The 2023 NBA Draft isn’t even a month away, and a few potential lottery picks in the 2024 NBA Draft have already started hitting the field as some college teams travel overseas for summer competition with their new teams. Kentucky had recruiting class No. 1 comes in under the management of Justin Edwards, DJ Wagner, Aaron Bradshaw, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard.
Many NBA scouts were in Las Vegas taking in Summer League action, while some left early to travel to Toronto, Canada, for the GLOBL JAM to watch the talented freshmen in their first real test in a Kentucky jersey under head coach John Calipari .
The Wildcats went 4-0 and took home the gold medal after defeating Team Canada, 89-72, winning by an average of 12.8 points. In between games 2 and 3, the entire team took a break from basketball on Friday and swam at Drake’s mansion outside of Toronto. The Canadian superstar has been spotted at numerous games in Kentucky and has performed for “Big Blue Madness” prior to the start of the season.
Many Kentucky fans traveled to Canada to take in games. If there were any nerves from the starless students hitting the court for the first time against international competition, it hardly showed on the field. Yahoo Sports takes a look at how each freshman fared in their first real competition as a Kentucky Wildcat.
The 6-foot-8 wing led all Kentucky players in the gold medal game with 23 points (10-for-20 from the field) and added seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in 28 minutes on the court. It took Edwards a few games to settle in, but once he did, he showed why he’s a potential top-10 pick in next year’s draft. His 3-point shooting improved as the tournament went on, as he let his shot come to him during the final game against Canada, not forcing things early in the shot clock.
Edwards’ length and change of pace are most impressive on the defensive end in the way he deflects passes or grabs steals in the open field. He loves to play above the rim and has an extra burst in transition. Edwards and Wagner have started to become more comfortable off the dribble, with Edwards sliding more fluidly down to the corner when Wagner or Dillingham drove the lane. His ball handling needs to tighten up a bit, but with three elite guards on the field next to him, that won’t be his primary task. Edwards showed flashes of cutting off the ball well and made good decisions in the zone, pulling up for a short-corner jumper instead of forcing shots at the rim.
There was speculation about how Wagner and Dillingham (two dominant ball-handling guards) would coexist in the backcourt and who would have the ball most of the time. If this gold medal run for Kentucky is any indication of what’s to come this season, it looks like Calipari has given Wagner the keys to lead this team.
Wagner started at the point in three of the four games and looked good controlling the offense and distributing the ball. In high school as a top recruit, he was at times forced to put his team on his back and make big shots. During the GLOBL JAM, Wagner made the extra pass after coming downhill and relied on other shooters like Edwards and Antonio Reeves to make the outside shots as the clock wound down.
Wagner finished with 13 points in the final game against Canada and averaged 14.8 points throughout the tournament. He loves his little hesitation off the dribble before using an explosive first step to get around defenders. There’s always a learning curve for freshmen coming in, especially point guards adjusting to the pace and physicality of the game, but Wagner looked right at home. Yes, there were a few turnovers each game, but he makes up for his early mistakes in how he projects as the primary ball handler for this Kentucky team and is a three-way player who has a ton of offensive tools.
The most surprising rookie to hit the field in Toronto had to be Sheppard. The 6-3 combo guard is a phenomenal passer, has a high IQ, is unselfish and just plays the right way. Both his father, Jeff, and mother, Stacey, played at Kentucky, with his father winning two national championships in 1996 and 1998.
“I will do whatever is asked of me next season,” Sheppard told Yahoo Sports in February. “Whether it’s scoring, passing, getting water to my teammates during timeouts, whatever Coach Cal asks me to do, I’m going to do the best I can. I’m ready to go to work and help this team to win games and help my teammates get better.”
He just showed that during the GLOBL JAM tournament. His best game came against BAL Select, an NBA Academy team from Africa, where he posted an efficient 18 points and eight assists in the 104-92 win.
Sheppard recognized when shooters were on the court, hitting Reeves multiple times in the zone set or making jump passes when the defense shifts. Sheppard averaged 5.8 assists per game off the bench.
Dillingham is the most athletic and fastest guard off the dribble on this team. He complements Wagner well when both are on the court and commands attention from the help side when he drives the court and allows open shots from the swing. Dillingham has tremendous body control around the rim and finds different ways to get around defenders. His 3-point shooting came to life during the gold medal game against Canada, hitting back-to-back 3s late in the second quarter, with one of them being a four-point play after he was fouled. Dillingham started two of the four games with Calipari, trying different rotations each game, and had eight points (3-for-8 from 3) in 19 minutes in the final game.
Bradshaw, a 7-2 center, was noticeably absent from the court and did not travel with the team to Canada after recently undergoing surgery to repair a broken foot. Calipari is optimistic that Bradshaw will return to the court in November. told reporters in June“This kid is so excited to be here and to help us win … we’re not going to rush him back and for what he did and how he did it. When he decided to [he wanted to get the surgery] it was a day and a half, two days later when he had surgery.”
Kentucky opens the 2023-24 regular season on Nov. 14 against Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic.