Sport What went wrong for Kahlil Whitney at Kentucky, and what's next in his basketball career?
John Clay: Quick, who is Kentucky basketball's most consistent player?
Nick Richards is the main man in the middle, the 7-footer in the midst of a breakout junior season. Tyrese Maxey is the happy-go-lucky boy wonder, coming up big in the big games. Ashton Hagans is the facilitator on offense, the ball-hawk on defense. And yet I can't help thinking that through 24 games of this Kentucky basketball season, Immanuel Quickley may be the player most responsible for this team’s success. Quickley is Kentucky basketball’s Mr. Consistency.“He’s a killer,” said teammate Johnny Juzang after the Cats’ 77-64 victory at Tennessee last Saturday.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — To say that things didn’t work out between Kentucky and Kahlil Whitney would be an understatement.
Whitney came to Lexington as a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American with seemingly as much long-term potential as just about any prospect in the 2019 class. In announcing that Whitney had signed with the Wildcats last spring, UK coach John Calipari called him a “difference-maker” defensively and a versatile offensive player who could be an “elite finisher” at the rim.
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“I believe he’s only scratched the surface of how good he can be, and I can’t wait to get to work with him,” Calipari said then.
Whitney started the first seven games of Kentucky’s season, but his playing time fell off after that. In his last eight games as a Wildcat, he scored no more than two points, grabbed no more than one rebound, and played no more than 11 minutes. That stretch included playing just two minutes in UK’s overtime victory over Louisville and a total of four minutes in two victories over Arkansas and Georgia.
After those two games, on Jan. 24, UK announced that Whitney had left the program.
He averaged 3.3 points and 1.7 rebounds per game, never finding his place on this Kentucky team.
Those numbers don’t exactly scream, “NBA draft pick!” Nor does leaving a college team in the middle of a freshman season. Yet Whitney, who not long ago was considered a potential lottery pick in the 2020 draft, still interests the NBA’s decision-makers.
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And he could still hear his name called in June.
“In my opinion — do I think he can play in the NBA? I mean, he’s the same player that he was last year. A 6-7 kid that can play — that’s how I look at him,” his former AAU coach, Mike Irvin, told the Herald-Leader this week. “It’s unfortunate what happened over at Kentucky, but whatever happened at Kentucky doesn’t measure if the kid is good or not. He just had an unfortunate situation.”
Irvin, the head coach of the highly successful Mac Irvin Fire program on the Nike circuit, implied that the seeds of Whitney’s “unfortunate situation” at UK were planted during his recruitment.
Unlike most Kentucky recruits, who are on the Wildcats’ radar for longer periods of time — years, in many cases — and play several games in front of Calipari before committing to the program, Whitney’s was a whirlwind recruitment.
He entered his final season of AAU ball as a back-end Top 100 national recruit — highly touted but well below the level of nearly every UK signee in the Calipari era — before a breakout spring and summer on the Nike circuit.
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Calipari didn’t start paying close attention to Whitney until that year’s July evaluation period. A few days later, he extended a UK scholarship offer. A couple of weeks after that, Whitney was in Lexington for an official visit. And three days after that, he had committed to the Cats.
“It was bang bang,” Irvin said. “Kahlil jumped up the boards, you remember … all the way into the top 10. He had that good year, and here comes a school like Kentucky, who’s seen him (in July) — but most of the players they’ve been on for two years, it’s Kentucky — but, with Kahlil, it happened overnight. So I think that probably played a little part in it.”
Whitney, who had called UK his “dream school” growing up, was smitten with Cal’s offer, and the Hall of Fame coach was immediately drawn to the possibilities of Whitney’s game.
The construction of UK’s roster this season — and the growth Whitney still needed to achieve on the court — simply proved to be a bad mix. His game just didn’t fit with this group of Cats.
ESPN NBA draft analyst Jonathan Givony — whose mock draft had Whitney at No. 17 overall at the beginning of this season — noted that he voiced concern in August about some major questions regarding the future UK player.
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“Already then, there was some concern there that he’s a guy that is probably a ‘4’ man who needs shooting around him,” Givony told the Herald-Leader this week. “This Kentucky roster has a lot of things, but shooting isn’t really one of them.”
At the time of Whitney’s departure, UK was shooting just 31.6% from 3-point range and averaging just 4.7 made 3s per game.
