For a rarity, Kentucky basketball has only two starters to replace for next season, but one of those holes doesn’t have an obvious player on hand to fill it. Although freshman Trey Lyles is an easy pick to succeed NBA-bound Julius Randle, Randle’s classmate, James Young, leaves the small forward job in search of its next star.
The candidate with the most experience at the position is Alex Poythress, a super-sub on last year’s national runners-up. Although Poythress played more power forward in 2013-14, the 6’8” junior-to-be spent much of his first season in Lexington at the 3.
That said, Poythress looked both more comfortable and more effective last season, when he wasn’t being asked to play on the wing. With next year’s Wildcats likely to be even more low-post heavy than previous editions, John Calipari needs a small forward who can function on the perimeter. Poythress doesn’t look like that player.
One returning Wildcat who has more of an outside game is rising sophomore Derek Willis. One of the least heralded (and least used) of last season’s freshmen, Willis has the face-up game to develop into a stretch forward similar to the departed Kyle Wiltjer.
The likelihood, though, is that Willis will be more valuable as a role player, coming in for short stretches if the Wildcats need an injection of jump shooting. He hasn’t shown the mobility to defend at a high level on the perimeter, and it’s tough to imagine Calipari starting him (other than out of desperation) until that changes.
That leaves the job of replacing Young up to the incoming freshman class, never a group to be overlooked where Kentucky is concerned. While there isn’t a natural small forward in the bunch this year, a pair of Coach Cal’s latest recruits offers options for addressing the vacancy at the 3.
The first of them is point guard Tyler Ulis, a 5’9” lightning bug who immediately becomes the best ball-handler on the roster. One legitimate option for finding Ulis the minutes he’s sure to earn is to start him at the point, bumping last year’s backcourt up one spot so that Andrew Harrison becomes the 2-guard and Aaron Harrison the small forward.
Aaron Harrison is eminently capable of handling the 3, both as a scorer—he’ll still be one of Big Blue’s best options for stretching the defense—and as a defender at 6’6”. Twin brother Andrew, for his part, might even benefit from not having to handle the ball full time, and he’s certainly shown appreciable scoring potential when he gets hot.
That version of a three-guard lineup is one that Kentucky fans should expect to see (and maybe see quite often) before the year is out, but it’s not the optimal solution for the starting 5. Ulis costs the Wildcats too much of their usual height advantage to be an ideal starter with the Harrison twins around.
For the best answer to Young’s departure, Calipari will have to turn to his other freshman guard, 6’5” Devin Booker.
Smart and physical, Booker is unlikely to have nearly as many growing pains on defense as the freshmen who often looked so lost a season ago. He’s got a shooting touch to rival Aaron Harrison’s, not to mention the speed to keep up with Kentucky’s transition offense.
In that three-guard look, Calipari could let Aaron Harrison (his best individual defender on the outside) cover the opponent’s most dangerous wing scorer, with Booker covering the second option. Offensively, Harrison and Young were pretty well interchangeable last season, and Harrison and Booker could similarly share the floor with little trouble.
With Booker in the starting lineup, Kentucky gets its best shooters—excepting center Karl-Anthony Towns, too slow to be a factor in this discussion—and its best perimeter defensive group on the floor at the same time. That combination trumps any concerns about Booker’s lack of experience, especially on a team that already has five more veterans than usual for the Coach Cal era.