John Calipari has a unique recruiting opportunity, and it starts this weekend

·6 min read
Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com

The annual basketball recruiting schedule takes college coaches all over the place, to locales large and small, some more glamorous than others.

As far as those destinations go, it won’t get much better than the next few days for John Calipari, who will spend his early July in Malaga — located on Spain’s Costa del Sol — to scout top Kentucky recruiting targets in the FIBA U17 World Cup.

This will be a business trip for the UK head coach, who will be there primarily to see — and be seen by — a USA Basketball roster stacked with young talent and featuring a few of UK’s top targets for the 2023 and 2024 classes. The games begin Saturday — with the USA playing Lebanon at 2:45 p.m. EDT — and the event wraps up with the gold-medal game July 10. All games are expected to be shown live on the FIBA YouTube channel.

Here’s a quick look at the top recruits Calipari will be watching.

Ron Holland

The most recent five-star recruit to set foot on UK’s campus for an official visit, Ron Holland heads to Spain this summer after leading the USA Basketball U16 squad to a gold medal in 2021, when he averaged a team-best 19.0 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. (New Kentucky commitment Robert Dillingham was the second-leading scorer on that squad).

Holland — listed at 6-foot-8 and hailing from Duncanville, Texas — earned a UK scholarship offer during his visit two weeks ago and soon after that cut his list to five options: Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas, UCLA and the G League.

His recruitment is far from over, and there are no clear favorites at this point. Holland was trending toward the professional path for much of the past year, but the college route is now viewed as a real possibility, and UK is well-positioned if he goes in that direction.

Holland is the No. 11 overall player in the 2023 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.

DJ Wagner

The recruit grabbing the most headlines in the 2023 class remains DJ Wagner, who is still No. 1 in the composite rankings for that group and the subject of a major Kentucky-Louisville battle.

Wagner — a 6-3 combo guard from Camden, N.J. — told Sports Illustrated earlier in the week that he’s still “open to all schools,” but it would be a shock if he ends up anywhere other than UK or U of L.

As of now, Louisville is the favorite in national recruiting circles. Rivals.com national analyst Rob Cassidy logged a pro-Cards prediction this week, and On3.com national analyst Jamie Shaw wrote late last week that Wagner to U of L is practically a done deal in the aftermath of the Cardinals hiring his grandfather, Milt Wagner, for a support staff position.

247Sports analyst Travis Branham also has a Louisville Crystal Ball pick for Wagner, and told the Herald-Leader recently that he thinks the Cards lead for the five-star guard. He added that Kentucky still has a chance, however, and that backs up the word out of Lexington. There remains a sense in various corners of UK’s camp that the Wildcats not only are still in this recruitment, but that they’re actually the favorite.

As evidenced by this list, Calipari will be paying attention to a few different recruits on the Spain trip, but Wagner is the one of most immediate interest. Louisville is also expected to be represented at the FIBA event by assistant coach Nolan Smith.

Ian Jackson

Holland was the leading scorer on the U16 team last year, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Ian Jackson takes that honor on this U17 squad.

Jackson — a 6-4 shooting guard from Bronx, N.Y. — was named the national sophomore of the year by MaxPreps.com after averaging 19.8 points per game and leading Cardinal Hayes High School (Jamal Mashburn’s alma mater) to a state title last season. Earlier this week, Rivals.com moved him up to the No. 1 overall spot in its 2024 rankings.

Kentucky made its move early, extending a scholarship offer to Jackson on June 15, the first day that college coaches could directly contact players in the 2024 class. He also has early offers from Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA — among many others — but UK looks to be in a good spot early, and he’s already working on scheduling a trip to Lexington for later this summer.

There has been some 2023 reclassification buzz around Jackson’s recruitment, but there has been no determination on such a move, and no announcement on that is expected anytime soon. Jackson turned 17 years old in February.

Karter Knox

Karter Knox — the younger brother of former Kentucky star Kevin Knox — was one of four 2024 recruits to land UK scholarship offers on June 15, and he was in Lexington last October as a visitor for Big Blue Madness weekend. (He also made several trips to UK during his brother’s time with the team).

Knox — a 6-5 wing from Tampa, Fla. — is a versatile young prospect who projects as a better college defender and grittier player than his older brother. Calipari told Kevin Knox Sr. that Karter is a better player at his age, but the younger Kevin obviously evolved into an NBA lottery pick, and Karter will need to keep making major strides to reach that status.

The Knox family has spoken highly of Kevin’s time at Kentucky — and Knox Sr. described Calipari as “family” — but Karter will go through his own recruiting process. Another interesting wrinkle here is Louisville Coach Kenny Payne’s involvement. Payne, formerly Calipari’s top assistant, played a major role in Kevin Knox’s recruitment and development, and he extended a U of L offer to Karter a few days before the Kentucky offer came. It could be another Cats-Cards recruiting battle in the 2024 cycle.

Karter Knox is No. 10 in the 247Sports composite rankings and was No. 11 in the new Rivals.com rankings posted earlier this week.

Other USA recruits

The rest of the Team USA roster includes 2024 guard David Castillo, 2023 center Dennis Evans, 2023 guard Jeremy Fears (Michigan State), 2025 forward Cooper Flagg, 2024 guard Boogie Fland, 2024 forward Asa Newell, 2025 forward Koa Peat and 2023 forward Sean Stewart.

Of those players, Fland has been the most closely linked to Kentucky so far. The 6-3 point guard from the New York City area is still just 15 years old and already has scholarship offers from Kansas, UCLA, Michigan, Indiana and several other top schools.

The other uncommitted players on the USA roster are all highly ranked, too, however, and the next several days will give Calipari an opportunity to scout those prospects.

Schedule

All of the U17 World Cup games are expected to be shown live on the FIBA YouTube channel. Here is the Team USA schedule (all times EDT).

USA vs. Lebanon, 2:45 p.m. Saturday

USA vs. Slovenia, 2:45 p.m. Sunday

USA vs. Mali, 2:45 p.m. Tuesday

Knockout-round games will be played July 6-10, with times and matchups TBA.

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