Could Kentucky basketball still add top-ranked recruit to 2021-22 roster?

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — Maybe John Calipari is not finished adding to the 2021-22 Kentucky basketball roster after all.

Two weeks after Calipari said he had “no intention of adding anybody now,” a recruit so talented Kentucky would have no option but to pursue him could soon become available.

Five-star center Jalen Duren, currently ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2022 by Rivals.com, is likely to reclassify to the 2021 class to enroll in college or start a professional career later this summer, nationally respected college basketball reporter Adam Zagoria reported over the weekend.

While Duren’s AAU team, Team Final, has since pushed back against that report, tweeting Duren had “not made any decisions on next year,” the chances appear strong Duren will ultimately reclassify if he finishes the academic work needed to do so in the coming months.

“It is absolutely not a secret,” 247Sports national basketball analyst Travis Branham told The Courier Journal. “It has kind of been something talked about behind the scenes for a couple months now. To be honest with you, I don’t even think he needs to play in high school anymore. That dude is absolutely ready to step out, not only onto a collegiate floor, but even physically, he’s able to step out onto an NBA floor. That’s how gifted he is. … If I had to guess, I think there’s a good chance he reclassifies, but it’s definitely not a certainty.”

The 6-foot-10, 230-pound Duren has long been considered one of the best prospects in the 2022 class, but a stellar 2020-21 season at Montverde Academy in Florida has rocketed him in the discussion for the best recruit in the class.

Rivals recently jumped Duren past Emoni Bates, the long-hyped phenom who was placed on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school sophomore. 247Sports and ESPN still rank him as the No. 2 prospect in the 2022 class behind Bates.

If Duren were to reclassify to 2021, he would likely slot near the top of that class’s ranking as well. None of UK’s current 2021 signees are ranked higher than 12th nationally.

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Duren lists Kentucky, Michigan, Miami, Villanova, Auburn, Alabama, Penn State, Memphis and UCLA as the colleges he is still considering. He also has been open about weighing offers from the NBA G League and Australian Basketball League.

“I think currently the collegiate route is the leader,” Branham said. “I think that’s what he wants at this moment, but G League is going to come in hard. Potentially, overseas options will come in hard as well. They’re going to be heavy players.”

While Zagoria reported the G League is offering Duren more than $1 million to join its team of high-profile, straight-to-the-pros prospects, expected NCAA reform allowing players to profit off their own name, image and likeness while maintaining their college eligibility could make college a more attractive option. With a handful of state NIL laws are set to go into effect July 1, the NCAA is pushing for federal legislation and has signaled it plans to move ahead with its own rules this summer.

Kentucky coaches are already planning for the massive change expected to send shockwaves through the recruiting world.

“You think about Kentucky and what that means if that guys comes here,” Calipari recently said of the possibly NIL implications for his program. “You look at guys that go to another school — and I’m not even mentioning Kentucky — they go to another school, and all of a sudden, they explode. What would have happened if they went to the pro league? Now, their marketing dollars aren’t the same. You can lose hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Regardless of which route he chooses, Duren would be eligible for the 2022 NBA draft if he reclassifies to graduate high school later this summer.

Duren would be unlikely to make close to the $1 million salary the G League has reportedly offered in endorsements alone at a college, but playing for a program like Kentucky could make a significant impact on his future earning potential by increasing his visibility and providing a die-hard fan base’s support before he enters the draft.

For that reason and others, Kentucky is expected to be one of the leading contenders, along with Michigan and Miami, for his services if Duren does go to college.

“It’s really tough to gauge a leader,” Branham said. “It’s a quiet recruitment. Jalen is one of those kids who likes to keep things close to his chest. I think that’s why you saw some push-back come back when that (reclassification) stuff was broken. He’s one of those kids that is quiet, and it’s hard to kind of gauge where everything stands.”

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There is not an obvious need for Duren on Kentucky’s roster with West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe, five-star freshman Daimion Collins, four-star freshman Bryce Hopkins and returners Keion Brooks, Jacob Toppin and Lance Ware projected to contribute in the frontcourt. Adding Duren to the mix could lead one or more of those players to consider their own transfer options.

But Calipari has made crowded rosters work before and remains consistent in his desire to assemble the most talented roster possible.

“If I’m a coach, he’s one of those guys you’re absolutely making room for,” Branham said. “It’s not even a question. If he says, ‘I want to come to your school,’ you say, ‘All right, come on.’ It’s not even a second thought for me. He’s just that good of a player, and he just continues to get better.”

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