WILDCATS

Who will be Kentucky basketball’s leading scorer? And does it matter?

Hayes Gardner
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The 2021-22 Kentucky men’s basketball team is something that it rarely is: experienced.

The team returns 42% of its scoring — more than all but two of coach John Calipari’s previous Kentucky teams — and has added a quartet of talented transfers. In promotional material, the team has noted it’s “one of the nation’s most experienced teams.”

But for all its graybeards, there is still an element of mystery and newness to the team, as was evident at Media Day on Wednesday. Less than three weeks before UK, ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP poll, opens the season against No. 9 Duke in Madison Square Garden, it’s not immediately clear who the team’s top players — the ones tasked with returning the Wildcats to their first Final Four since 2015 — will be.

UK was picked to win the SEC and four Wildcats were among the 12 players selected to the all-conference preseason teams by media, but missing among those four honorees was UK's leading scorer from last season and the team's top two candidates to be picked in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft.

UK went 9-16 last year, the worst performance in nearly a century. Compared to that squad, this year’s roster — which will be on display during the Blue-White Game Friday at 7 p.m. in Rupp Arena — appears almost as an embarrassment of riches.

But, who will be the team’s leading scorer?

“Oh man, that’s a tough question,” UK assistant Jai Lucas said. “Through the first couple weeks of practice, TyTy (Washington) has done a really good job of scoring the ball, as well as Kellan (Grady). Another guy like Davion (Mintz) you could see that could score.”

Washington is the team’s most-likely lottery pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. He’s a 6-foot-3 point guard who initially committed to Creighton, but de-committed after Creighton coach Greg McDermott used an insensitive analogy last season, saying he needed his players to “stay on the plantation” after a game.

“When I found out that’s what he said, I was really shocked and hurt,” Washington said Wednesday.

Washington then committed to UK shortly after receiving a scholarship, and he’s considered one of the team’s top weapons — but he wasn’t selected to an All-SEC team. Neither were fellow freshmen Damion Collins, an athletic 6-foot-9 forward who is also a projected NBA pick, or talented 6-foot-6 small forward Bryce Hopkins.

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Mintz, a Creighton transfer himself who Lucas included as potential top scorer, led the team in scoring last year with 11.5 points per game, but he also was not an all-conference pick.

And for his part, Grady has already scored 2,000 NCAA points — one of only two active players with that distinction.

“And then you have guys like Oscar (Tshiebwe), Keion (Brooks) and Sahvir (Wheeler) as well,” Lucas said, noting of Wheeler, a point guard transfer from Georgia: “We’re asking him to play a little bit different of a role. We want him to kind of lead the country in assists. We know he can get 14, 15 points a night, but we’re asking him to get 10 assists a night, if he can.”

Each of those players was named to an All-SEC team, and although those three are heralded for other abilities — West Virginia transfer Tshiebwe is a fierce rebounder, Wheeler led the SEC in assists last year, and Brooks is a Swiss Army Knife of sorts — they can score, too.

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Then there’s a couple of Kentuckians with sweet shooting strokes: Pendleton County’s Dontaie Allen and Covington Catholic’s CJ Fredrick, who transferred from Iowa after connecting on 47% of his 3-pointers in two years.

But with a rotation that could reach double-digits (Calipari said: “I’ll play as many deserve to play, but I’m saying this again, folks, it’s not communism.”), it’s a chore to identify a starting lineup — much less a leading scorer.

“That’s a tough question to pinpoint. I think we have a plethora of guys,” said Grady, a Davidson graduate transfer, “who can put the ball in the hoop.”

For the bulk of Calipari’s 12 UK teams, a guard has led the team in scoring. Perhaps, it’ll be the 6-foot-5 Grady, who is well-acquainted with college nylon, or Washington, the five-star who has shot up recruiting rankings and Draft boards this year.

But then again, does it matter?

“I think it’s less about who’s the leading scorer but more about how the team works together and making the right plays and guys finding the basket,” Grady said.

Said Washington: “Every night, that stat sheet is going to be full of different people scoring.”

Lucas said the team has tried three-guard and four-guard lineups, including with Wheeler and Washington, who are both point guards, on the floor at the same time. That iteration very well could see the court when UK faces Duke, following a couple of exhibitions, but as the season goes on, lineups could shift.

When discussing playing time during Media Day, Calipari pointed to former Wildcats Immanuel Quickley and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who did not immediately start, but earned a larger role. Calipari said that, of course, defending and rebounding will play a significant role in who gets minutes. And minutes lead to shooting attempts.

“I gotta figure some things out and make sure everybody has their opportunity,” Calipari said.

There appear to be solid offensive options. And that could mean the Wildcats will score — to borrow a word from Grady — a plethora of points from plenty of players.

“Our team is so balanced,” Wheeler said. “Our team has so many options, so many good scorers, that any given night, anyone can pop off. It’s going to be someone’s night every single night, and I think that’s a strength of ours.”

Blue-White Game

Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington

When: 7 p.m. Friday

TV/Radio: SEC Network/UK Sports Network

Hayes Gardner can be reached at hgardner@gannett.com; Twitter: @HayesGardner.