If there was any lingering doubt that turning pro straight out of high school was an increasingly viable path for the nation’s top basketball recruits — as well as a major threat to Kentucky’s efforts to land the country’s best players — it was surely eliminated Saturday night.
That’s when five-star combo guard Jaden Hardy announced his commitment to the G League.
Hardy — a 6-foot-4 prospect from the Las Vegas area — is the No. 3 overall recruit in the 2021 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. He was the first perimeter player in his class to receive a scholarship offer from Kentucky, a prospect long projected to be an instant-impact talent for whichever team he picked.
He’ll never play a minute of college basketball.
Hardy is the latest in what is becoming a long list of recruits to turn down the traditional path to the NBA Draft for a more immediate (and lucrative) jump to the professional ranks.
Two years ago, five-star recruits LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton went pro straight out of high school, opting to play a year in the Australia-based NBL instead of college.
Last year, four five-star prospects — Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, Daishen Nix and Isaiah Todd — chose the G League’s revamped professional development path, earning a reported $200,000-$500,000 in salary for what turned out to be a handful of games.
Last month, Michael Foster — the No. 17 recruit in the 2021 class — committed to the G League, becoming the first prospect in this senior class to go that route. Hardy now joins him.
Of all the recent preps-to-pros decisions, this one might hurt the most in Lexington.
Hardy’s commitment was far from unexpected. For the past several months, some sort of professional route was viewed as the “favorite” in his recruitment. By this spring, this outcome was seen in recruiting circles as inevitable. Any Kentucky fans thinking that the recent shakeup to the Cats’ coaching staff would lead to some kind of last-minute turnaround in Hardy’s process were fooling themselves.
But there was a time when UK did appear to be the most likely landing spot for Hardy, who earned a scholarship offer from the Cats in September 2019 — early by John Calipari’s standards — and became one of the Kentucky coach’s top personal targets before the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated recruiting travel last March.
Even then, however, UK’s coaches knew that turning pro would be an option for Hardy. Obviously, that’s what happened.
Hardy is now the eighth top-25 recruit in the past three cycles to choose a professional route, and the sixth in the past two classes to pick the G League’s new program. What college coaches surely hoped would be a fad is instead looking like a trend. Hardy won’t be the last elite high school basketball player to go this route.
‘The landscape has changed’
Not long after the rush of recruits to the G League last year, recruiting analysts started talking about the 2022 class as a prime demographic for preps-to-pros prospects.
At one time, the 2022 class was expected to be the first group of high school players that would be allowed to jump straight to the NBA Draft. Unless something drastic changes in the next few months, that’s not going to happen. But the early speculation that it might happen seemingly manifested in an expectation of an immediate professional path for players in that class. And now that “lesser” paths have proven both lucrative and advantageous, it’s still assumed that at least a few of the top prospects in that 2022 class will skip college basketball.
Ball and Hampton made major money in their one season of NBL play and still ended up as first-round draft picks. (And Ball is the current favorite for NBA Rookie of the Year honors). Green and Kuminga are seen as top-five picks in this year’s draft, according to ESPN’s latest projections. Green, Hampton and Kuminga, it should be pointed out, were all major Kentucky targets at various times in their recruitments.
These are the kind of game-changing recruits that UK has, for the most part, been missing on over the past few recruiting cycles. They’re the type of recruits that the Wildcats regularly landed early in the Calipari years. And they’re also the type of players UK is likely to keep pursuing, especially now that Calipari has formed a recruiting dream team of assistant coaches, led by the return of Orlando Antigua.
With Antigua on staff from 2009-14, the Cats signed nine top-five national recruits, an unprecedented number by any modern standard.
Antigua was quick to share the credit for that success in his introductory press conference last week — pointing out that he was part of a team that included Kenny Payne, Rod Strickland (now a top G League official), John Robic, and, of course, Calipari himself — but he also acknowledged that Kentucky will be recruiting in a different environment moving forward.
“The landscape has changed,” Antigua said. “You have all these new dynamics that are in play, but we’re going to try to manage it as best we can. Like I said, when you have a Hall of Fame coach that you can go out and talk about. And you have a program with the history and the success that we’ve had here at Kentucky; those are all great things to talk about to kids and families. We talk about the educational part of it. There’s so much that we can go out and talk about — not just the basketball.
“And, by the way, the basketball part? That’s pretty good, too.”
What’s next for Kentucky?
Antigua knows the landscape, and he knows the reality of the situation. If Calipari wants to get the best of the best in every class — and UK landed at least one top-five recruit in all six of Antigua’s previous cycles here — the Cats will now have to battle with the G League and the promise of an immediate payday to do that.
Emoni Bates, Jalen Duren, Chris Livingston and Keyonte George currently occupy the Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6 spots in the 2022 rankings, respectively. There have been strong rumblings in favor of the professional path in all four of those recruitments. Three of those players — Duren, Livingston and George — have also been strongly linked to Kentucky.
So, we’ll see what happens soon enough.
Antigua acknowledged the new reality in recruiting the nation’s top players, but he also knows Kentucky basketball and the advantages it can offer, especially in the long term. He — together with fellow new arrival Chin Coleman and returning assistant Jai Lucas, along with Calipari and the other top staff members — will now have to articulate those advantages to kids and families with a clear path to instant money elsewhere.
It won’t be easy, but Antigua gave a sneak preview of his pitch last weekend.
In addition to the educational angle, which does still resonate with many families of top recruits, Antigua talked about the value of being part of a college team and playing with other great players in a highly structured environment with the chance to make a run at postseason glory.
What went unsaid there — but what will surely be conveyed on the recruiting trail — is the opportunity to “build your brand” at a blue-blood program with millions of fans, and the ultimate rewards that can bring. Zion Williamson showed the possibilities a couple of seasons ago. Early Calipari-era players like John Wall and Anthony Davis did the same. Surely such players wouldn’t have entered the NBA with the same level of name recognition (and earning potential) if they’d played in the G League or overseas instead of college.
If name, image and likeness reforms are passed — and that seems to be coming, in some form, relatively soon — coaches at Kentucky and other major programs will have even more ammo to counter the professional pitch.
But even as UK waits for those reforms to arrive, the playing field has been reset to a certain extent with the return of Antigua, the arrival of Coleman, and a more clear view of the reality of the current environment.
Hardy’s recruitment — once seen as a Kentucky lean, ultimately a G League signee — unfolded amid a pandemic when coaches were restricted to Zoom calls and the viability of the pro route was not yet fully realized.
Now, everyone knows the situation. It won’t be long before Calipari — seemingly emboldened by the failures of this past season — can take his recruiting pitch back to the living rooms. Antigua, a master at building meaningful relationships, will once again be along for the ride, and Coleman and Lucas will have a chance to show what they can do out on the trail with the weight of the Kentucky name behind them.
“You can’t use a brush to paint all of them,” Antigua said of the recruits who have been and will be targeted by professional leagues.
Different people want different things. Hardy sided with the pros, as several others have over the past couple of years. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other potential stars who might see a different future for themselves.
“It depends what the families are going to be wanting to experience,” Antigua said. “And our job is to try to communicate how special that experience is when you come to a place like Kentucky, and you do the things that we know and we think that they can do by coming here.”