It only took 11 years.
But at last it’s here.
For the first time in the John Calipari era at Kentucky, the Razorbacks have a better class of freshmen than their first-year Wildcat counterparts. Granted, this achievement is somewhat muted by the fact that quite a few freshmen classes around the nation are better than Kentucky’s this year.
Tennessee’s Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, for instance, strode into Rupp Arena on Saturday night and put up a total of 50 points, outscoring Kentucky’s freshmen players by 26 points, en route to taking advantage of UK’s choke job for an 82-71 victory.
On Tuesday night, the Razorbacks will take their turn visiting Kentucky. To win an Arkansas vs Kentucky matchup for the first time since 2014, Eric Musselman’s group will lean on freshmen guards Moses Moody and Davonte “Devo” Davis. Big man Jaylin Williams, too, will get big minutes alongside Justin Smith if he’s healthy enough while recovering from a knee injury.
In recent weeks, the gap between Arkansas’ freshmen and Kentucky’s freshmen appears to be widening. Even though Arkansas’ freshmen class included four blue-chip talents, this trend still runs counter to expectations coming into the season.
Kentucky’s class of 2020 was rated higher than Arkansas’, just as every class has been since John Calipari stepped on campus in 2009:
Elite high school ratings lead to early mock draft inclusions and this season was no exception. Through much of November and December, Kentucky had three freshmen projected to go in the early to middle part of the 2021 NBA Draft.
That has been par for the course in Calipari’s system for some time now.
In some recent seasons, Kentucky’s freshmen didn’t mesh out of the gate and took a couple of months to get rolling. By the time they play against Arkansas, they almost always had their issues ironed out.
But this year has been different.
After some success to start the SEC season, Kentucky has reverted to its losing ways, dropping six of its last seven games (albeit to most of the same teams that beat Arkansas earlier this season).
As a result, two of its most mostly “one and done” prospects — Brandon Boston (who in early December was a projected Top 10 pick) and Terrence Clarke — are tumbling down the 2021 NBA mock draft boards. It’s gotten so bad that Boston and Clarke are now considered borderline second round picks in some mocks.
Meanwhile, Arkansas counters with “only” one projected first rounder in Moses Moody. Moody has slowly crept into the Top 10 on some mocks for the 2021 NBA Draft.
No other Razorback freshman is likely to declare early.
Devo Davis has shown a lot of promise in recent weeks and could develop into a legit NBA draft prospect after his sophomore or junior year, if he keeps improving at this same pace. But it’s a stretch to speculate he’ll be ready to make the leap to one and done status after only a couple more months.
Still, the focus here isn’t on how high these freshmen will be drafted. That’s all in the future, and has nothing to do with how good these players are right now.
When judging the current quality of these players in terms of on-court production, you can’t go by traditional stats numbers alone. That’s because Calipari will almost always play his freshmen more minutes than opposing coaches’ will play theirs. That’s even more the case this season since, even by Kentucky standards, the Wildcats are extremely young.
Calipari has essentially promised his hotshot freshmen big minutes to showcase their wares for the NBA. That’s why Terrence Clarke (31.3 minutes a game before a serious injury in late December), Brandon “BJ” Boston (30.2 mpg), Devin Askew (30.2 mpg) and Isaiah Jackson (20.2 mpg) surpass Arkansas’ freshmen when it comes to total playing time.
Moses Moody (32.3 mpg), meanwhile, leads Arkansas in minutes while Devo Davis has seen a major uptick recently and chipped in 22.4 mpg in SEC play. Jaylin Williams averages 15.4 mpg in the SEC while “KK” Robinson was getting scant playing time in conference before his season-ending injury.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman doesn’t promise minutes. He wants his players to stay hungry and competitive in workouts and practice, and Arkansas’ freshmen have done a great job of pushing older Razorbacks like Desi Sills, Jalen Tate, JD Notae, Justin Smith, Connor Vanover and Vance Jackson.
This comparison is about what these freshmen do in the minutes they are given — on the college level only.
To simplify the comparison, let’s forget about the Wildcats’ first-year scrap metal like Cam’Ron Fletcher (now off the team) and Lance Ware. Let’s also disregard Robinson and Clarke, who are missing major parts of the season. We’ll just focus on the top three freshmen for each side.
Let’s start with two big guys and work our way down:
Jaylin Williams (UA) vs. Isaiah Jackson (UK)
Thanks to the stellar play of Justin Smith and recent re-emergence of 7’3″ Connor Vanover, Arkansas hasn’t needed Williams as much originally expected. When he’s gotten on the court, though, Williams has been a steady, efficient contributor who has helped turn Arkansas into a much better rebounding team this season. He’s also proven to be a stout, and surprisingly bouncy, defender.
Isaiah Jackson, meanwhile, is a special defensive talent.
He uses his length and quickness to terroristic effect, as his eight-block effort against Kansas early in the season showed. He’s the lone Kentucky freshman who is exceeding preseason expectations instead of playing beneath them.
Here’s what both average per 40 minutes in SEC play:
Williams: 7.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.3 spg and 2.1 bpg on 57% shooting
Jackson: 14.3 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 2.1 spg and 6.4 bpg on 55% shooting
And below are some advanced stats to help show what these usual bench players contribute on a per-minute basis in SEC play.
True shooting %: 65.5%
Win shares*: 0.4
Win shares per 40 minutes**: .114
*an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense and offense
**an estimate of the number of wins contributed by that player per 40 minutes
True shooting %: 60%
Win shares*: 0.8
Win shares per 40 minutes**: .172
Devo Davis (UA) vs. Devin Askew (UK)
Devonte “Devo” Davis, like Robinson before his season-ending injury, had served mostly as a defensive wrecking ball off the bench — until a recent spate of games where he’s often scored in double figures. Although not quite showing the full range of skills that made him a triple-double machine in high school, he did flash exciting, versatile scoring talent in a win over Southern:
Devin Askew, on the other hand, has struggled manning the point guard position. He doesn’t yet have his strength and quickness to where it needs to be at this level, although he did play well against Tennessee despite coughing up critical turnover by shuffling his feet with the ball with just under 10 minutes left and Kentucky up 58-56.
