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Amid a period of incredible recruiting success, Kentucky basketball was served with a reminder Monday night that there will still be plenty of competition for the nation’s top prospects.
Dereck Lively II — a 7-foot-1 center from Pennsylvania and the No. 2 overall player in the 2022 rankings — announced his commitment to Duke, giving the Blue Devils, for now, the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.
Lively chose Duke from a list that, technically, included six other schools, but Kentucky had been seen for months as the Blue Devils’ only real competition for his commitment, perhaps even the favorite to land his pledge coming out of the summer recruiting period.
When Lively announced Friday that he would be revealing his college commitment Monday night, it seemed like more good news could be on the horizon for Kentucky, which was enjoying a run of recruiting success that had the potential to rival any other stretch in John Calipari’s decade-plus tenure as head coach.
Two weeks ago, the Cats landed Shaedon Sharpe, the No. 1 player in the 2022 class. Last week, UK picked up a commitment from Chris Livingston, the No. 5 player in the class. Adding Lively to that September haul — three top-five players in three consecutive weeks — would have been epic, even by Calipari’s recruiting standards.
Instead, as the weekend progressed, it became clear that Duke was the team to beat, and that was confirmed Monday night.
Lively joins a Blue Devils’ class that already includes small forward Dariq Whitehead (No. 4 in the 247Sports rankings for 2022), power forward Kyle Filipowski (No. 12) and shooting guard Jaden Schutt (No. 54), with an expectation that Duke could land some other star players from this class.
As of now, Lively’s commitment moves Duke past Kentucky for the No. 1 spot in the team rankings for 2022, a huge achievement for Blue Devils coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer, who will take over the program next season and has already assumed command of Duke’s recruiting efforts from Mike Krzyzewski.
“This is obviously a massive addition, but when you consider that this is for a new head coach — Jon Scheyer — to me, that makes it even more impactful,” 247Sports analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader. “That he’s able to get this off the ground this quickly, and to possibly secure the No. 1 class — to be able to do that as the head coach in waiting, I don’t know that you could have a better start than Jon Scheyer has had heading into his head coaching career at Duke.”
Scheyer, a longtime Duke assistant and former Blue Devils player under Krzyzewski, was named the head coach for the 2022-23 season in June, and all four of the program’s 2022 commitments have come since that announcement.
Lively has long been Duke’s biggest target for next season.
“We’re talking about a 7-foot guy who is an elite defender at the high school level, and he’s only going to continue to get better there,” Branham said. “He’s a great rim-protector, rebounder. He moves his feet really, really well on the perimeter. He’s a guy who can anchor a defense, and he’s also a great rim-runner with outstanding hands and touch. He scores on the block. He also has an improving perimeter and face-up game. He’s more than capable of making shots on the perimeter off the catch.
“So this is a tremendous talent, and he’s definitely in consideration for that No. 1 spot in the ‘22 class, with Shaedon Sharpe.”
Adem Bona and Kentucky
With Lively off to Duke for next season, Kentucky’s full attention for its future frontcourt will turn to a player that was already high on the Wildcats’ wish list.
Adem Bona is the No. 10 recruit in the 2022 class, according to the new 247Sports rankings, and he’s been on Calipari’s radar for a while now. UK extended a scholarship offer to Bona in August — after months of evaluating his game, both on film and in person — and Calipari was in California on Sunday to meet with the five-star big man.
Kentucky’s three commitments so far for next season — Sharpe, Livingston and point guard Skyy Clark — are all perimeter-based players, and UK is expected to land five-star combo guard Cason Wallace sometime in the next few weeks.
The Cats had been actively recruiting Lively and Bona, with a hope that both centers might decide to join UK’s 2022 class. Now, it’s clearly Bona’s spot for the taking.
“An absolute elite athlete for a big man. I frankly haven’t seen many bigs run the floor anywhere near as well as Adem Bona,” Branham said. “He’s just an extremely mobile, athletic big man. He plays with a really high motor. He’s physically gifted — 6-foot-10, pushing 6-foot-11 with a 7-4 or 7-5 wingspan. And he makes for an elite defender at the big man position. He’s also a great rebounder.
“His offensive skill set has a ways to go. That’s definitely the area in his game that needs the most development. He’s capable of scoring some on the block, but that’s not his strength. He is a great rim-runner, he’s a good lob-catcher, and then just a clean-up guy around the rim. But he’s one of those guys who can come in, and with his size, length, athleticism and motor, he’s going to have an immediate impact.”
Bona, who turned 18 years old in March, was born in Nigeria and learned to play basketball as a teenager in Turkey, developing into one of the top international prospects in his age group before coming to the United States last year.
He’s now entering his second season at Prolific Prep (Calif.), a high school program that has produced several star recruits in recent years and competes against a national schedule.
Bona exited the summer with eight options on his recruiting list — including the NBL, an Australian pro league — but the real battle for his commitment appears much more narrow.
This past weekend, Bona took an official visit to Kansas, before meeting with Calipari and UK assistant coach Chin Coleman back home in California on Sunday. Bona has also taken an unofficial visit to Southern Cal this month and could visit Baylor, possibly this weekend.
However, Kentucky and UCLA should be viewed as the two favorites in his recruitment.
Bona is scheduled to take an official visit to UK next month, with an official visit to UCLA set for the weekend of Oct. 22 in what is expected to be the final trip of his recruitment. Bona’s visit schedule has shuffled around in the past, however, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see additional changes, perhaps bumping up those trips in anticipation of a quicker decision.
Branham said his expectation is that Bona will be ready to make a college announcement in time for the early signing period (Nov. 10-17), and he sees UCLA as the Cats’ top competition.
“Right now, it’s a bit close to call,” he said. “Things have really tightened up. UCLA has really gained a lot of traction. I think Kentucky has a slight lead over UCLA, but UCLA has momentum. This is one that has become a tight race, and I do think — with Lively coming off the board — you could see Kentucky gain a bit more traction and a little bit more separation.
“But it’s too close to call at this point.”