The next wave of big-time Kentucky basketball recruiting targets is coming into focus

Gregory Payan/AP
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It’ll be a while before the basketball recruits from the class of 2024 start arriving on college campuses, but those players are already being ranked by the national analysts. And Kentucky’s coaches are already paying attention to their progress on the court.

At the Hoophall Classic in Massachusetts earlier this month, UK Coach John Calipari watched several of the top stars in the 2024 class — high school sophomores this season — and last week he was courtside in Texas to see another one of those prospects put on a stellar performance against elite competition.

Calipari typically doesn’t extend scholarship offers this early in a player’s recruitment, but he’s surely making some mental notes regarding who might be near the top of the list for that honor in the future. And while college coaches aren’t permitted to directly call prospects from the 2024 class until June 15, they are allowed to reach out to their coaches and family members, gather information, and express interest in those recruitments.

Here are three such players who have already made an impression on the UK coaching staff.

Naasir Cunningham

To start things off, Naasir Cunningham is going to be the top-ranked player in this 2024 class.

Rivals.com and ESPN have already posted their rankings, and Cunningham — a 6-foot-7 wing from New Jersey — holds the No. 1 spot. 247Sports is expected to launch its 2024 rankings in the coming weeks, and it sounds like Cunningham will also see his name at the top of that list.

“Right now, it’s pretty clear that he is the No. 1 player and prospect in the class,” 247Sports analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader.

Branham and 247Sports national analyst Eric Bossi scouted Cunningham at the Hoophall Classic. Going into that event — based on previous in-person viewings — they were both of the mind that Cunningham was the No. 1 prospect in the class. Branham said they were still debating whether or not he was the No. 1 player — as in, who’s the best right now? — before Cunningham put that discussion to rest at Hoophall.

In his final game of the showcase, Cunningham recorded 23 points, 11 rebounds and three assists to lead Gill St. Bernard’s (N.J) to a 70-60 victory over Westtown (Pa.), the team that features Duke recruit Dereck Lively II, the No. 1 player in the 2022 class.

Cunningham, who is teammates with major UK/Duke target Mackenzie Mgbako — the No. 3 player in the 2023 class — was named the start-studded game’s most valuable player.

“Naas came out and just put the case to rest that he is not only the No. 1 prospect, but he’s the No. 1 player right now,” Branham said. “He’s a sizey wing. He’s long. He’s really athletic. I honestly didn’t realize just how athletic he was until this past weekend. He has some serious bounce to him that I didn’t realize when I had watched him before. He can really score. He’s developing his jump shot, which we saw this weekend. And he’s also a really gifted passer.

“This is a kid with a tremendous amount of talent. At (possibly) 6-foot-8, he’s just a really impressive playmaker and scorer at this level with a tremendous amount of upside.”

Cunningham was 5-for-7 from three-point range in the Hoophall victory, showing off an addition to his game that Branham said wasn’t quite there just a few months ago. Obviously, he still has two and a half seasons of high school ball in front of him, so there’s plenty of time for continued improvements for a player who’s already seen as one of the most promising in the country.

He’s also the type of “positionless” prospect that Calipari is always looking to find.

“You can use him in a variety of ways,” Branham said. “Ideally, you would definitely keep him on the wing. But this is a kid who can create for other people. He can run at the point, at times. It’s not something you want him doing all the time, but he can do it. He’s going to impact the game.

“He’s kind of a Swiss Army knife on the offensive end, with what he can do both on and off the ball. And, right now, it’s still early. He’s still honing in on his strengths and figuring out who he is going to be.”

Cunningham already has a slew of scholarship offers, and the blue bloods are paying close attention. He has talked about following Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina specifically through the years. The Blue Devils extended an offer Sunday, and it’s a good bet that he’s at the top of UK’s list in this 2024 class.

Ian Jackson

A couple of hours before Cunningham wowed scouts with his Hoophall performance, fellow sophomore Ian Jackson was dazzling on the same court.

Jackson — a 6-5 shooting guard from Cardinal Hayes High in Bronx, N.Y. — went for 30 points, four rebounds and four assists and shot 4-for-7 from three-point range in a blowout victory. Rivals.com ranks him as the No. 12 player in the 2024 class, but that list came out before the start of the season. ESPN updated its rankings last week, with Jackson at No. 4 overall.

Branham said he first saw Jackson in person a few months ago, and his game has grown since.

“I knew he was a top-10 player then, but I didn’t realize he was going to be in contention for No. 1,” he said. “An explosive guard who is definitely more of a ‘2’ than a ‘1’, but he is a gifted passer. What would classify him as more of a ‘2’ is because he wants to get buckets, and he is a gifted bucket-getter. He’s a good shooter from three. Just explosive and fun to watch in transition. He can break guys down and get by them off the bounce. He’s a pretty high-level competitor, too.”

Jackson also has the tools to be a great defender down the road.

“Absolutely,” Branham said. “Again, 6-4, 6-5. He’s long, and he’s really athletic. So he’s going to be able to defend both ‘1s’ and ‘2s’ at the next level, depending on the development of his body. Maybe he grows another inch or two, and he can start pretty effectively defending ‘3s’, as well.

“But he definitely has a ton of upside as a defender, especially with his mentality and how competitive he is. As he continues to physically mature and learn the game, that’s an area that he can continue to grow and flourish in.”

Jackson said at Hoophall that Kentucky and Florida State were his dream schools growing up, and UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua has already reached out to let his camp know that the Wildcats don’t normally extend scholarship offers this early in a recruitment, but that they are watching him closely. The FSU interest comes partly from what the Seminoles did with Scottie Barnes, who is one of the NBA’s top rookies this season — a versatile player who’s quickly becoming a favorite of young recruits.

Tre Johnson

Calipari and UK assistant coach Jai Lucas were in Texas last week — the night before the Cats’ victory at Texas A&M — to see Kentucky recruit Cason Wallace face off against one of the premier sophomores in the country.

The youngster didn’t disappoint. Tre Johnson — a 6-5 shooting guard — scored 37 points and led a valiant comeback attempt before ultimately falling short in an 85-78 loss to Richardson (Texas), ranked by ESPN as the No. 2 high school team in the country.

247Sports analyst Brandon Jenkins, who is based in Texas, said Johnson had the reputation last season as a possible five-star recruit, but even he is surprised by how quickly he’s coming along on the court.

“It’s just incredible how quickly he’s turned that potential into production, with a 37-point performance against arguably one of the best, gifted defenders in the high school game,” Jenkins told the Herald-Leader. “And just the stage that it was on, with the crowd being packed. Him knowing that Coach Calipari and Lucas were at the game, knowing they had interest in him.

“With all that, to go out and do what he did — as only a sophomore, with so much room to grow — you would have to think that this has to be somebody that Kentucky continues to target as his high school career progresses.”

Lucas, who has deep Texas ties, watched Johnson play over the summer and attended a team workout during the fall recruiting period. The young prospect is already gaining the reputation as a knockdown shooter.

“He’s long, and he oozes with upside given his length, his size for the position, and just what he brings to the table from an intangible perspective,” Jenkins said. “But what sets him apart from the competition is he really can shoot the ball. You don’t see that a lot with high-upside prospects at his position. You usually bank on the athleticism, but he’s really skilled. He’s been skilled from an early age.”

Johnson’s father played at Baylor, and Jenkins said you can tell just by watching him that he comes from a basketball background. Rivals.com ranked Johnson as the No. 2 player in the class on its preseason list. ESPN’s newly updated rankings have him at No. 5 overall.

Jenkins said that Kentucky would “absolutely” be a contender for Johnson’s commitment if the Wildcats decide to seriously pursue him, and — judging from the early interest from Calipari and Lucas — UK certainly seems to be headed in that direction. “I don’t see why he wouldn’t be a Kentucky priority,” Jenkins said.

In fact, the analyst said he thinks the Wildcats might ultimately be the top out-of-state contender, with Baylor and Texas also viewed as possible early favorites.

“Definitely a top-three player in the country in 2024,” Jenkins said. “And it wouldn’t surprise me — if he continues to mature in the areas of athleticism, explosion, ball-handling and being able to get to his spots on a consistent basis; just become a more deadly version of himself — I don’t see why he couldn’t be in the conversation of No. 1. He has that type of upside.”

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