By LARRY VAUGHT
Some might be surprised by what Kentucky freshman point guard Ashton Hagans has done this season, but not Dan McDonald.
He watched Hagans play in high school and thought he would be a great fit at Kentucky — and he has been.
“I’ve probably been biased because I think the world of the kid personally, but he can really play. Happy for his success,” said McDonald, program coordinator for basketball at Lake Point Hoops in Georgia and a writer for Rivals.com.
Hagans is averaging 7.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.4 percent from the field field and 77.1 percent at the foul line going into tonight’s game with South Carolina. He leads UK with 91 assists and 47 steals — just four short of what Tyler Ulis had in 35 games in 2015-16 and six short of what De’Aaron Fox had in 36 games a season later. Hagans has played in 21 games.
“His play lately hasn’t surprised me at all. He’s now playing exactly the way I’ve always known him to play and I think he’ll only get better from here,” McDonald said. “He’s just a really good player that makes others around him better, and he’s just an awesome kid, too. I still think he’ll become a better shooter in the future, but that’s really the only hole in his game right now.”
He is just a 19 percent shooter from 3-point range (4-for-21). Teams often sag off him daring him to take 3-point shots that Calipari continues to insist he can make.
“Would you be shocked if I said Ashton Hagans was a zone buster?” ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said despite Hagans’ 3-point percentage. “He breaks that zone down driving and creating shots. He’s not a shooter but he busts the zone with his passing. He’s really good at a lot of things for this team.”
McDonald said he knew freshman guards often struggled defensively — even one as good as Hagans.
“It doesn’t look like he’s struggled much at all. He’s truly the type of player that can impact a game significantly without scoring a ton,” McDonald said while noting how Hagans just had seven points in the win over North Carolina but played a major role in the victory.
Hagans has developed a habit for stuffing the stat sheet with his assists, rebounds and steals to where his scoring is basically a bonus most games.
“He not only disrupts on the ball, but he disrupts off the ball,” said ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, a former college head coach. “He’s long, athletic and has great anticipation. He has also really improved in his ability to finish in transition. He just makes it easier for everybody else. He is the guy who energizes the whole Kentucky team and I don’t see that stopping. He’s that rare player who can impact a game even when he doesn’t score.”
McDonald said those who watched Hagans in high school knew he wasn’t playing the way he could early in the season when he was not starting and UK was figuring out its guard rotation.
“But this recent stretch, particularly coming home and dominating against Georgia, has people excited for him,” McDonald said.
Hagans has even been mentioned as a potential 2019 first-round NBA draft pick in a few mock drafts and mentioned prominently in the 2020 first round.
“My thoughts on his pro potential haven’t really changed. A big part of the NBA now is being able to shoot the ball at a high level from 3-point range, and that’s an area he still hasn’t mastered,” McDonald said. “Until he gets there, I think it will be hard for him to be a lottery pick.
“I do think he’s an NBA player though. His free throw percentage has me encouraged that he’ll become a better shooter. When NBA teams start looking into him and see that’s the only thing he really needs work on, and if/when they do their homework on his intangibles, I think he’ll find a home somewhere in the middle of the first round just outside the lottery whenever he comes out.”
College basketball analyst Aaron Torres, a FoxSports radio host and writer for The Athletic and Kentucky Sports Radio, doesn’t know about Hagans’ NBA status. However, he does think Hagans is a point guard who could get UK to the Final Four.
“The good thing is, he doesn’t have to do it alone — all five guys in that starting lineup are absolute warriors,” Torres said. “But he is the guy who gets them going. Thought it was a great sign at Florida that they were terrible for about 34 minutes and still found a way to win.”