5 Kentucky Wildcats who should jump off sinking ship if John Calipari stays

If Kentucky fires John Calipari, expect foundational changes to be made.

John Calipari, D.J. Wagner
John Calipari, D.J. Wagner / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

As rumors of John Calipari's potential exit continue to swirl, the future of the Kentucky basketball program hangs in the balance. It's hard to imagine Cal not walking the sideline for the Wildcats, but Kentucky's post-COVID performance has continually fallen short of expectations.

Few coaches can rival Calipari on the recruiting front, but in today's college basketball landscape, that isn't enough to win at the highest level. Kentucky has been consistently out-executed and out-worked by older teams in March. Reed Sheppard was arguably the best freshman in the country this season and he completely flatlined in UK's first-round loss to Oakland. That is the perfect microcosm for the larger team-building issues at play here.

Calipari has fallen behind on the NIL front, completely bungled his rotations, and consistently tossed his young players under the bus in the face of failure. Cal has been out-coached on more than one occasion over the last few years, too. The solution is not as simple as recruiting more upperclassmen in the transfer portal or changing up rotational beats. This is a messy, textured, multi-faceted problem that Kentucky faces. The best solution could be to cut ties entirely.

If Kentucky continues to tether its program to a sinking ship, however, these players should strongly consider alternative destinations.

5. Ugonna Onyenso could break out in a better program

Ugonna Onyenso considered transferring after his freshman season before opting to stay in Lexington. His role increased as a sophomore and he was Kentucky's starting center by season's end, averaging 3.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks on 55.0 percent shooting in 18.8 minutes. He started 14 of 24 appearances, battling through injuries and Cal's short leash to emerge as the Wildcats' more reliable rim protector.

That said, if Calipari sticks around, we can expect him to recruit more competition for Onyenso in the frontcourt. He will also need to track the futures of Aaron Bradshaw and Zvonimir Ivisic closely, as neither is a guaranteed NBA Draft pick. Both could return, complicating Onyenso's outlook even further.

As a result, the 19-year-old is a prime transfer candidate. Onyenso doesn't have the flashiest skill set, but he's one of the best per-minute shot blockers in college basketball. He's a genuine deterrent at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, showcasing solid discipline and enough mobility to anchor various schemes.

He won't reinvent the wheel on offense, but Onyenso can inhale offensive rebounds and finish reasonably well around the basket. If the right team lands Onyenso and places him center stage as a true defensive lynchpin, he will be on draft boards next season.

4. Aaron Bradshaw needs to find a more forgiving home

Aaron Bradshaw began the season as a staple in Kentucky's rotation, but he played single-digit minutes in eight of his final nine appearances. Cal went away from him completely; he concluded his freshman campaign with three points and three fouls in four minutes against Oakland.

Now, Cal was not entirely unjustified in his handling of Bradshaw's minutes. The 19-year-old is very much a work in progress, prone to lapses on defense and wild fluctuations in output on offense. He's a perfect college big on paper — 7-foot with shot-blocking chops and enough shooting touch to stretch out a defense. But, Bradshaw's 3-point volume was low, he struggled to combat physicality on finishes around the rim, and his defensive impact was generally one step forward, one step back.

While that is actually a sound, competitive decision from Calipari, it would probably behoove Bradshaw to find a more accommodating program next season. He's a major talent, with a level of mobility, shot-making upside, and vertical athleticism that few 7-footers possess. Some of his limitations are purely physical — Bradshaw's thin frame and high center of gravity make it extremely hard for him to stay vertical against bully-ball centers or strong drivers — but with more polish and a longer leash to work through his shortcomings, Bradshaw could rocket up draft boards.

There's a compelling case for Bradshaw to test the waters and turn pro this season, but frankly, he would probably benefit as much as anybody from another season of college ball. Just, maybe not in Kentucky.

3. Some team should unleash Zvonimir Ivisic and see what happens

I'm pretty sure Zvonimir Ivisic would get picked if he declared for the 2024 draft. At the very worst, he would land a two-way contract with a chance to prove his mettle in Summer League and the G League.

