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When Chris Livingston, the latest five-star basketball recruit to commit to Kentucky, was looking for a new place to finish his high school career, he met with legendary Oak Hill Academy head coach Steve Smith, who realized that one line of questioning spoke volumes of the 17-year-old’s mindset.
“Coach, can I get into the gym in the mornings?” Livingston asked him. “What about the weekends?”
If the 6-foot-6 wing — long considered to be one of the best players in the 2022 class — was going to leave his hometown of Akron, Ohio, for his final year of high school basketball, he was going to do so with certain goals in mind.
Smith has coached arguably the greatest high school program in America since 1983, and dozens of his former players have gone on to the NBA. He’s come across all manner of talent and personalities in that time. In Livingston, he sees a player who’s already an elite prospect, but one yearning to improve.
“He came here to be challenged,” Smith said. “He could have stayed home and averaged 35 points per game, get Mr. Basketball in Ohio, and probably play half-speed. But he chose to come here. I think that says a lot about him.”
Livingston, who arrived on Oak Hill’s campus a few weeks ago, announced his commitment to Kentucky on Wednesday night, picking the Wildcats over a list of finalists that also included Georgetown, Memphis and Tennessee State.
This past high school season, Livingston averaged 31.1 points, 15.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 4.7 steals and 4.0 blocked shots per game, earning first-team junior all-American honors. This past summer, he was clearly one of the top players on the national Adidas circuit. Earlier Wednesday, he was ranked as the No. 5 player in his class by 247Sports.
He wants to be even better.
To answer that question about the Oak Hill gym, Smith told Livingston that they open it up every day at 6 a.m. On the weekends, it’s available from 6 in the morning to 11 at night. Players can grab a teammate, call on a manager, or just hit the court themselves.
Livingston plans to take advantage of that over the next several months, before his planned arrival in Lexington next summer. Smith said the first month at Oak Hill is almost always difficult for his new players, who are usually leaving home for the first time. Livingston, however, has had a smile on his face at every encounter since he arrived, always saying something about how much he loves his new surroundings.
“I’ve had a lot of good wings,” Smith said. “I had Keldon Johnson that went there (to Kentucky) — all the way back to Ron Mercer. I’ve had Jerry Stackhouse, Stephen Jackson — a bunch of wing guys that were big-time players. And he’s comparable to all of those guys. And he’s going to get better and better — he works extremely hard. He’s a great teammate.
“Of the big-time guys I’ve had — and I’ve had a lot — for a guy as good as he is, he’s one of the best teammates that I’ve had. Because he’s not all about himself.”
Chris Livingston’s game
Travis Branham of 247Sports and Matt McKay of Pro Insight were among the national talent evaluators who kept a close eye on Livingston’s progress over the course of the summer, and the future Wildcat clearly further proved himself to be one of the most dynamic offensive players in his class.
“He’s a powerful and athletic wing and a strong driver to the rim,” Branham said. “I think he has a high floor as a player, given his ability to slash in both the halfcourt and out in transition. He’s explosive in space. And he’s got a lot of upside as a defender and as a rebounder.
“His biggest strength is definitely his slashing ability. He’s 6-6. He’s strong. He’s really athletic. He’s a guy that, given his athleticism, he’s more than able to get by his man and get him on his hip. And then he has the strength to shield off guys. And then the athleticism to finish well above the rim and also finish through contact at the rim.”
McKay said that Livingston’s physical gifts and offensive know-how made him a “complete foul magnet” on the Adidas circuit this summer as opponents who had no idea how to contain him often had to go to the last resort to keep him from scoring.
“Not only does he possess impressive physical maturity, he leverages it very well,” McKay said. “Looking forward — there’s an adjustment period for every college freshman, but Livingston’s learning curve doesn’t project as being quite as steep, since he’s learned to be productive in such a wide variety of environments at the high school/grassroots level.”
