Two years ago, college basketball insider Jon Rothstein correctly predicted Immanuel Quickley as Kentucky’s breakout star going into the 2019-20 season, a year in which the sophomore guard averaged 16.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore en route to SEC Player of the Year honors. The following offseason, he heard whispers of Isaiah Jackson standing out in practice leading up to the 2020-21 season. Again, the CBS Sports analyst hit the nail on the head, with the freshman forward earning SEC All-Freshman and All-Defensive team honors after averaging 8.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per contest in his lone year of college basketball.
Who does Rothstein predict to be Kentucky’s breakout player in 2021-22? None other than junior forward Keion Brooks Jr.
UK now has shooting and playmaking at the one, two and three. The Wildcats also have an anchor down low in Oscar Tshiebwe, and continue to recruit five-star senior and reclass candidate Jalen Duren. It’s the four position, though, Rothstein expects to “bring it all together.”
“When I roll out preseason content, I have impact transfers, I have impact freshmen, I’m also going to have guys who are breakout players, someone who was in the program the year before,” Rothstein told KSR. “For me, breakout players are not somebody who averaged 10 points per game or more. If I was going to say something, I think because of what we talked about with Kentucky having good shooting at one, two and three, and obviously they’re going to have a very study presence at the five spot, I would expect the attention and bold print on Keion Brooks to really be raved nationally because of his IQ and what he can do at the power forward spot.”
For Kentucky to take that next step and return to contender status not only in the SEC, but all of college basketball, Brooks has to be the team’s glue at the power forward spot.
“To me, that’s the guy that’s going to make this whole thing go,” said Rothstein. “If at one, two and three, you’re going to have interchangeable pieces with good shooting and quality ball handling, you are going to have a scenario where you’re going to need someone who can pass, dribble and shoot at the four spot to bring it all together. To me, that guy for Kentucky is Keion Brooks.”
Brooks’ positive presence was felt last season, but an adversity-filled season that included injuries and navigating through COVID-19 limited the then-sophomore from making the jump he originally hoped to make. With a normal offseason and – fingers crossed – going into the year at full strength, the winning impact the junior forward makes on both ends of the floor can be felt from the start.
“Last year, some of the best games Kentucky played was with him in the lineup,” Rothstein told KSR. “He had 15 points and nine rebounds when Kentucky beat LSU, he had 12 and 6 when Kentucky beat Florida. And let’s remember that Kentucky didn’t have Keion Brooks in the lineup until January 9. If you look at it right now from a record perspective, they were 7-10 last year with Keion Brooks in the lineup, 2-6 without him. I think that says a lot.”
After missing the entire preseason and the first nine games of the year with a left leg injury, Brooks totaled career bests in points (10.3), rebounds (6.8) and assists (1.6) per game. The 6-foot-7 forward scored in double figures in 11 of his 16 appearances and posted two double-doubles.
What does Brooks have up his sleeve in year three?