G Sahvir Wheeler: Wheeler (5-9 180) provided Kentucky with a level of electricity in the fights of the 2020-21 season that he lacked on the point guard berth and used his quickness to average in his first season with the 10.1 points , 6.9 assists and 1.1 steals are the Wildcats after they had 14.0, 7.4 and 1.7 in Georgia the previous year. Wheeler shot an excellent 63.4% on the rim last year for his size and got 41.2% of his shots there. But he had more errors as things moved further out as an underperforming shooter from middle and long range, and Wheeler also struggled with turnovers, a trait he’s displayed throughout his collegiate career. Wheeler is one of college basketball’s top chart-setters, having ranked in the nation’s top 20 for assist rating in each of the last two years for the past two years. And if he can become an average shooter from the deep while slowing the drop in sales, he could live up to his preseason first-team All-SEC tally.
G Cason Wallace: Ask Calipari for a wish list of things to add to his already existing base, and he’d likely find someone like Wallace (6-4 193), drawing rave reviews for his competitiveness, intensity, and defense. These will usually help any newcomer see the court early, but when packed into a player talented enough to rank as the #2 combo guard and #5 overall in the 247Sports rankings, that’s manna from heaven. Wallace has some secondary creation skills, and some of Calipari’s best teams have come when they have multiple ball handlers on the halfcourt. Wallace will likely start and play quite a bit, but the question here is his shooting. It’s not that he can’t shoot, just that he hasn’t proven himself as a collegiate player in that area, and shooting could take on outsize importance in this lineup.
Q Chris Livingston: Speaking of shooting, that could be the key to whether Livingston (6-6 220) stays in the starting line-up or is forced to cede his place (and potentially more minutes) to one of the projected bench options here. Livingston arrives as the No. 5 small forward and No. 16 overall in the 2022 class, and he’s doing so with a pro-ready body and athleticism. And while shooting will be important, Livingston brings a physical presence to the table, whether at one of the two wing points or even plugging into the four at times in a slightly smaller lineup. He could cause big matchup problems there, although Calipari often tends to play as long as he can put on the court at one time. The skill Livingston brings will tell the story of his success this year.
F Jacob Toppin: One of the best athletes on the team (in the country?). At the Kentucky Pro Day earlier this month, Toppin (6-9 205) had a maximum vertical of 45 inches and led the team with the fastest 3/4 court sprint time. That his vertical didn’t also lead the team says more about the teammate who beat him. Calipari said he expects a breakthrough this year from Toppin, who he says “lives in the gym.” Toppin averaged 16.8 points per game and shot 53.3% from behind the 3-point arc on Kentucky’s Big Blue Bahamas trip that summer and received praise for playing more physically. If he can add outside shot to his repertoire — he’s made 34.8% of his 3s in Kentucky but only downed eight overall in two years — he can give this year’s team some much-needed distance. And he should continue to be a threat over the edge; He has the second most dunks of any Kentucky player last year despite playing the seventh most minutes.
C Oscar Tshiebwe: One could rave about Tshiebwe (6-9 260) for hours and still not exaggerate. Tshiebwe, the returning Naismith and Wooden honoree, devoured the most rebounds per game (15.2) of any player since two players surpassed that mark in 1978-79. From his defensive rebounds per game alone (9.9), he was averaging nearly a double-double and hitting more than 19 rebounds per 40 minutes. It’s built to dominate on the glass, with a powerful frame, 7-4 wingspan, bowl-sized hands and a relentless motor. But he also shot 60.6% from the floor – including 77.4% on the edge and a respectable 39.0% on his 2-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math – and averaged 17.4 points per game, plus 3, 4 shares (steals + blocks). per competition. That helped Tshiebwe earn a spot on the SEC All-Defensive Team. But perhaps the best indicator of his worth is that Kentucky was a whopping 0.26 points per possession better with Tshiebwe on the ground, with Kentucky’s offensive elite when playing (1.14 points per possession) and falling off a cliff when he didn’t (0.93 points per possession), per HoopLens. Those numbers showed how deadly Kentucky was on the offensive glass when he played, but also his offensive gravity — the Wildcats shot 36.8% from 3 when he was on the court, 28.1% when he was off. Considering that Tshiebwe himself didn’t take a single 3-pointer, that’s an interesting trend.