Kentucky wildcats

He’s the most intriguing UK basketball newcomer. ‘We could be seeing a big-time player.’

The initial Kentucky basketball lineup under Mark Pope is not without intrigue. The new Wildcats coach has rapidly assembled a group of all-new faces, which was necessary after John Calipari’s untimely departure and the departure of all ten of his UK underclassmen. The result is an eclectic combination of players that is deserving of a spot in the Top 25. Among many other intriguing acquisitions, Pope signed two Kentucky kids, Travis Perry and Trent Noah, the top 3-point shooter in the transfer portal, Lamont Butler, a starter in the Final Four, and Collin Chandler, a former top-40 recruit who hasn’t played basketball in two years. Additionally, he still has a few more to go. recruits expected to join the program soon. Of the 10 players confirmed for UK’s 2024-25 roster, the most intriguing might very well be Brandon Garrison. The manner in which the 20-year-old post player committed to the Cats — he was on an official visit with Calipari at Arkansas the same day he gave Pope his pledge, without even seeing Lexington — was interesting enough. The talent and upside he’ll bring to UK basketball is the true eyebrow-raiser. 247Sports placed Garrison — a 6-foot-11, 245-pound center — as the No. 22 overall player in its final college basketball transfer portal rankings for this offseason. He is third on that list among players who were freshmen this past season. “I love the fact that he has three years remaining,” 247Sports national analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader. “It gives them an injection of talent that they are needing, and it’s hard to find at this point in the cycle. A guy that has been consistently getting better with each year, going back to high school. Great size and body. Has a motor. He will immediately be able to impact the game with his physicality down low, and his rebounding, and his overall utility — setting screens, clearing space in the paint. “His skill set has to keep improving, but that’s where those three years are just so valuable.” Garrison had a national reputation before he arrived at Oklahoma State as a freshman last year. The Oklahoma City standout was a McDonald’s All-American in the 2023 class — he was actually one of Reed Sheppard’s teammates in that game — before averaging 7.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game as the Cowboys’ starting center last season. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but those who have followed Garrison’s career over the past few years have seen obvious growth, with a trajectory that could land the new Kentucky center in the NBA draft as those gains on the court continue. “In a year — let’s say the developmental process ramps up for him and the light bulb goes off — he’s one we could see go off to the NBA,” Branham said. “But I would say he’s more than likely going to need at least two years before that happens. But that just speaks to how much talent that kid has and how valuable he can be for Kentucky and Mark Pope as he gets this thing going.” Indeed, as Pope and his coaching staff have walked the tightrope of trying to build a team that can contend right away while also laying the foundation for the future of Kentucky’s program with players who can add some continuity to the roster moving forward, Garrison appears to be an addition that checks every box. He’s an instant-impact talent with obvious NBA upside but still a player that needs time to grow.


He’s also the first McDonald’s All-American for this new era of Kentucky basketball. Getting all of that in one package was one of Pope’s biggest coups in his first portal season at UK, especially considering the circumstances of his commitment. Garrison’s name was on the early list of Pope targets, but there hadn’t been much talk of UK as a real possibility until the day before he actually committed to the Cats. On the same day that the Garrison-to-Kentucky buzz started to spread, he was eating breakfast in Fayetteville as he wrapped up his official visit to Arkansas. “I would say, just in general, it’s always hard to find NBA talent in the transfer portal. So to find it at all is a win,” Branham said. “And then the timing of it couldn’t have been more bizarre. The kid was on campus at Arkansas. Nobody even knew that they were even in the mix. We knew that they had reached out, but there was no visit set, no nothing. And all of a sudden it flips as he’s down in Fayetteville. … “To find NBA-level talent in the portal — whether they get there or not — is pretty hard, but to find it at this point in the cycle is even more impressive. So, again, a big win for Mark Pope.” Future Kentucky basketball player Brandon Garrison, right, and former UK player Aaron Bradshaw were McDonald’s All-Americans in the 2023 recruiting class. Maria Lysaker USA TODAY NETWORK BRANDON GARRISON’S DEFENSE The circumstances of Garrison’s first season of college basketball were less than ideal. The Oklahoma City-area star stayed close to home — committing to the school he grew up rooting for — but the Cowboys ended up going 12-20, with a 4-14 Big 12 record. Coach Mike Boynton was fired at the end of the season. Garrison hit the transfer portal a few days later. It wasn’t a lost year, however. Garrison showed plenty of flashes amid his team’s struggles. College basketball statistician Evan Miyakawa — founder of the analytics website — noted that Garrison had the best individual defensive metrics, by far, of anyone on Oklahoma State’s team. And he did that as a freshman. Miyakawa also told the Herald-Leader that his past research has indicated that highly rated national recruits tend to evolve into even better defenders — relative to their peers — as their college careers progress. “Kind of regardless of how good their freshman year is — if they end up staying in college and not going to the NBA — they typically end up being really good defenders in college,” Miyakawa said of high-level recruits who stay in school. “So when you combine that with the fact that, obviously, Oklahoma State was not very good this year — but his defensive box stats, on a per-possession basis, are pretty promising. He played 23 minutes per game — so it’s not like he was playing tons of minutes — but 1.5 blocks per game, and, for a big guy, almost having a steal per game, as well, not to mention that his defensive rebounding numbers are pretty solid, too — that points to him being solid defensively.” Miyakawa’s projections have Garrison as the No. 24 overall defender in the portal and the No. 3 defensive transfer among all freshmen who are switching schools this offseason. He also noted that Garrison’s status as the best defensive player on his team — as a teenager, no less — this past season could mean greater things once he’s able to play alongside better defenders. While Garrison proved himself to be a valuable and versatile rim-protector, he was often put in bad spots by Oklahoma State’s lack of perimeter defense. It’s quite possible that Garrison’s teammates in Stillwater were pulling down his own metrics. Pope has added several high quality defenders to his first UK roster, and the expectation is that the Wildcats will be much, much better on that side of the ball than Oklahoma State was last season. “If your team is way better or way worse than what they were supposed to be, especially defensively — even if a player is way better than everyone else — they can still have their rating get dragged down a little bit, if their team is awful,” Miyakawa said. The Cowboys were truly awful last season — 13th in defensive efficiency in the 14-team Big 12 — yet Garrison was individually graded as one of the top 20 defenders in the conference, which was the best league in the country on that side of the ball.


