shooting 36.6% from 3-point range in four seasons at Davidson. He will face his own adjustment to the unique challenges that come with making the jump from the Atlantic 10 to college basketball’s most visible program, but at the very least, Grady should serve as a calming veteran presence in the locker room. He is also an early favorite to occupy one of the off-ball positions in UK’s starting backcourt, though he will face competition from Fredrick, Wheeler, Dontaie Allen and TyTy Washington.

Why he picked the Wildcats: “Coach Calipari’s track record of really developing players and giving them a really, really good shot at them becoming NBA players. Putting his players in positions to be put in next-level type scenarios on the court. It’s a very contemporary, pro-style offense. From what I’ve heard and from what I’ve gathered from other people who have gone through the Kentucky experience, Coach Cal really fights for you and advocates for you at the next level. It’s an opportunity to be on a really good team, competitive nationally and play at the biggest stage, which is something that I need at this time. I’m excited to be able to play in front of over 20,000 fans hopefully if this pandemic is in order by then. It’s just an overall great opportunity at the biggest stage that will challenge me to compete against the highest level of college basketball on a daily basis, and I think that’s what I need right now.”

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Oscar Tshiebwe

Mar 7, 2020; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) celebrates after a play during the first half against the Baylor Bears at WVU Coliseum.

How he fits at Kentucky: UK’s struggles at point guard drew much of the attention during the dreadful 2020-21 season, but the Wildcats also lacked the physical bruiser in the post that has been a mainstay on Calipari’s most successful teams. Tshiebwe, who enrolled at Kentucky for the spring semester and practiced with the team, should address that concern. He averaged 10.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game in 41 games across 1 ½ seasons for West Virginia. Tshiebwe’s production dipped during the 10 games he played as a sophomore, but the Mountaineers offense was clogged as coach Bob Huggins tried to play two traditional big men together. Pairing Tshiebwe with a stretch four like Keion Brooks could be key in unlocking his potential at Kentucky.

Why he picked the Wildcats: “For what Coach means, Kentucky isn’t for everyone. This place is for the people who really need to reap success, who really need something in their life. For me, being in this place is a blessing. It is hard work and a belief in God because the best gifts always come from God. God gave me a gift, and you need to work for it. So, I’m so happy being here and I feel like I deserve to be here and to help this team.

“… Kentucky was my school, my favorite school, my dream school since my freshman year in high school. I ended up choosing West Virginia, but look what God did. He sent me to the place I always prayed to be. So, I’m so happy to be here, and I know I wanted to be one-and-done since my freshman year, but the way God does things  differently than how we do things, we just have to find his way.”

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Sahvir Wheeler

Georgia guard Sahvir Wheeler (2) dribbles past Kentucky guard Devin Askew (2) during the first half at Stegeman Coliseum.

How he fits at Kentucky: Following the transfer of Devin Askew, the decommitment of McDonald’s All-American signee Nolan Hickman and decision of Davion Mintz to test the NBA draft waters, Kentucky was left without a point guard for next season’s roster. Calipari filled that hole with commitments from Wheeler and Washington, a five-star high school recruit, within a week of each other. Now the question becomes whether the duo will split time at point guard or play alongside each other. Wheeler’s struggles from 3-point range — he shot just 26.2% from beyond the arc in two seasons at Georgia — makes him ill-suited to play off the ball. After leading the SEC in assists (7.4 per game) last season, Wheeler could thrive in an offense with shooters like Washington, Grady, Fredrick and Allen alongside him. If Mintz returns to Kentucky, the competition for minutes in the backcourt increases, but Wheeler is the best passer of the bunch.

Why he picked the Wildcats: “I think the biggest thing for me was the fact that we had the COVID year. I was isolated the majority of the year, not being able to be around my family and friends. I’ve only seen my parents twice during this past school year in 10 months or so and, you know, that’s unheard of. So, I was forced to really look in and see what I value. I was forced to kind of like reevaluate the whole situation as far as looking at basketball from a business standpoint. I wanted to see what opportunities were going to be out there where I could better myself and have an opportunity to make a run at the national championship and also put myself in position to play at the next level and achieve my dreams. After a lot of reevaluation and knowing that the one-time transfer rule was possibly a thing that could pass this year, I decided to look elsewhere and eventually end up at the University of Kentucky.”

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Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