If Kentucky is out of the running for Jalen Duren, you wouldn’t know it by watching the coaching staff in action this weekend at the 2021 EYBL Peach Jam.
With college coaches allowed to attend the prestigious recruiting event starting Friday morning with the opening of the NCAA’s fourth evaluation period of the summer, UK head coach John Calipari was front and center to watch the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2022 take the floor in both of Team Final’s matchups, with assistant coach Orlando Antigua joining him for the first and Jai Lucas watching in the second.
As expected, Kentucky wasn’t alone on the jam-packed sidelines at the Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta. Miami (FL) head coach Jim Larrañaga and Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway were both there with their lead assistants, with the former sitting courtside with DJ Irving – Duren’s former high school and grassroots coach – and the latter sitting with basketball legend Larry Brown, who was hired back on July 8.
And that’s just the college coaches. Rod Strickland of the NBA G League was also in attendance for both games, meaning four of Duren’s final five options – Australia’s NBL being the lone holdout – were front and center to see the top frontcourt prospect in all of high school basketball.
To no one’s surprise, Duren – a 6-foot-10, 245-pound monster of a human – dominated in both outings, finishing with 17 points (6-8 FG), 11 rebounds and two blocks in a game one win over Seattle Rotary and 17 points (6-11 FG), 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal in a game two victory over Phenom University. Through five games, the five-star center is now averaging 15.2 points (60% FG), 10.0 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.6 assists in just 21.8 minutes per contest.
Duren is a man amongst boys at the high school level, and it’s why a reclassification to the class of 2021 is not only rumored, but expected at this point. The five-star center previously told KSR that a decision was expected at the end of the summer, with sources later telling KSR that we could hear an announcement in the coming weeks, potentially as soon as the conclusion of Peach Jam.
We’re coming down the home stretch of his recruitment, with one lucky college or professional organization expected to add Duren to the fold for the upcoming 2021-22 basketball season. Who will that be? Well, it depends on who you ask.
Two prominent national sources told KSR at Peach Jam that Miami holds firm as the current favorite in the back-and-forth battle, both believing Duren’s ties to Irving will win out in the high-profile recruitment. One individual familiar with the five-star’s thinking said he’s heard “nothing but pro” in recent weeks. Another source with direct ties to the 6-foot-10 standout’s recruitment believes Duren himself likes Penny Hardaway and his experience in the NBA as a four-time All-Star, while the family favors Kentucky and its pitch from a development and branding standpoint.
Behind the scenes, there is a belief that Duren can be swayed and the door is not closed for any of his five finalists, Kentucky included. In fact, one source told KSR late Friday evening that UK is “right there” in his recruitment and there is confidence within the program they can pull off the late upset.
Kentucky’s optimism stems from the fact that it is the only option on his list that has proven it can not only put players of Duren’s caliber in the league, but develop them into max contract superstars. You simply can’t say the same about Memphis under Hardaway or Miami under Larrañaga, and the jury is still out regarding player development in the G League — the five-star center previously told KSR development would be the biggest factor in his recruitment. As KSR’s Drew Franklin wrote Thursday, UK is also wildly confident in its name, image and likeness presentation for Duren, with his camp coming away quite impressed with the pitch on his visit and in the weeks since.
What adds to the intrigue is UK’s connection with Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, who announced Friday afternoon he would be returning to Champaign for a junior season. Multiple sources told KSR throughout his two-week recruitment that the second-team All-American heavily favored Kentucky and entered the transfer portal specifically to speak with the UK coaching staff. One well-connected individual told KSR on Thursday that a visit to Lexington was on the table and a decision was expected at the end of the month before the abrupt change of plans. Had things gone as planned on Cockburn’s end, there was a growing expectation that he would have ended up in Lexington, regardless of optimism on Illinois’ side.
Contact between UK and Cockburn was ongoing to start the week, but the 7-foot, 285-pound center announced Tuesday morning he would be making his final choice known to the public on Friday. By Wednesday morning, it was leaked to reporters both locally and nationally that a return to Illinois was imminent, with various media members specifically going out of their way to point out John Calipari – and only John Calipari – had not made contact with the prized center. Instead, the UK head coach was all in on Duren, who – despite having a trickier recruitment with more competition across the board – was the better fit for the team’s 2021-22 roster as a versatile big man capable of playing the four or five. Cockburn was an attainable get for the Wildcats, but Duren remains the top prize in the eyes of Calipari, one he has officially pushed all his chips in for.
Nationally, there’s skepticism regarding Kentucky’s chances with Duren. To be frank, it took quite a bit of digging before the first whispers of UK even came to fruition this weekend at Peach Jam. But – albeit ever-so-slightly – it’s there.
While it’s not as simple as Kentucky passing on Cockburn or the coaching staff having little-to-no interest, Calipari – for a multitude of reasons – chose not to push all his chips in on the top returning big man in college basketball. In a ‘one bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ scenario, the UK head coach chose to bet on himself and go with the bush.
Will that bet pay out? Kentucky believes it’s a possibility.