GARRISON’S FIT AT KENTUCKY Going into Garrison’s sophomore season, defense is what stands out. But there’s plenty of offensive promise there, too. Garrison isn’t much of a scoring threat away from the basket — he didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer last season — but even his current offensive skill set should be an ideal fit for the type of attack Pope is expected to run. He’s already a skilled passer who can set screens and thrive while rolling to the rim, all traits that should make him a valuable 5 in Pope’s offense. He also shot 57.2% from the field as a freshman, with about half of his attempts coming at the rim, where he converted 76% of the time. His post-up game needs work, but there’s been notable growth there, too. “If you go back and watch him in high school, he was always raw,” Branham said. “He always had the physical tools. But his feel for the game — and his offensive skill set — were just raw, to say the least. He needed time to put in the work off the court and get in the reps. You watch him in the low post, and you’re not going to come away that impressed. But if you go back and rewind the clock like two years, you can see how much better he’s already gotten in that timespan. So he’s one of those kids that you anticipate is just going to keep getting better and better.” Garrison had three games of 20-plus points this past season at Oklahoma State, all of them coming in Big 12 play. Two of those games occurred against two of Kentucky’s new coaches: a 21-point showing in a win over Pope and BYU and a 20-point performance in an overtime loss to Baylor, where new UK associate head coach Alvin Brooks III was a top assistant. “(He) crushed me at BYU last year and crushed Coach Brooks at Baylor last year,” Pope said in his first public comments after Garrison signed. “We’re unbelievably glad he’s on our team now.” Branham likes Garrison’s fit at Kentucky, especially long-term. “The passing is something that has flashed time and time again,” he said. “So getting him into a system — that’s where that year-two jump at Kentucky is important, where you get accustomed to the system and the other players around you. You know where to be looking on the floor. He could make a really big jump. So, yeah, I like the overall fit. Especially with the way we’re anticipating Pope playing — with a lot of floor spacing — it’s going to clear a lot of space for him down low. “And he won’t necessarily be a go-to guy. You’re not going to be throwing it to him on the block time and time again to go get buckets. It’s going to be a much more modernized system, where he’s going to be able to be a utility for the guys and guards on the perimeter, with his ability to set screens with his huge, physical frame. There’s going to be stuff that won’t show up on a stat sheet, but he’ll still be able to find a way to make an impact.” Oklahoma State center Brandon Garrison knocks a ball away from BYU’s Aly Khalifa during a 93-83 win over the Cougars last season. Garrison had a career-high 21 points in that game against coach Mark Pope’s former team. William Purnell USA TODAY NETWORK Garrison also had a winning track record before that unfortunate freshman year in Stillwater. He led Del City High School — a program that hadn’t won a state title in more than 40 years — to two Oklahoma state championships during his time there. Garrison was also a member of the Team USA squad that won a FIBA U18 Americas gold medal the summer before his final season of high school. And he shouldn’t bear as much of the burden in the post at Kentucky as he did while a freshman at Oklahoma State last season. In addition to Wake Forest transfer Andrew Carr — more of a versatile 4 with outside shooting capability — Garrison will be joined in the UK frontcourt by 6-10, 265-pound big man Amari Williams, who was the three-time Coastal Athletic Association defensive player of the year spent at Drexel. Williams and Carr have each attended college for four years prior. Williams in particular ought to exert pressure on Garrison throughout practice, since both of the post players are expected to make significant contributions in Pope’s debut season as Kentucky’s coach. “I think all these things are going to be really good for him, so to be around older guys in a program that is trying to compete for more than just an NCAA Tournament bid, but trying to get to that second weekend,” Branham stated. And he might have a great year in year two. I predict that by the time he enters his junior year, Kentucky may have a major player in the post.


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