“And then, Kahlil himself, he’s not a very skilled player,” Givony continued. “His basketball IQ is not very high. And so he really struggled. That’s the only way to put it. And I don’t think he made up for it with his defense. He was a step slow there, too. And he didn’t even rebound. I think it was a real struggle for him. He kept getting minutes, but he just didn’t produce. At Kentucky, you gotta win. So I get why other guys took his playing time. … You’re always going to have that competition at Kentucky.”
As the Cats struggled early, Calipari tinkered with the lineup and eventually settled on the three-guard attack of Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley — combined with Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery in the frontcourt — that has UK back on the right track. In those final two games that Whitney played just four minutes, fellow UK freshman Keion Brooks played a total of 32.
The day after Whitney left the team, Calipari said he was “disappointed” in himself for not being able to find a way to make it work.
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“I went to the three-guard lineup, which everybody thought I should do and we needed to do and I did it,” he said. “Well, that cut his time and some other guys started playing better.”
Calipari said then — and has continued to say — that Whitney cheered on his teammates louder than anyone else on the roster and kept a positive attitude around the team. He just wasn’t playing.
“Coach Cal was trying to figure out his team,” Irvin said. “And in figuring it out, he’s got a lot of personalities to worry about over there. He can’t worry about (just) one. So he has to put the best chemistry on the floor. And Kahlil might not have been good in that five. He has to find all that out, and what happened was it left Kahlil the odd man out.”
Just because Whitney didn’t fit on this UK roster doesn’t mean his dreams of becoming a professional basketball player are finished.
“I’ll tell you this: he’s one of the best players I’ve ever coached. And I’ve coached a lot of NBA players.” Irvin said. “Kahlil is 6-7, can shoot the jump shot, can put it on the deck. He just jumps over anybody. But we know basketball is all about confidence. … It’s all about who can get the best out of each player. I know I got the best out of Kahlil, because I’ve known him for a long time and I knew how to work it. But he was just in an unfortunate situation where Coach Cal, I guess, he couldn’t get the best out of him.”
Irvin told the Herald-Leader this week that Whitney is continuing to work on his game and prepare for whatever comes next in his basketball career.
Nothing official has been announced — and Irvin said “all options are open” as far as Whitney’s next step — but the expectation in basketball circles is that the former Kentucky player will at least test his stock in this year’s NBA draft.
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That sounds farfetched for a player who left his team in the middle of the season while averaging just 3.3 points per game, but there’s a real possibility Whitney could be selected by an NBA team on June 25.
Though ESPN has removed Whitney completely from its 2020 mock draft, he’s still at No. 73 overall in the website’s Top 100 prospect rankings, a list that was updated just last week.
“If you look at the history of the second round, 85 percent of second-round picks don’t pan out. Like, nothing comes of them whatsoever,” Givony said. “So I think you look at that and you say, ‘Is there a 15 percent chance that Kahlil Whitney can become an NBA rotation player?’ And you start to look at his body, his athleticism, his length, his age — he just turned 19 years old. And you say, ‘Can we throw this guy to our G League team and maybe in two years something comes of him?’ And if it does, great. And, if not, that’s just another one of the 85 percent of second-round picks that didn’t pan out.
“There have been so many instances of guys who didn’t light the world on fire in college basketball in their first three months who became real NBA players later on. So, there’s nothing to say that — maybe in a different environment, different situation — you can’t get something out of him down the road. It’s obviously going to be a different path for him. But you don’t go from being a potential lottery pick to, ‘No chance whatsoever,’ in the span of three months. That’s just not how it works.”
Irvin predicted that, once NBA teams get to know Whitney through individual workouts and see the promise in his game, the interest would be there.
“I’m sure, in Kahlil’s case, there would be a lot of teams that like him if he goes that route,” he said. “He works hard. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s a good kid. He lives in the gym. So, with him, you can’t take away that athleticism. You can’t take away his heart. And you can’t take the skills he has.”
Givony acknowledged that NBA teams would likely inquire as to why Whitney felt so compelled to leave Kentucky halfway through this season, but the untimely departure wouldn’t sink his chances of being selected in June.
“At some point in the draft, you just roll the dice and you say, ‘Hey, can this guy become a rotation player at all? Maybe?’ And, at that point, the reward just outweighs the risk.”
©2020 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)
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