“On the ball where everyone is watching him, he’s not effective. He’s just not,” Calipari said of Askew in January.
He continued with what he wanted to see: “… Less dribbles, get rid of the ball, go away from the ball and when it comes to you, make plays. Again, he’s a respectful kid, I just don’t know if he’s hearing what we’re trying to get him to do. He will.”
Even if Askew starts to this season, it’s clear he’s not going to be a one and done.
Per 40 minutes averages in the SEC:
14.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2.3 spg, .088 WS/40 on 50.2% TS
9.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.5 spg, .042 WS/40 on 44.4% TS
Moses Moody (UA) vs. Brandon Boston (UK)
Crown jewel vs. crown jewel.
Moody and Boston were the highest-rated prospects for their prospective programs and have often been the leading scorers for both teams. Earlier in the year, both showed up on mock NBA Draft boards as potential top 10 picks in the upcoming draft. But as the competition has heated up in SEC play, Moody has proven to be the better player in many ways.
Thanks to a couple seasons in the prestigious Monteverde prep school program, Moody has played with a level of offensive skill and court awareness that is rare for any college player, no less a freshman.
“He’s really good at not only reading his primary defender, but reading the secondary defender,” analyst Jake Rosen said on the Prep2Pro podcast. “When he takes dribble pull ups, it’s never like, ‘Oh, you really could have had something else there.’”
“He takes dribble pull [jumpers] when people really slide over and cut off his lane to the rim and he reads and reacts. He’s just so quick to see everything on the floor. And I just absolutely love him as a prospect and have really enjoyed seeing him make that jump to college level and finding a stroke and finding his spots and finding his efficiency. He’s just a really smart and good basketball player.”
No kidding. In terms of actually contributing to wins production, he’s near the top of his class:
Moody has emerged as an ideal off-ball wing player, someone who Zimmerman already has compared to a combination of Todd Day, Joe Johnson and Scotty Thurman. His outstanding footwork and previous years of playing both as the primary offensive threat and off-ball with other stars like Cade Cunningham.
He’s especially adept at the stutter rip move and rocker step, “just the patience and explosion at which he jabs and the counters with his spin moves, his extension finishes and ability to, like Cade, lower his shoulder and absorb contact,” Rosen said.
“And then being able to see the floor, so good at picking out spots off the ball, sliding into little creases to find openings and excellent when defense collapse to him when he’s attacking off the catch or off of a pin down” to create for others.
“Everything he does is perfectly in the flow of the game.”
The below breakdown of the pros and cons in his game shows that:
Brandon Boston hasn’t yet played anywhere near as effectively as Moody.
He has shown he can make awkward shots and finish well around the rim, making him a potentially great finisher one day, but Boston hasn’t shown the same level of court awareness and IQ that Moody has to make up for his shortcomings.
“I think he’s struggling with some physicality, strength, and burst concerns,” analyst Jackson Frank said on the Prep2Pro podcast.
Besides shooting 21% from the three-point line, Boston’s biggest downfall is his inability to dribble penetrate in half-court situations. His handles “are less useful if he doesn’t have strength or burst,” Frank said. “Because there was a play against Kansas where he got a little advantage on Marcus Garrett, but because he didn’t have the explosion and the strength to get by, and Garrett just cut him off, and forced a travel.”
“I think maybe I overrated him personally, because a lot of what I saw from him [in high school] came in the open floor. We’re seeing less of those opportunities.”
Per 40 averages in conference play:
18.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.2 spg, .129 WS/40 on 51.5% TS
13.7 ppg, 6 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.8 spg, .061 WS/40 on 41.7% TS
Of course, judging a group of players primarily based on a few select stats doesn’t tell the whole story. No, the whole story is better told another way.
Let’s allow someone who is intimately familiar with Kentucky basketball help share it.
Here’s Alex Weber, a writer for Kentucky Sports Radio, describing what Calipari’s team looked like earlier this season:
“Most times down the court, Kentucky’s offense starts with 8-10 seconds of Askew aimlessly dribbling, followed by another 10 or so seconds of three-man weaving four yards behind the arc, before someone either turns it over or forces up a bad shot.”
“It’s like there is no plan. I’m sure there is one, it’s just been poorly and lazily executed.”
Weber continued: “Guys aren’t whipping around the court off the ball, cutting, screening, diving to the hoop, darting through defenders trying to get an open look. On the ball, they’re doing even less.”
Want to know what Arkansas basketball looks like when it’s humming?
Take that last paragraph from Weber and turn the negatives into positives. Eric Musselman has his guys whipping around the court, cutting backdoor, screening and driving to the hoop with great spacing and timing. His freshmen are a big part of an offense that is hitting on all cylinders much more often than Kentucky’s.
Sure, Kentucky played a harder schedule to start the season. They have also hit a very tough mid-season stretch in SEC play. But that’s no excuse for how badly its freshmen have played, and any real Kentucky fan would tell you the same.
Arkansas’ freshmen, meanwhile, have helped lead the Razorbacks to the Top 4 in the SEC. They are playing up to lofty expectations with the cards they have been dealt, and that’s the biggest reason why as a class they are leaving their Wildcat counterparts in the dust.
More insight into Brandon’s struggles here:
Read our preview of Arkansas vs Kentucky here:
h/t Brandon Baker of OvertimeHeroics.net for research. For more statistics-based Razorback basketball analysis, make sure to follow him here.