After being canceled last year due to COVID-19, the Nike EYBL is back in 2021, with the league’s regular season returning from July 13-20 and the Peach Jam scheduled from July 21-25. With the nation’s top up-and-coming basketball talent gathering in North Augusta, SC to compete for the prestigious event’s championship crown in front of hundreds of college coaches, Kentucky Sports Radio was front and center to take it all in for the first portion this past weekend.
Talking to coaches, parents and national media throughout the week, here is the latest on Kentucky’s top recruiting targets participating in the event.
Despite skepticism regarding Kentucky’s chances on the national level – numerous well-connected sources told KSR that Miami is believed to be the current leader – the UK coaching staff continues to put the full-court press on Jalen Duren, with the program going at least two coaches deep – as many as three – for all four of the standout center’s games from Friday to Sunday. Duren is teammates with fellow Kentucky target Dereck Lively II and the staff was obviously there to see the 7-foot-1 prospect in action, as well, but sources tell KSR that UK’s interest in the likely reclass candidate remains strong and they continue to push for his services for the upcoming 2021-22 basketball season. They were there to see both, not just Lively.
After dozens of conversations regarding Duren’s recruitment at Peach Jam, the growing consensus is that the five-star center has not made a final decision and he’s genuinely torn on his options. One source told KSR that Duren himself likes Memphis’ 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, though his relationship with Miami assistant DJ Irving – his former high school and grassroots coach – will be tough to overcome. Regardless, UK believes it is “right there” to land the nation’s No. 1 prospect.
KSR wrote an in-depth piece on Duren’s recruitment and Kentucky’s internal optimism despite growing skepticism nationally that the Wildcats can pull off the upset.
A decision is expected after Peach Jam, with one source telling KSR he wouldn’t be surprised to see a television announcement this weekend – games will be played on ESPNU – should Team Final make a title run. Whether we’re one week away or a few, a decision is on the horizon.
Gut says Miami wins out, but I’m not sure any one school or professional program truly believes they’ve got Duren locked up. The five-star center is torn and the door is open for anyone to swoop in and seal the deal in the 11th hour.
Dereck Lively II
As mentioned before, Kentucky was front and center for all four of Dereck Lively’s games this weekend, with head coach John Calipari there for every matchup. Behind the scenes, Kentucky is seen as the early favorite, with North Carolina and Duke sitting close behind as the 2A and 2B programs, with the likes of Michigan and Penn State sitting in that next tier of programs. There will also be interest coming from professional leagues, but college is seen as the likely path at this point. The UK coaching staff is fascinated by Lively’s long-term potential and believe he has the highest upside of any big in the class, per source, drawing comparisons to Willie Cauley-Stein on the defensive end of the floor – the 7-foot-2 center has averaged 5.0 blocks in seven games to open the EYBL season – but expanding his game on offense.
Lively tells KSR he will take more visits in the coming months and may push a final decision to the fall or potentially even the spring, but Kentucky would happily accept a commitment from the nation’s No. 3 overall prospect at any time. No matter when an announcement comes, UK sits in strong position.
Looking for UK’s next commitment? Shaedon Sharpe may be your guy. The Kentucky coaching staff has zeroed in on the 6-foot-4 prospect, who is expected to make a leap into the top-five of the updated recruiting rankings and has firmly established himself as the most talented all-around scoring guard in the class of 2022. Sharpe is putting on an absolute clinic at Peach Jam, averaging 21.6 points (48.3% FG, 46.2% 3PT), 5.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists over the course of seven games, with UK sitting courtside for each performance to open the evaluation period.
Sharpe fell in love with Kentucky’s pitch during his official visit in June and momentum has only continued in the Wildcats’ favor since then to the point where the dynamic guard is now officially on commitment watch. One source told KSR at Peach Jam to watch out for a mid-August commitment in what would be nothing short of a monster get for the UK program.
A gifted 6-foot-9 forward out of Antioch, TN, Kentucky loves Brandon Miller’s offensive tools and believes he’s the perfect wing in today’s game, but there have been questions regarding his motor since arriving on the scene as a five-star prospect. To his credit, he played with fire and looked to get more involved on both ends of the floor in North Augusta, a strong step in the right direction for a player with top-ten potential. Alabama and Tennessee continue to make a strong push, but Miller and his family like what the UK program has to offer from developmental and professional standpoints.
Polished offensively and oozing skill, expect to see professional interest ramp up, especially with a recruitment that is fairly open among colleges at this point in time. A list cut is expected in August.
Coming over to the states in September 2020, Adem Bona is a relatively new name to high school and college basketball fans, but prepared to get familiar. The 6-foot-10, 225-pound center out of Turkey is an absolute workhorse who crashes the glass, runs the floor, catches lobs in transition and is working to expand his game — he tells KSR he models his game after Bam Adebayo.
Professional talk is strong and has been from the start, but sources tell KSR Bona is a big fan of the Kentucky basketball program and has developed a strong early connection with UK commit Skyy Clark, with the two five-star prospects intrigued with the idea of playing together in Lexington. A visit is expected in the coming months and there is mutual interest on UK’s end of things, with an offer likely pushing the Wildcats up to the top of his list.
Bona tells KSR that Creighton, USC, Missouri and Kansas are also in contact.
Kentucky was in attendance to watch Jaden Bradley this week, but the feel around Peach Jam was that the program is cooling a bit on the five-star guard, with Alabama and North Carolina being the two schools making the strongest push at this point. Bradley and his family have always liked the UK program and interest has always been reciprocated by the staff, but it appears the two sides are trending opposite directions as of late.
Bradley previously earned an offer from UK back on January. 3.
As UK slows things down a bit with Bradley, the program continues to ramp things up with Cason Wallace, attending each of the five-star’s games during the first evaluation period of the two-week event — Calipari and Jai Lucas led the way on Saturday and Sunday. And what a showing it was for the 6-foot-4 guard, who has averaged 15.6 points (51.2% FG, 37% 3PT, 83.3% FT), 7.0 rebounds, 5.6 assists and just 1.4 turnovers per contest to lead Pro Skills to a perfect 7-0 record. One could argue Wallace was the most impressive performer of the EYBL regular season.
Multiple sources tell KSR that Tennessee sits in the driver’s seat – the five-star guard was close to a commitment earlier this summer – with Texas and Baylor also involved, though a scholarship offer from Kentucky would make the Wildcats a serious contender to land the standout guard’s services. Keep your eyes peeled for an offer sooner rather than later.
Nick Smith Jr.
Kentucky has always been intrigued with Nick Smith Jr.’s game, but a wrist injury kept him out the majority of spring and the start of summer, limiting viewing opportunities for the staff. UK wanted to see how he responded from his injury, and after averaging 16.4 points (43.0% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 80% FT), 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in seven outings, it’s clear he’s doing just fine. And the staff has noticed, attending each of the five-star guard’s games.
Smith has openly pushed for a Kentucky offer and was admittedly frustrated with the lack of contact in recent months, but a big start to Peach Jam is expected to lead to the prized scholarship offer from Calipari. Kansas, North Carolina and Alabama are early contenders, but a Kentucky offer would put the Wildcats right back in the thick of things.
At the end of the day, though, Smith has been open about loyalty and feeling prioritized throughout his recruiting process, and there are other schools – Kansas and UNC included – tripping over each other to make the five-star guard a foundational piece of their respective classes. If UK makes a similar push, I’d be shocked to see the 6-foot-4 guard land anywhere but Lexington — his interest in Kentucky has been strong from the start. If he’s seen as a backup guard option in the class, Smith will likely land elsewhere. The ball is in UK’s court regarding an offer and consistent contact; he’s certainly gettable – an impressive get, at that – for the program.
Despite Duke being seen as a heavy favorite, sources told KSR on Sunday that UK was keeping a close eye on Kyle Filipowski – widely seen as one of the most skilled bigs in the class and due for a massive jump in the rankings – and looking to make a run in his recruitment. Just one day later, the four-star forward picked up a scholarship offer from Calipari and the Kentucky coaching staff.
Blue Devil buzz had been so strong that I admittedly brushed off the fact that Orlando Antigua’s first stop of the evaluation period was to watch Filipowski playing for the NY Renaissance program – the expectation was that he was in to watch Chance Westry and Simeon Wilcher (2023) – and attended every game since, with Calipari joining to watch on Sunday. Sources tell KSR that the staff believes the 6-foot-11 forward may be the most college-ready prospect in the class – assuming Duren makes the jump to 2021 – and would have star potential in Lexington.
Will UK be able to chip away at Duke’s lead? That remains to be seen, but they’re giving it a shot either way.
KSR will be back in North Augusta again this weekend, with more recruiting updates to follow. Stay tuned.