These are the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Kentucky men's basketball player

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — For Kentucky basketball to bounce back from an embarrassing 9-16 season for a deep NCAA Tournament run this year, John Calipari will need high-level contributions from as many players as possible.

Much has been made about the Wildcats’ depth leading up to Friday’s exhibition opener versus Kentucky Wesleyan, but there is a difference between potential and actual production. How many players can Calipari actually count on to play key roles this season?

Here is a look at the best-case and worst-case scenario for each Wildcat.

Dontaie Allen

Kentucky’s Dontaie Allen gets the bucket for the White in their practice game against the Blue.
Oct. 22, 2021

Best-case scenario: Allen builds on his 46 points in two games against Mississippi State last season to offer consistent production against other teams. Shooting alone will not cement Allen’s spot in the rotation, so he his best-case scenario involves proving to be a consistent rebounder after Calipari recently praised him for his effort on the glass in practice. If he can do that, Allen could be a sharp-shooting option off the bench for Kentucky this season.

Worst-case scenario: Despite being the best shooter on a team that struggled from 3-point range for most of last season, Allen failed to land consistent minutes as he did not contribute in enough other areas when his shot was not falling. On a 2021-22 roster with more shooting, it is easy to see a scenario where Allen is relegated to the end of the bench again if he remains a defensive liability and does not rebound consistently.

Keion Brooks

Kentucky's Keion Brooks Jr. goes between the legs on an attempted slam at Big Blue Madness Friday evening in Rupp Arena. Oct. 15, 2021

Best-case scenario: After missing the first nine games of last season with a leg injury, Brooks looked like Kentucky’s best player at times during SEC play but, like most of his teammates, battled inconsistency. As a junior, Brooks could find that top-level form more often, backing up his status as team leader with All-SEC-level production. Brooks fits best as a small-ball four, but if he can improve his 23.4% career mark from 3-point range he could help at the three too.

Worst-case scenario: Considering he is the only scholarship player on the roster to play for Kentucky in front of a packed Rupp Arena, Brooks is going to serve a significant leadership role for the Wildcats no matter what this season. With more talent around him though, it is possible his minutes decrease if freshmen Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins force their way into the rotation.

Kentucky basketball:Who will start for UK this season? Defense or shooting could decide

Daimion Collins

Daimion Collins shoots during UK's Pro Day in Lexington on Monday, October 11, 2021

Best-case scenario: See Isaiah Jackson. Like Jackson, Collins arrives at UK with a reputation as an elite shot-blocker with an evolving offensive game. Jackson did not start the first seven games for UK last season but quickly proved to be the team’s best NBA draft prospect. Collins could follow a similar path as a freshman. Kentucky will not need Collins to take over games on offense, but he could lock down a starting role even earlier than Jackson if he consistently hits mid-range jumpers.

Worst-case scenario: No player faces a bigger jump in level of competition than Collins after playing for a tiny Texas High School. At 6-foot-9, 202 pounds, he might lack the muscle to hold his own against the older, physical big men on Kentucky’s schedule. If Brooks starts at the four and Hopkins carries his preseason momentum into actual games, Collins’s raw talent might not be enough to lock down a spot in the primary rotation.

C.J. Fredrick

CJ Fredrick passes off during UK Pro Day at Rupp Arena on Monday, October 11, 2021 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Best-case scenario: Fredrick, who started each of the 53 games he played in the last two seasons at Iowa, overcomes offseason leg surgery to lock down a starting role for early in the season. He then matches his 46.6% mark from 3-point range at Iowa to become one of Kentucky's best shooters of the Calipari era. The former Covington Catholic star has averaged 2.3 assists per game in his career but will need to hold his own as a defender and rebounder.

Worst-case scenario: The worst-case scenario for Fredrick looks much like the one for Allen. There are enough other strong shooters on the roster that Calipari will not play one who only contributes in that area. The missed preseason practice time increases the challenge for Fredrick to contribute early in the season too. It’s possible by the time he is 100% the primary rotation will already be filled.

Wildcats basketball:Who will be UK’s leading scorer? And does it matter?

Kellan Grady

Kentucky's Kellen Grady takes in the crowd's cheers while being introduced at Big Blue Madness Friday evening in Rupp Arena. Oct. 15, 2021

Best-case scenario: Grady quickly proves his Davidson production (17.4 points per game in 115 career games) was not the product of lesser competition and leads Kentucky in scoring as a super senior. He matches his 38.2% mark from 3-point range last season and thrives in Calipari’s “positionless” system occasionally playing with the ball in his hands.

Worst-case scenario: At Davidson, Grady was less successful as a shooter against power conference teams. He missed all six 3-point attempts in Davidson’s NIT loss to NC State last season and went 3 for 17 from 3-point range against four power conference teams as a junior. Calipari acknowledged Grady struggled early in preseason practice as he adjusted to tougher competition. If those struggles carry over into the season, Grady might be relegated to a reserve role.

Bryce Hopkins

Kentucky freshman Bryce Hopkins shoots during the three-point contest at Big Blue Madness Friday evening in Rupp Arena. Oct. 15, 2021

Best-case scenario: Hopkins backed up his growing preseason hype with 18 points and nine rebounds in the Blue-White scrimmage. He even hit 3 of 5 3-point attempts in that game. That kind of production should earn Hopkins a spot in the rotation. His lunch-pail playing style should endear him to Kentucky fans and his coach. A starting spot is not out of consideration, as Hopkins could be this year’s version of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Tyler Herro that vastly exceeds his recruiting ranking as a freshman.

