Kentucky positions itself early for one of Chicago’s best basketball talents in years

Last Tuesday marked the first time that college coaches could directly contact basketball recruits from the class of 2023, and few, if any, players from the group had a busier day on the phone than JJ Taylor.

The rising junior from Chicago was coming off a standout performance at the Pangos All-American Camp — one of the summer’s top recruiting showcases — and he was already considered one of the top 10 players in his class, so the amount of attention he received on day one of the new contact period wasn’t much of a surprise.

Still, the volume of quality interest was staggering.

On Tuesday alone, Taylor received new scholarship offers from 12 schools, a list that included Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Gonzaga, Michigan, Michigan State, Arizona and Florida, among others.

The UK offer was particularly interesting. John Calipari is known for rarely extending offers this early in the recruiting process, and no other player from the 2023 class had yet been confirmed as having that honor from the Wildcats.

The dynamics of this one worked out, however.

In addition to Taylor’s no-doubt promise on the basketball court, the UK coaching staff is already plenty familiar with him. New assistant coaches Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman came to Lexington this offseason from Illinois, a program that heavily targets the Chicago area. The Illini had actually extended a scholarship offer to Taylor before his sophomore year of high school.

“To see him be one of those early Kentucky offers, it makes sense,” 247Sports analyst Travis Branham told the Herald-Leader, noting the Illinois ties. “It was not surprising. At all.”

The relationship with Coleman is especially intriguing.

Coleman, who is also a Chicago native, was actually the first college coach to show interest in Taylor’s recruitment — he did so while the star player was still in middle school — and he used to be a coach with Taylor’s Nike-affiliated grassroots program, Mac Irvin Fire.

The head of that program, Mike Irvin, has been highly complimentary of Coleman, and he sees an incredibly bright future for Taylor, who still has two years of high school ahead of him.

“Man, JJ is special,” Irvin told the Herald-Leader. “He has a chance to be one of the best to come out of Chicago. He’s that talented. Sixteen years old — he’s ahead of the curve.”

Irvin described Taylor as a player with “unlimited range” who brings a high level of excitement to the gym. He already has the reputation as a tremendous slasher with great athleticism and advanced ball skills and scoring ability for his position. updated its 2023 rankings last week to place Taylor at No. 4 nationally. 247Sports has him at No. 8, though his play of late could warrant a bump on that list.

“He is an incredibly talented prospect. Incredibly talented,” Branham said. “He’s pushing 6-foot-8, if he isn’t already there. For a true small forward. There’s no power forward in him. He is a straight ‘3’. He’s got the size. He’s got the length. He’s one of those players that — if you don’t know who he is — and someone says, ‘Hey, Kentucky has offered a kid on this court,’ you just look around, and you’ll pinpoint him. It’s clear as day. He’s incredibly impressive physically.

“He’s a great athlete. And then he can just really score it. As with a lot of these young guys, you want to see him kind of ramp up the consistency, but he’s a very good scorer. He can make shots from three. He can score it off the bounce. And he’s also a good passer. He’s one of the elite talents in that 2023 class. He’s really starting to separate himself, and he has immense upside.”

This past season, Taylor averaged 28.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 steals per game for Kenwood Academy (Ill.), earning first-team sophomore all-American honors from At the prestigious Pangos camp earlier this week, he took home co-MVP honors.

Irvin has been around the Chicago hoops scene long enough to know what it means to say a 16-year-old could ultimately be one of the best to come out of the basketball-rich city. In an interview over the weekend, he mentioned Taylor alongside Jabari Parker, Antoine Walker and Marcus Liberty, similarly skilled players of the past who went on to the NBA.

“He’s got more range than Antoine. He’s more athletic,” Irvin added, referencing the UK great and three-time NBA All-Star.

Whether Taylor follows in Walker’s footsteps and chooses to play at Kentucky remains to be seen. There’s obviously a long way to go in his high school career and his college recruitment.

For now, it looks like the Wildcats are off to a good start.

“He thought that was big to be offered by Kentucky, one of the top five programs ever,” Irvin said. “It put a smile on his face.”

Herald-Leader staff writer Jerry Tipton contributed to this story.

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