August 11, 2022

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College basketball recruiting: Five top storylines as final live evaluation period comes to an end

The final days of the last live evaluation period of the 2022 recruiting calendar are officially upon us. Beginning Wednesday and running through Sunday, college coaches and scouts get one final formal look at players across multiple venues nationwide before the quiet period gives way to the dead period. 

This is the last time for coaches to see recruits in person before buckling in for preseason planning with their respective teams on campus and typically, as the dust settles on the live period, we see lots of changes in recruiting rankings and commitments.

As Peach Jam, the marquee recruiting event of the calendar year, wraps up in the closing days to mark the end of the live period, there are several storylines to follow with the quiet period fast approaching and a new portion of the recruiting calendar in our sights. 

Below are five storylines to watch as we shift slowly into a new phase of that schedule.

1. Will No. 1 recruit GG Jackson reclassify?

The sentiment in recruiting circles is that it’s a matter of when, not if, GG Jackson — the No. 1 recruit in the 2023 class according to 247Sports — will reclassify to play college basketball this season. The only question left remaining is which school will benefit.

The former UNC commit decommitted from the Tar Heels a week ago, and all signs point to him staying in the state and signing with South Carolina. His Crystal Ball at 247Sports is Gamecocks-heavy, with nine of the last predictions all rolling in for South Carolina.

It won’t be the first time the No. 1 recruit reclassifies if indeed Jackson does as expected — just a year ago, Jalen Duren did the same, and went on to become a lottery pick — but it’s nonetheless a significant (and likely imminent) decision that will have a profound impact on the rankings, the 2022-23 college basketball season and very possibly the 2023 NBA Draft as well.

2. … if GG reclassifies, who is new No. 1?

If the current No. 1 moves to the 2022 recruiting class and enrolls at a school for next season, the obvious curiosity then turns to the prospect who will take his place. And right now there’s no clear answer to who that player will be.

Five-star guard DJ Wagner would be my pick as the favorite. He’s No. 1 in the Composite rankings, No. 2 in the  247Sports rankings and has been at that position for well over a year. It’s very possible he’d get a natural bump. 

That’s not a no-brainer, though. Wing prospect Justin Edwards has been one of the fastest-rising talents in the class in recent months and easily has a case to be No. 1. Same for five-star G League-bound star Matas Buzelis, who has the physical tools and frame to be a mover into the top five. The new No. 1 likely comes down to one of those few, and it could come as soon as Jackson reclassifies with his decision expected in the next few days. 

3. Kentucky, Louisville slug it out for DJ Wagner

The Bluegrass State battle shaping up to land DJ Wagner — who very well could wind up as the No. 1 player in his class with Jackson’s reclassification — continues to be the storyline of the summer in college hoops recruiting. Will it be Louisville, or will it be Kentucky?

Louisville has emerged as a major contender after hiring his grandfather Milt Wagner as Director of Player Development, effectively bringing back one of its most prominent alums with the idea of trying to lure in one of its most prominent recruiting targets.

Kentucky, though, has for a long time been considered the frontrunner, though Louisville’s emergence has thrown a cloud of uncertainty over that. John Calipari coached DJ’s father, Dajuan, while he was at Memphis, and Calipari turned him into a first-round NBA Draft pick. There is a strong-to-quite-strong familial connection between Calipari and the Wagner family that shouldn’t be dismissed even with Milt’s hiring at rival Louisville. Here’s what Kyle Tucker, who covers Kentucky for The Athletic, said of this race recently:

With Wagner, there’s also the Milt Factor. Typically, when you hire a close relative, you get the recruit. That’s a near 100 percent success rate, historically. It stands to reason then that most national recruiting analysts handicapping Wagner’s recruitment moved Louisville in front of longtime leader Kentucky soon after Payne hired Milt Wagner. But behind the scenes, Calipari never wavered in his confidence that the Cats would eventually sign Wagner. After all, Calipari coached his father, Dajuan, at Memphis. And then added Wagner’s stepbrother, Kareem Watkins, as a walk-on at Kentucky. Ware, Wagner’s former teammate at Camden, is also in Lexington. And Bradshaw might soon be too.

That’s a lot of connections to overcome the one at Louisville that has gotten so much attention. Calipari, fresh off a trip to Spain to watch Wagner win gold with USA Basketball at the U17 FIBA World Cup, remains confident he’ll win this battle against his former understudy. And now all of those national recruiting analysts are beginning to back off their Louisville predictions for Wagner.

Nothing feels certain at this point for Wagner, but the Kentucky-Louisville on-court rivalry is about as heated as I’ve seen it off the court as both bluebloods battle for Wagner. The winner gets a potential No. 1 pick talent who can change the fortunes of whichever program he selects.

4. Can Kentucky edge Duke for No. 1 class?

John Calipari locked up No. 1-ranked classes at Kentucky in each of his first five seasons but has done so just once — in 2020 — since then as Duke has emerged as a steady threat. Could UK get back to the summit in a head-to-head with new coach Jon Scheyer?

It couldn’t do it in 2022 — Scheyer secured the top class in his first pull — but the winds of change may be blowing. Kentucky is the Crystal Ball favorite for top-three prospects DJ Wagner and Justin Edwards as well as four-star top-30 prospects Aaron Bradshaw and Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso. It also has commitments from five-star Robert Dillingham and four-star, top-30 talent Reed Shephard. 

Duke’s class is not going to be an easy one to topple, though. Currently No. 1 in the rankings, it has commitments from three five-star prospects — Mackenzie Mgbako, Sean Stewart and Caleb Foster — as well as four-star prospect Jared McCain. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Duke wound up a major factor for Xavier Booker as well.

In the last few years Kentucky has mixed a healthy amount of transfers and upperclassmen with blue-chip recruits in a formula that has largely moved UK out of the No. 1 class mix, but 2023 is shaping up to potentially get the ‘Cats back on the map as a true force, especially if the race for Wagner winds up leading him to UK.  

5. Bronny James moving up rankings

The son (and namesake) of the GOAT, LeBron James, Bronny remains one of the most interesting long-term prospects in the 2023 class. A former five-star recruit, he has slipped into four-star status in recent months, but that may have only been a temporary stay. At Peach Jam, he’s apparently done well for himself playing for Strive For Greatness by playing with a more assertive mindset and attacking.

“I think he is a candidate to move up the rankings,” 247Sports Director of Scouting Adam Finkelstein said Tuesday. “He was assertive and aggressive as I’ve seen him. He went for 28 points and six assists. Historically he has been content to play within the flow of the offense, but he’s been really assertive as his team’s primary playmaker … If he can continue to do that with efficiency I think he is going to be a major riser in the class.”

James’ basketball smarts and IQ — in no surprise — has always been one of his strengths, and that has showed up in particular on defense where he is able to use anticipation and read opposing players at a high level. At No. 52 in the 247Sports rankings and No. 46 in the 247Sports Composite rankings, he may be in line to see a nice little bump after this month.