Worst-case scenario: We’ve seen preseason stars come back to Earth when the games actually count before. That was the path Derek Willis followed early in his UK career. Even if Hopkins develops into a key player for Kentucky, it might be asking too much for the lowest-ranked recruit in UK’s 2021 class to star as a freshman.

UK basketball:After flipping from Louisville to UK, Bryce Hopkins embraces rivalry hatred

Davion Mintz

Kentucky's Davion Mintz shoots during the three-point contest at Big Blue Madness Friday evening in Rupp Arena. Oct. 15, 2021

Best-case scenario: The most likely scenario for Mintz is he fills the sixth-man role he was recruited to serve last season, but the former Creighton transfer already exceeded that expectation once. Considering he led Kentucky in scoring last season, it is certainly within the realm of possibilities that Mintz locks down a starting job and proves his scoring prowess was more than being the most consistent player on a bad team. Mintz then could carry over his clutch shooting to the NCAA Tournament, doing his best Aaron Harrison impression in March.

Worst-case scenario: While Mintz was considering keeping his name in the NBA draft, Calipari made sure Kentucky would be well covered in the backcourt regardless of Mintz’s decision. Now the super senior risks losing minutes to the three guards who joined the team since the summer. Mintz’s spot in the primary rotation is secure, but he might not end up being the top option off the bench at point guard or shooting guard.

More Davion Mintz:How one of the worst seasons in UK history saved Davion Mintz's life

Jacob Toppin

Kentucky fans got selfies with players like Jacob Toppin at the end of Big Blue Madness Friday evening. Oct. 15, 2021

Best-case scenario: Last season was considered a bonus for Toppin since he initially planned on redshirting after transferring from Rhode Island. He showed glimpses of potential that could make him a game-changing defender and scorer. Perhaps the best athlete on the team, Toppin could work his way into a starting role despite missing preseason practice time with an injury.

Worst-case scenario: For another year Toppin remains firmly in the shadow of older brother and former New York Knicks first-round pick Obi Toppin, playing only sparingly. The injury keeps him out of the primary rotation to start the season, and by the time Toppin is 100% other players have seized those minutes.

Oscar Tshiebwe

Kentucky Wildcats forward Oscar Tshiebwe smiles as he's introduced during Big Blue Madness Friday evening in Rupp Arena. Oct. 15, 2021

Best-case scenario: Tshiebwe proves his freshman year at West Virginia was no fluke with an All-American season. His production as a sophomore dipped before his transfer as West Virginia’s offense bogged down with Tshiebwe playing alongside fellow low-post bruiser Derek Culver. At Kentucky, he could thrive playing with a stretch forward and multiple sharp-shooting guards.

Worst-case scenario: Barring injury, Tshiebwe’s floor looks like a steady starter. His physicality and rebounding prowess makes him Kentucky’s most difficult-to-replace player, but it is possible his sophomore slump at West Virginia was due to more than just a bad fit on the roster. In that scenario, Tshiebwe ends up being more of a useful contributor than star for the Wildcats.

Kentucky basketball roster:2021-22 team will try to live up to these stars' jersey numbers

Lance Ware

Kentucky’s Lance Ware gets two for the White in their practice game against the Blue. 
Oct. 22, 2021

Best-case scenario: Ware builds on his 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Blue-White scrimmage for a sophomore breakout. Since Ware started playing basketball later than most of his peers, there is reason to hope for further growth. Foul trouble for Tshiebwe could hoist Ware into the spotlight as the primary backup center.

Worst-case scenario: Even after the stellar Blue-White performance, it’s difficult to imagine Ware entering the season as part of an eight-man rotation. If Collins and Hopkins live up to their preseason hype, minutes will be difficult to come by in the frontcourt. Ware might struggle to match his 12 minutes per game from last season then.

TyTy Washington

Tyty Washington receives a pass during UK Pro Day at Rupp Arena on Monday, October 11, 2021 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Best-case scenario: Washington silences doubts about Kentucky’s deep roster lacking the type of game-changing star present on Calipari’s best teams by quickly emerging as an All-American candidate. His combination of scoring and passing ability makes him a top-10 2022 NBA draft pick and earns him a spot in the conversation for best guards of the Calipari era.

Worst-case scenario: Despite his immense potential, Washington experiences some of the same growing pains that B.J. Boston did a year ago. There are games where Washington carries Kentucky to wins, but inconsistency prevents him from emerging as a star. With so many veteran guards on the roster, Washington eventually loses his starting job.

Sahvir Wheeler:How losing home in Hurricane Harvey helped mold Sahvir Wheeler

Sahvir Wheeler

Sahvir Wheeler passes off during UK Pro Day at Rupp Arena on Monday, October 11, 2021 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Best-case scenario: Wheeler leads the SEC in assists for a second consecutive season while significantly cutting his 4.4 turnovers per game. While it would be unfair to expect Wheeler to suddenly turn into an elite shooter, with better players around him he shoots well enough to force opponents to respect his jump shot. By SEC play, Kentucky fans are comparing Wheeler to Tyler Ulis for more than his size.

Worst-case scenario: Instead of better teammates increasing Wheeler’s assist total, the Georgia transfer is less effective without the ball in his hands as often. Turnovers remain a problem. He fails to improve a 26.2% career mark from 3-point range, and Kentucky’s offense struggles as defenders sag off Wheeler. Calipari eventually moves Washington to point guard and Wheeler to the bench.

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