The best basketball recruits in the class of 2023 — players who have gone virtually unscouted by college coaches so far — are about to log lots of minutes on their cell phones.
Tuesday marks the first day that coaches can directly contact high school recruits from the 2023 class, a time on the calendar that always brings a sense of overwhelming excitement to the next big wave of basketball prospects.
College coaches and recruits in the rising junior class are permitted to have other forms of communication before this June 15 date, but this is often the period when recruitments ramp up for such players. Many college programs start making calls to their priority targets at midnight, and it’s a process that lasts several days as head coaches begin reaching out to make first contact, sometimes extending scholarship offers as part of the initial communication.
Kentucky’s coaches are certain to be busy over the next few days. While John Calipari and his assistants have seen very few of these 2023 recruits in person — they were all still freshmen the last time coaches were permitted to travel for recruiting, before the COVID-19 pandemic — the Wildcats have already expressed varying levels of interest in many players from this group.
Next month, UK’s coaches will get several opportunities to scout recruits in person as the shoe company circuits restart and the NCAA permits evaluation periods for the first time in more than a year. First, they’ll be on the phone to tell these players more about Kentucky basketball.
Though this is not an exhaustive list, here’s a look at some of the players who are likely to hear directly from Kentucky’s coaches this week.
This is an easy place to start. DJ Wagner’s talent on the basketball court and ties to Calipari have both been well-chronicled. Wagner — a 6-foot-3 point guard from Camden, N.J. — is the No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class, according to all of the major rankings websites. MaxPreps.com named him the national sophomore of the year this past season, and he’s obviously one of the most coveted recruits in the country.
He’s also the son of Dajuan Wagner (who was Calipari’s first major recruit at Memphis) and the grandson of Louisville great Milt Wagner, who was once on Calipari’s Memphis staff. The Wagner family still has strong ties to Calipari, and — while DJ will have lucrative options to turn pro right out of high school — there’s a sense in the recruiting community that he might very well decide to play for Calipari at Kentucky instead.
Kentucky has not signed the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit since Nerlens Noel picked the Wildcats in 2012. Wagner will represent Calipari’s best chance in years to break that streak.
Kwame Evans Jr.
The No. 2 player in the 2023 class, according to the recently updated Rivals.com rankings, Kwame Evans Jr. has drawn comparisons to Kentucky fan favorite Tayshaun Prince and will team up with UK commitment Skyy Clark at Montverde Academy (Fla.) this coming season. The 6-foot-8 small forward from Baltimore missed out on his entire 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it obviously hasn’t hurt his standing in recruiting circles, and he has continued to excel on the court this spring. Maryland, Kansas, Memphis and Florida are among the major programs that have already extended scholarship offers to Evans, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Kentucky does the same in the near future.
Ranked by both 247Sports and Rivals.com as the No. 4 overall recruit in the class, Elijah Fisher is seen as the next great basketball prospect out of Ontario, which has produced several top prospects in recent years, including Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The 6-6 wing has tremendous athleticism and projects as a game-changing two-way player at the next level. Kentucky’s coaches reached out to Fisher’s high school coaches during the 2020-21 season, and he’s the type of athletic perimeter player — with high defensive upside — that Calipari always looks for on the recruiting trail.
247Sports’ No. 5 overall player in the 2023 class, Omaha Biliew has long been on Kentucky’s recruiting radar. The 6-8 power forward from Iowa is yet another dynamic athlete with the versatility to play a variety of roles at the college level. He’s expected to visit UK sometime this summer — possibly as early as this month — and has often mentioned the Wildcats as one of his top college options. He plays for the same Nike-affiliated travel program as Kentucky commitment Skyy Clark, and those two players will be teammates next high school season at Montverde Academy (Fla.). Clark was in Lexington for an official visit this past weekend.
One of the hottest recruits in the 2023 class at the moment, J.J. Taylor is coming off a stellar showing at last week’s Pangos All-American Camp and a breakout season for Kenwood Academy in Chicago. The 6-8 wing averaged 28.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 steals per game, earning sophomore first-team All-America honors from MaxPreps.com. He told national recruiting expert Andrew Slater at the Pangos camp that Kansas, Illinois and Texas have already extended scholarship offers, with Kentucky, Duke and Michigan among those showing major interest. Taylor is also expected to visit Lexington this summer.
Also a first-team all-sophomore selection by MaxPreps.com this past season, Baye Fall averaged 22.1 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.2 blocked shots per game and led his team the Colorado state championship. The 6-10 center is ranked by ESPN as the No. 4 overall player and No. 2 big man in the 2023 class. Arizona, Baylor, Kansas and Memphis have all extended early scholarship offers, and Kentucky has expressed interest. Fall has length and mobility for the “5” spot and is working on his game away from the basket. He’s not a bruising force in the paint, but that length makes him a formidable shot-blocker. New UK assistant coach Chin Coleman was recruiting Fall heavily at Illinois, and that relationship has carried over to Kentucky.
El Paso native KJ Lewis — a 6-4 shooting guard — averaged 24.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 4.5 steals per game as a sophomore and impressed at the recent Pangos camp with his athleticism and potential as a two-way player at the college level. Lewis is a competitive player who takes pride in his defensive game and can guard multiple positions on the perimeter. Kentucky has already been in steady contact — and those Texas ties make UK assistant Jai Lucas a natural fit for this recruitment — but expect the communication between the two sides to pick up even more starting this week.
The No. 2 overall player on ESPN’s 2023 board — behind only DJ Wagner — Jalen Lewis might be the best big man in the group and is already hearing from Kentucky. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound center from the Oakland area told Sports Illustrated last week that Michigan, North Carolina, Arkansas, California, Southern Cal and Stanford were also steadily recruiting him. Lewis will be back at Bishop O’Dowd High School next season, and that program is expected to play a national schedule, which should only heighten the star center’s profile and bring even more college attention.
Not yet universally ranked by the national recruiting services — 247Sports is the only site to rank him, at No. 39 overall — Brandon Gardner has nonetheless impressed so far this spring. The active, 6-7 forward from Columbia, S.C., is not afraid to fight on the boards and has the grit and “positionless” style that Calipari often preaches. So it’s no surprise that Kentucky is often listed at the top of the schools showing the most interest in the early stages of his recruitment.
247Sports ranks Jalen Hooks as the No. 55 recruit in the 2023 class, and neither Rivals nor ESPN has him on their list. Yet. The 6-6 small forward from Indianapolis is another prospect who is likely to gain more traction nationally as the evaluation periods begin this summer. Hooks averaged 11.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game as a sophomore and has the skill, size and athleticism to be one of the most coveted players in this class. Kentucky has already expressed serious interest, and the two sides have been trying to work out a campus visit to UK for sometime this summer.
There hasn’t been any communication yet between Kentucky and Justin Edwards, but the 6-7 wing from Philadelphia recently told Rivals.com that UK would be his “dream school” and that he grew up as a fan of the Wildcats. Obviously, “dream school” status doesn’t always lead to a commitment in the recruiting process, but Edwards will be one to keep an eye on. Tennessee and Miami have already extended scholarship offers, and the skilled left-hander has shown this spring that he has the ability to shoot with range and attack the basket. Look for him to be included in the national rankings once the major websites make their summer updates.
This player needs no introduction to anyone who follows high school basketball in Kentucky.
Reed Sheppard has already taken the state by storm with his eye-popping performances for North Laurel High School. The 6-2 guard averaged 30.1 points per game and shot 40.9 percent from three-point range as a sophomore, but the question was whether he could have a similar impact against national competition. So far this spring, he has. Sheppard has popped up on “best of” lists following some major recruiting events across the country, and he’ll compete on the top-tier Adidas circuit next month.
The son of two of Kentucky’s greatest players from the 1990s — Jeff Sheppard and Stacey Reed — Reed Sheppard has obviously captured the attention of UK basketball fans. And Calipari’s coaching staff reached out to express interest in his recruitment during the 2020-21 season. Sheppard took a recruiting visit to Louisville earlier this month, and he’ll have plenty of college options to choose from. He entered the 247Sports rankings as the No. 65 overall player in the 2023 class earlier this year.
Recruits from Kentucky
Sheppard isn’t the only prospect to watch from Kentucky in the class of 2023.
In fact, he’s not even the state’s highest-ranked player from that group.
Male forward Kaleb Glenn is No. 44 in the 247Sports rankings, leading a class that is considered to be one of the state’s best in years. UK has already expressed some interest in 6-10 center Cyr Malonga, who plays for Louisville-based prep school Evangel Christian. Texas native George Washington III — a 6-2 guard for Christian Academy of Louisville — is also generating national recruiting interest and is ranked No. 74 overall by 247Sports.
Those Kentucky fans who are always clamoring for more in-state recruiting targets might get their wish over the next couple of years.