Indeed, offensively, Livingston can score from all three levels in a variety of ways. He’s a handful at the rim, and he knows how to get there. Smith said he has the physical nature and instincts to go after offensive rebounds and putbacks. The coach also lauded Livingston’s mid-range game, a skill set that relies upon fundamentals — getting to his spot and going up straight and strong — rather than floaters and off-balance attempts.
Branham noted Livingston’s progress as a three-point shooter. The UK recruit switched up his shot mechanics earlier in his high school career and emerged as a bigger threat from the perimeter last season. Branham saw even more progress there — thanks in part to an improved shot selection — as Livingston got deeper into his summer schedule.
If Livingston shows more of what he was able to do at the end of the summer, Branham says there’s room for an even higher rise in the 247Sports rankings.
One area for improvement will be defense, though this isn’t a case of a player who’s unwilling or unable to excel on that end of the court. Livingston projects as an “extremely switchable” defender, according to McKay, who praised his elite athleticism and high motor.
Branham noted that most high school players — regardless of ranking — have ample room for improvement and increased consistency on defense, and he also sees Livingston as an incredibly high-upside player in that aspect.
“Anytime you play for a legendary high school coach like Steve Smith, he’s going to bring good things out of you,” he said. “He’s going to coach the bad habits. He’s going to implement good habits. I imagine the trip out to Oak Hill for the season will be nothing but a positive experience for him.”
Smith said he tells all of his young players that they can be better defensively.
“Because most of them haven’t played much defense,” the coach said, matter-of-factly, before adding with a chuckle. “They get here, and I make them play.”
Smith has talked to Livingston about his expectations this season. He can’t just be a scorer. He’ll need to rebound, and he’ll need to defend. There have only been a handful of basketball activities so far, but the veteran coach already has an idea of what to expect with his new star.
And that assessment should excite John Calipari.
“Everything I’ve said to him out on the floor — he looks at you like he wants to be coached,” Smith said. “And he wants to be coached on both ends of the court. He’s listening. He wants to be a better defender. He wants to be an all-around player.”
How Livingston fits Kentucky
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Calipari — in a preseason press conference with local reporters last week — took a question about this season’s frontcourt and turned it into a pitch for possibly playing up to four guards at the same time.
The UK coach was talking about his current team — one filled with talented perimeter players — but the comments came the same day that the Cats landed shooting guard Shaedon Sharpe, the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class. And Calipari knew that he’d be meeting with Livingston two days later to deliver his final recruiting pitch. With five-star point guard Skyy Clark already committed to the 2022 class and five-star combo guard Cason Wallace likely to join in the near future, Calipari has a glut of elite perimeter players for next season.
A cynical recruiting observer might see this as a coach saying what he needs to say to get the players he wants. But, with this particular group, Calipari could get away with playing them all at the same time.
“We’re going to have four positions that are guard positions,” he said last week. “That doesn’t mean I’m starting four guards, but if you want to be in one of those four positions, you’re going to have guard skills.”
Though often classified as a forward, Livingston fits Calipari’s description here.
He can score. He can handle the ball. He can shoot from outside. Perhaps more importantly — and something that has often been overlooked in his game — he can pass the ball, and he can make good decisions in space.
“He really can pass,” Smith said. “So when he’s on a team with guys who are as good as he is — and there’s five of them out there like that — he’s going to find open guys. He wants to win. He’s that kind of guy. He’s competitive and wants to win.”
Branham said the possibility of three guards and Livingston would work in certain situations, matching those four players up with a big like Oscar Tshiebwe, if he returns next season, or Dereck Lively II or Adem Bona, two elite centers UK is still pursuing for its 2022 class.
That lineup might be small defensively, depending on the opponent, but Livingston will have the strength and toughness to match up with some opposing “4s,” while Wallace projects as an elite perimeter defender in college and Sharpe has plenty of size and athleticism to guard both wing spots.
So, it could work. On the other end of the court, it could be quite a thing to behold.
“That is a lot of offense out on the floor,” Branham said. “You’re going to be able to play fast and put up a lot of points.”