The sport of college basketball gets criticized for a lot of things, but let me say this: Never has it been a more interesting sport to follow in the middle of summer than it is right now.
The perfect combination of July 1st being the day players had to enter the transfer portal to be eligible next season, coupled with the NBA Draft deadline coming on July 7th, has led to a mid-summer free for all, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. The fact that there just so happens to be a potentially transcendent high school player ready to reclass up and play college hoops next year only adds to the mid-July intrigue.
And caught in the eye of the storm is Kentucky. It’s officially the “Summer of Cal” as he has revamped his entire program, adding four high-profile transfers, nabbing two elite assistant coaches from Illinois and also adding a five-star guard over the last few months. And he ain’t done yet, with the top transfer in college hoops (Kofi Cockburn) and the top high school basketball player in America (Jalen Duren) now seriously considering the Wildcats as well.
So what would each add to the program? And are there any drawbacks to adding either one? Let’s take a look.
(One note: While Marcus Carr technically still has Kentucky on his list, no one believes the Wildcats are a serious contender. This feels like a “hat on the table” recruitment, as John Calipari once called it. Because of it, we have decided to leave him off this list for the time being)
I mean, they kind of go without saying right? The idea of adding a second-team All-American and one of the most dominant low post players in recent college hoops memory is a no-brainer. The fact that you could do it in mid-July, seems flat out inconceivable.
Only that’s exactly what’s on the table for Kentucky, with Kofi publicly admitting on Tuesday what had been strong speculation for a week: He is not only coming back to college basketball, but that Kentucky is on his list, thanks to relationships with Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman.
Should the Wildcats add him, they get an immediate force down, and double-double machine that is near un-guardable at the college level. While he does have holes in his game (he wouldn’t be coming back to college if he didn’t) he was again, just absolutely dominate last season at Illinois. He averaged 17.7 points per game, scoring double-figures in 30 of Illinois’ 31 games. He had nine 20+ point games and 14 10+ rebound games last season, playing against some of the best big men in the country in the Big Ten (Luka Garza, Hunter Dickinson etc). In one especially strong stretch, he had 11 straight double-figure rebounding games, which included 10 double-doubles as well.
The fact that he has a relationship with Antigua and Coleman only adds to the appeal, as both sides know what they’re getting from each other. And the fact that he is another proven veteran who knows what it takes to win at the college level, is just icing on the top.
Veterans win in college hoops, and Kentucky will have its oldest team of the Calipari next season.
Adding another soon-to-be 22-year-old to the locker room can’t be a bad thing, right?
— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) July 6, 2021
In the same way that the benefits that Cockburn would bring to Kentucky are obvious, so are the drawbacks. And the reaction that many of you have had over the last few days, was the exact same thought I had when I heard that Kentucky was a serious player for his services: How do you keep all those big guys happy? And how do the pieces actually fit together?
While Cockburn is immensely talented – immensely – basketball is a team game, where the best teams have pieces which fit together like a puzzle.
Well, it’s safe to say the fit isn’t totally obvious with Cockburn. He is a true, low post back to the basket center (which is basically the reason he’s coming back to college next season) who attempted zero three-point shots last season. Which leads to this problem – Oscar Tshiebwe is a true, low post, back to the basket center who (in admittedly fewer games) attempted zero three-pointers last season.
Which means that bringing in Cockburn leads to one of two scenarios. You either can’t play two of your most important pieces (Cockburn and Tshiebwe) together. And if you do, a lot of the same floor-spacing and lack-of-shooting problems that came into play last year, will once again be on the table in 2021-2022.
It also means that every other big guy on the roster falls a peg or two down the depth chart, meaning fewer minutes for Keion Brooks, Lance Ware and Jacob Toppin among others. I don’t want to speculate on anything, but it’s hard to imagine everyone staying happy in that situation.
The bottom line is, it’s hard to turn down a college All-American if he wants to come play for you.
But this is exactly a perfect fit.
One, Duren is the most talented player in high school basketball. And it’s no different than Cockburn’s situation: When you have a chance to add the most talented player in high school basketball, especially in late July (when Duren is expected to make his official announcement) you do it. No questions asked.
More importantly however, Duren’s game better fits with the pieces on the roster.
Admittedly there would still be a log jam in the frontcourt, but at least Duren brings something a little bit different than Cockburn. Yes, Duren is a player who physically does his best work down low. But at the same time he is a player that has actively tried to improve his outside game this summer (something both Jack Pilgrim and I both noticed at Pangos All-American Camp), and to be blunt, has to continue to do so going forward. The kid is in contention to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. But to get there, he has got to show a diverse, balanced game, where he can not only overpower people down low, but hit shots from the outside.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, the PR benefit of Kentucky nabbing this kid are off the charts.
When John Calipari arrived at Kentucky he promised to recruit the “best of the best” something that he did successfully early, but – as has been well-documented – has struggled to do in more recent times.
Well, what better way to cap off the “Summer of Cal” then by signing the best player in the country and letting every elite high school player know that Kentucky is still the best place – in the college or pro game – to spend your one season between high school and the NBA?
And if it happens, just go ahead and get Calipari a flight, hotel room and seat in the green room at the 2022 NBA Draft right now.
Even if Duren’s game is better-suited for the current Kentucky roster than Cockburn’s, it is still one more body in a frontcourt that already features six scholarship players (Tshiebwe, Brooks, Toppin, Ware, Daimion Collins, Bryce Hopkins). And even if Calipari ends up going to the “Platoon 2.0” it still means fewer minutes, fewer shots and fewer opportunities for everyone on the roster. Which means that like it or not, at the end of the day, someone will be unhappy.
Beyond that, there really aren’t a ton of drawbacks.
The only one that immediately comes to mind is that again, that teams that win big in college hoops are the ones with veterans. And not only will Duren be a freshman, but will be a freshman that won’t even arrive on campus until mid-August at the earliest. Which probably means a slower acclimation process to the team and college hoops in general than most freshman.
With a player that talented, I have no doubt that Duren will figure things out, and be a force, especially as the season goes on.
But there will be a learning curve, especially when you consider how late he’ll arrive.
In conclusion, there is no right or wrong answer to the “Cockburn vs. Duren” debate. To be clear, I don’t think Kentucky needs to add either to its existing roster. With the NBA Draft deadline looming tomorrow, I have the Wildcats comfortably in the Top 10 without either.
But again, when a second-team All-American and proven college star wants to come play for you, it’s hard to say no. And it’s just as hard to say no, when the best high school player in America is interested too.
Regardless, this has already been “The Summer of Cal.”
And it doesn’t appear to be over just yet.