It was a complicated freshman season for Ivisic, who wasn't ruled eligible by the NCAA until midway through. He managed 15 games off the bench, averaging 5.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks on .577/.375/.773 splits in 11.7 minutes. He is, without a doubt, one of the most appealing projects in the NBA Draft conversation.

That said, it could benefit Ivisic to give it another year in the college ranks. Just not with Kentucky, where he's bound to face stiff competition for minutes and the unforgiving nature of Cal's recruiting practices. Ivisic is 7-foot-2 with legitimate 3-point touch, the coordination to push the ball in transition, and a few eye-popping passes on his resumé. Not to mention the shot-blocking prowess. If he's properly cultivated, there's no reason that Ivisic can't leap into the first-round conversation next season.

He will probably base his decision on the other frontcourt players mentioned above, but Ivisic has real breakout potential if he lands with the right team. He needs to improve his discipline on defense and up his physicality, but there aren't many stretch fives with Ivisic's combination of size, mobility, and ancillary skill.

2. D.J. Wagner has Cal's trust, but is Kentucky the best place to develop?

John Calipari trusted D.J. Wagner to a fault last season. He ended his freshman campaign with more total minutes than Rob Dillingham, a projected top-10 pick who emerged as one of the most potent live-dribble creators in college basketball. Wagner even played three fewer games than Dillingham. That fact boggles the mind.

Wagner's NBA Draft stock essentially followed the opposite trajectory of Dillingham's stock. He began the season as a projected top-10 pick, but is now projected in the second round on most boards. Dilly wasn't really considered a strong one-and-done candidate due to concerns about his frame and his play style, which were quickly laid to rest once the season began.

There is no denying Cal's faith in Wagner. He stuck with the 19-year-old through an extreme rough patch to start the season. Wagner came out on the other side of it in a better place, finishing more effectively around the basket and displaying the unique rim-pressure ability that put him on NBA radars to begin with.

Still, Wagner was inconsistent to the very end. He finished the season with a scoreless outing in 17 minutes against Oakland. It's uncommon for players to leave hospitable situations like this; Wagner would be set up to start (again) as a sophomore with another year of experience under his belt. Not to mention Cal's NBA track record when it comes to developing guards.

Despite the obvious appeal of sticking around Lexington and rebuilding his stock in BBN, however, Wagner should consider going to a program with better spacing and a more cohesive roster, where his skill set can be best utilized.

1. Reed Sheppard shouldn't have any qualms about capitalizing on his NBA opportunity

While Calipari has hinted that he'll welcome Reed Sheppard back into the fold if the talented guard decides to return, there shouldn't be much doubt in Sheppard's mind. He is a potential top-5 pick in a notoriously weak draft class. Why risk another season of college basketball, when his shooting percentages are bound to dip and his winning impact could pale in comparison to a more established freshman crop.

Sheppard is the son of two-time Kentucky champ Jeff Sheppard, which is the only reason the notion of him returning to school even exists. While the family's connection to Kentucky is notable and even admirable, Sheppard probably shouldn't take the financial gamble tied to a sophomore season. He would bank a ton of NIL money, sure, but there is a substantial contractual difference between being the No. 5 pick and the No. 25 pick. If Sheppard sticks around and watches his NBA Draft stock flatline, he won't live it down.

There simply aren't many years in which 6-foot-2 guards with average athleticism and a net-zero wingspan are seriously considered near the top of draft boards. Sheppard has put together one of the most impressive freshman campaigns in recent memory, but how much is he going to improve as a sophomore? He could earn more on-ball reps and a chance to lead the starting lineup, but that 52.1 percent 3-point clip won't hold. Nor will our perception of Sheppard as a defender if he's forced into a more onerous role.

In today's college basketball sphere, Sheppard's return would be celebrated as a major achievement for Kentucky and a credit to Sheppard's loyalty. While it would massively boost the Wildcats' outllook, there's really no justification — at least logically — for Sheppard. If a return is what his heart desires, so be it. But there's so much risk he can avoid by simply capitalizing on his NBA Draft stock while it's high.

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