LEXINGTON — A second starter is planning to return to the Kentucky basketball team for the 2022-23 season.
Point guard Sahvir Wheeler confirmed Sunday he will be back in Lexington for a second season, his senior year of college. Wheeler is the second UK starter to announce a return, joining National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe.
After transferring to Kentucky from Southeastern Conference rival Georgia, Wheeler averaged 10.1 points and 6.9 assists per game as a junior. He led the SEC in assists per game for the second consecutive season.
Wheeler’s 207 assists were fourth most by a UK player in a single season. He was also credited as the key figure in Kentucky’s pressure defense and up-tempo style of play.
UK basketball roster tracker:Who’s in and who’s out for the Wildcats’ 2022-23 squad?
For all his importance to Kentucky, Wheeler also proved to be a liability at times.
He tallied a team-high 91 turnovers. Opponents frequently sagged off him on defense, giving him open jump shots because of his 30.8% mark (16 for 52) from 3-point range.
Kentucky’s season-ending loss to Saint Peter’s offered a full glimpse of the Wheeler experience.
With Kentucky trailing by two and 6:23 remaining, Wheeler looked on the verge of carrying the Wildcats to victory by scoring six of UK’s next 10 points for a six-point lead. Then, turnovers from Wheeler on the next two possessions allowed Saint Peter’s to pull back into the game. Wheeler stumbled on a drive to the lane on Kentucky’s final possession of regulation, resulting in a poor shot. He missed two critical free throws in overtime.
Wheeler missed time during the season after multiple collisions on screens, adding to worries that his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame was a liability at the highest level of college basketball.
“(Fans) were on Sahvir because of that last game,” UK coach John Calipari said last week in an appearance on “SportsTalk with Dan Issel & Mike Pratt.” “Do you remember Sahvir against North Carolina and against Kansas, how he played? He had a hell of a year until he got injured. Then he gained some weight, he didn’t play as well.
“But, he’s still that guy. I told him if I can get you right and get you steady in who you are and keep improving — because he’s improving — I said you’re the difference in this stuff.”
Kentucky Basketball:National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe is returning to UK
Where things stand with Kentucky basketball’s 2022-23 roster
With Wheeler and Tshiebwe in the fold, much of the uncertainty surrounding next season’s roster has been eliminated.
Freshman guard TyTy Washington is gone to the NBA draft. Super senior guards Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz played their last college games. Little-used reserve wings Dontaie Allen and Bryce Hopkins are transferring.
Meanwhile, freshman forward Daimion Collins and junior guard CJ Fredrick, who missed last season with a hamstring injury, have announced their plans to return. Consensus top-10 recruits Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston, both guards, have signed as part of the 2022 class. Sophomore reserve forward Lance Ware has not announced any future plans but remains on campus and has not given any public indication he is considering leaving Kentucky.
The remaining uncertainty centers on three players testing the NBA draft waters while leaving open the option to return to college: Shaedon Sharpe, Keion Brooks and Jacob Toppin. Multiple reports surfaced last week that Sharpe, the former No. 1-ranked recruit in the class of 2022 who joined UK as a practice player in January, plans to stay in the draft. Toppin, an important rotation player for Kentucky last season, is still on campus and likely to return after soliciting feedback from professional scouts.
Brooks, the last starter yet to make a final decision, is not projected as a draft pick this year but could elect to start a professional career in the NBA’s G League or overseas. He also could place his name in the transfer portal to explore options at other schools after three inconsistent seasons at UK.
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Kentucky is likely to add at least one guard through the transfer portal to help Fredrick replace some of the 3-point shooting lost with Washington, Grady and Mintz. Former Illinois State guard Antonio Reeves is the leading candidate for that role after recently visiting Kentucky.
Regardless of who else joins the 2022-23 roster, the team will be built around Tshiebwe. Wheeler plays an essential role in getting Tshiebwe the ball, but he also could face more competition for minutes at point guard next season. Wallace can play either on or off the ball. Calipari could still add another transfer who can play point guard as well.
Email Jon Hale at email@example.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ.