“Blood Brother” Twist Arrives with Final Piece of Hogs New Roster

Kareem Watkins, Kentucky basketball, Arkansas basketball, John Calipari
photo credit: Kentucky Athletics

It seems as though John Calipari has put the finishing touches on his first Arkansas basketball roster with the addition of Kareem Watkins via the transfer portal.

A 5-foot-8 guard originally from New Jersey, Watkins spent the last four seasons as a walk-on at Kentucky, where he graduated in May. The UA announced his addition alongside three other traditional “walk-on” type players who will fill out the rest of the roster and complete Calipari’s unique vision for his inaugural roster in Fayetteville.

The Hall of Fame coach drew national headlines earlier this summer when he revealed his plan on the “Ways to Win” podcast, which he co-hosts alongside former Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson.

“You may think I’m crazy, but I told my staff I only want to have eight or nine guys,” Calipari said. “They’re leaving anyway, and why would I develop a kid for someone else? Why would I do that?”

Calipari doubled down on those comments in numerous interviews since then, eventually adding that he planned to complete the roster with players like Watkins — walk-ons who’d receive a scholarship, but not necessarily the guaranteed NIL money that the main nine-man rotation will receive.

Kareem Watkins at Kentucky

Some might question how a 5-foot-8 guard who averaged only 8.7 points as a senior in high school ends up as a walk-on at Kentucky, but it becomes clear with a little bit of background information.

Kareem Watkins is the son of Syreeta Brittingham, who also happens to be the mother of D.J. Wagner. That means the two Wildcats-turned-Razorbacks are half brothers.

Even when Watkins came through in the Class of 2020, Wagner was known as one of the top players in the Class of 2023. That probably helped the elder brother secure a roster spot at Kentucky, but it also didn’t hurt that his stepfather is Dajuan Wagner, who played for John Calipari at Memphis.

Over the last four seasons, Watkins played a total of 28 minutes across 20 appearances. He’s yet to score a point in college, going 0 of 4 from the floor with three of those misses from beyond the arc, but has notched 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 4 turnovers, while also committing two fouls.

Perhaps the coolest moment of his career came on Senior Day this past season, as Calipari gave him his first career start and it was alongside his brother. Although Watkins grabbed just one rebound in his one minute of action, it was still special for him and his brother.

“It meant a lot, knowing that’s my brother and I grew up with him,” Wagner said afterward. “That’s my blood brother since we were babies, so to be able to step on a college court with him, that’s a blessing in itself.

“That’s something people dream of, even just going to college with your brother. I was able to play in a college basketball game with him, and at Kentucky, at that. It’s a blessing in itself and we’re both very grateful.”

Even though he was honored on Senior Day at Kentucky, Watkins still had another year of eligibility because his first season in college was 2020-21. All players active that season were granted an extra year by the NCAA in response to the pandemic.

Like many of his Kentucky teammates, he entered the transfer portal this offseason. Now it’s known that he’ll use that final year alongside his brother — just in Fayetteville instead of Lexington.

The timing of exactly when Watkins made his decision is unclear, but it wouldn’t be surprising he helped Calipari land Wagner back in early June.

After all, it was never a 100% given that Wagner would follow his coach. He considered Florida and Oregon, according to CBS Sports, before ultimately picking the Razorbacks over USC and former Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman. Wagner was the next-to-last addition to the main rotation, with only Trevon Brazile coming in after his commitment.

Perhaps the opportunity for the brothers to get another year playing together was enough to secure their pledges. They are very close, with Watkins previously describing Wagner as his “blood brother” and “best friend.”

This is a strategy Calipari might be able to utilize more frequently if he sticks to his strategy of only eight or nine rotational pieces with the rest of his roster comprising of walk-on players who receive the remaining scholarships.

That’s not to discount Kareem Watkins’ bonafides, though. Calipari coached him the last four years, a rarity during his tenure at Kentucky, so he clearly liked him enough to coach him a fifth year. It’s also worth noting that Watkins will understand his role, as the lack of playing time with the Wildcats didn’t seem to bother him.

Other Arkansas Basketball “Walk-Ons”

With the addition of Kareem Watkins, the Razorbacks now have 15 players set to be on their roster in 2024-25, with 10 of them – including this week’s commitment of Casmir Chavis – being part of their main rotation and expected to get most of the minutes next season.

The remaining five are “walk-on” type players who will be critical in practice and could potentially evolve into contributors down the road. Of course, the NCAA has a 13-man scholarship limit, so only three of them will be on scholarship and the other two will be true walk-ons.

A source told Best of Arkansas Sports that Lawson Blake, the lone player from last year’s Arkansas basketball team who never entered the transfer portal, has not been placed on scholarship. He is likely to miss most, if not all, of this season because of an Achilles injury suffered in practice.

We have also been led to believe that Watkins is on scholarship, which means one of the three players listed below is the other true walk-on. However, with NIL, that distinction might not even matter.

Jaden Karuletwa — Sun Valley (Calif.) Village Christian

The first of these commitments was Jaden Karuletwa out of Village Christian in the Los Angeles area. Listed at 6-foot-6, 180 pounds, he is a guard who’s known for his shooting ability.

According to MaxPreps, Karuletwa averaged 14.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 blocks as a senior. He attempted 6.9 three-pointers per game and, despite that high volume, still connected on nearly 40% of them.

Melo Sanchez — Hawaii Pacific (DII)

Originally from San Diego, Melo Sanchez appears to have first starred at Mater Dei Catholic before graduating in 2021 and taking a prep year at Veritas Prep in Phoenix. That helped him land a Division II scholarship at Hawaii Pacific.

As a 6-foot-4, 185-pound guard, Sanchez averaged 14.4 points and shot a whopping 46.8% from beyond the arc on 5.6 attempts per game during his freshman year. As a sophomore this past season, he led the Sharks in scoring at 14.6 points per game, but his 3-point shooting dipped to 34.6% on 7.3 attempts.

Ayden Kelley — Southaven (Miss.) Northpoint Christian

The third scholarship “walk-on” addition for the Razorbacks was Ayden Kelley, who comes to Arkansas from the Memphis area. Listed at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, he was a standout player at Northpoint Christian in Southaven, Miss., where he averaged 19 points and 4 assists as a senior.

Kelley is the son of Antonio Burks, who played for John Calipari at Memphis, and the stepson of Tony Harris, who was a star high school player in Memphis before becoming a four-year starter at Tennessee.

2024-25 Arkansas Basketball Roster

Here’s a look at next season’s roster in its entirety:

PlayerPOSClassHT | WTPrev. School
Jonas AidooFSr.6-11 | 240Tennessee
^Lawson BlakeFSr.6-10 | 240Fayetteville HS / Link Year Prep
Trevon BrazileFR-Jr.6-10 | 220Missouri
*Casmir ChavisGFr.6-3 | 180Park Center HS (Minneapolis, Minn.)
Johnell DavisGG-Sr.6-4 | 205Florida Atlantic
Boogie FlandGFr.6-2 | 175Archbishop Stepinac HS (Bronx, N.Y.)
Zvonimir IvisicFSo.7-2 | 235Kentucky
^Jaden KaruletwaGFr.6-5 | 185Village Christian HS (Sun Valley, Calif.)
^Ayden KelleyGFr.5-10 | n/a**Northpoint Christian HS (Southaven, Miss.)
Karter KnoxFFr.6-6 | 225Overtime Elite-RWE
Billy Richmond IIIFFr.6-5 | 205Camden HS (Camden, N.J.)
^Melo SanchezGJr.6-4 | 185Hawaii Pacific (DII)
Adou ThieroFJr.6-8 | 220Kentucky
D.J. WagnerGSo.6-4 | 195Kentucky
^Kareem WatkinsGG-Sr.5-8 | 175Kentucky
*Chavis is the only player not officially announced by Arkansas | **no weight is listed for Kelley | ^walk-on type player

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