WILDCATS

Why Kentucky basketball's point guard battle might not be a competition after all

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — Remember when point guard was the biggest question for Kentucky basketball’s 2021-22 roster?

On April 5, Devin Askew entered the transfer portal. Later that month, point guard signee Nolan Hickman decommitted from Kentucky. Five days later, Davion Mintz declared for the NBA draft while leaving the possibility of a return to college open.

John Calipari was suddenly left without a traditional point guard confirmed for next season’s Kentucky team.

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In a span of five days in May, Calipari addressed that worry with commitments from five-star high school point guard TyTy Washington and Georgia point guard transfer Sahvir Wheeler.

Suddenly point guard had gone from a major concern due to a lack of options to a possible source of preseason drama with multiple highly touted players competing for the same job.

TyTy Washington plays with a camper at North Laurel High School in London, Kentucky.

The competition may be finished before it even starts though.

“I feel like that helps me out,” Washington told reporters at one of the team’s youth basketball camps in Midway on Thursday when asked about Kentucky signing Wheeler shortly after his commitment. “Cal wants to get back to playing his three-guard front. I feel like with me and Sahvir both being point guards, we can go out and help each other.

“The other team’s best defender can’t guard both of us. If he’s guarding me, Sahvir is going to have an opportunity to make a lot of plays. If the best defender is guarding him, then I’ll have a lot of chances.”

Davidson transfer Kellan Grady and Iowa transfer CJ Fredrick, both strong 3-point shooters, were assumed as likely starters at the off-ball guard positions in UK’s backcourt when they signed with the Wildcats, but the possibility of Wheeler and Washington both starting should not be discounted.

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Calipari played point guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe together on his first Kentucky team. In the 2015-16 season he started Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe, who each were rated as point guard recruits.

“Coach Cal was very straight-up and genuine from the beginning,” Wheeler said. “Like, I knew that he was recruiting another guard, and I knew that it would be a guard that we could complement each other. TyTy is unselfish. I’m unselfish.”

Washington is considered the better NBA prospect of the two point guards.

A stellar senior season at Arizona Compass Prep saw him jump from the No. 76-ranked prospect in the 2021 class in the 247Sports Composite to No. 12. ESPN projected him as the No. 13 pick in its most recent 2022 NBA mock draft.

Normally a projected one-and-done point guard would be a lock to assume the featured role for Kentucky, but Wheeler led the SEC in assists per game assists per game (7.4), averaging 2.5 more assists per game than any other qualifying player in the league, last season. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Houston, Texas, native shot just 26.2% (34 for 130) from 3-point range in two seasons at Georgia but averaged 14 points and 3.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

“(Washington) can score. I can score,” Wheeler said. “He can really shoot it. That’s something I’m working on and hopefully you all are going to be able to say that about me at the end of the year. Like, I knew everything that was going on, and I’m super excited and looking forward to the opportunity to get to know him and build a bond and build a friendship and a brotherhood that will last a lifetime.”

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While he might not be quite as dangerous a 3-point shooter as Grady, Fredrick or sophomore guard Dontaie Allen, Washington is considered a plus shooter. He won the 3-point contest at the Iverson Classic earlier this spring.

Washington’s shooting ability would make it easy to play alongside Wheeler when the Georgia transfer is the primary ball handler.

“TyTy is where the league is going right now, the NBA,” Calipari said. “They have point guards who are not setup point guards. They are players that happen to have the ball a lot who can score and do a lot more than get them into offense. …. (Wheeler) is more I am going to get everybody involved in this and speed the game up and throw the ball ahead.”

Grady played some point guard at Davidson, so he could play the position in a pinch. If he returns to school, Mintz would provide a fourth option to play with the ball in his hands after totaling 23 assists and three turnovers in the final three games last season after replacing Askew as the primary point guard.

That’s a long way from early May when the Wildcats’ point guard options seemed to be decreasing by the day.

Calipari is still months away from setting a starting lineup.

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Perhaps one of Wheeler or Washington wins the job outright and the other comes off the bench. The two point guards will likely spend most of the summer facing off against each other in pickup games and practices. Both figure to play significant minutes whether they start or not, but playing together would provide impressive offensive versatility.

“I’m very excited,” Wheeler said. “He’s a very cerebral player. He can talk the game, he knows the game, he’s unselfish. When you have two point guards like that – one experienced in the SEC and the other a high talent and high ability – when you put those two things together that’s going to be pretty hard to stop.”

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