A temporary Kentucky home for prep star?

The next phase of the recruitment of young basketball phenom Andrew Wiggins begins this week as he takes an official visit to Kentucky.

Though Wiggins plans to go through all of his scheduled visits and said as recently as two weeks ago that he’s given very little thought to his recruitment or where he’ll end up, not many will be surprised, or should be, if Kentucky becomes his ultimate temporary destination.

It will be temporary because Wiggins is a near-certainty to be selected at or near the top of the NBA Draft in 2014. A rare athlete, the 6-foot-8 Wiggins has taken off — quite literally on his highlight-reel dunks — while playing high school basketball the past two seasons for Huntington (West Va.) Prep, and last fall he reclassified from the class of 2014 to the class of 2013.

That’s the kind of move made to speed up a player’s arrival in the NBA, and nobody gets gifted young players into high draft positions and into the NBA like Kentucky coach John Calipari does. There are no real indications that Wiggins is leaning to or liking any of the final four schools on his list more than another, but Calipari’s track record says that could change soon.

Kentucky had the first two picks in last year’s draft, could have the top pick again this summer in Nerlens Noel, and if it gets Wiggins, the thought that three or four out of the top six picks in 2014 could be from Kentucky isn’t as crazy as it might sound.

Wiggins was Scout.com’s No. 1 recruit in the class of 2014, and he immediately received the same ranking after his move to this year’s graduating class. Wiggins turned 18 last Saturday and was named the Naismith National High School Basketball Player of the Year on Monday.

“He’s the best high school prospect I’ve come across,” said Evan Daniels, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “Athletically he’s second to none, but he’s also skilled, can score in a variety of ways and is an elite defender.

“Wiggins is the complete package. He has off-the-charts athleticism, is the best defender in his class and turned into a respectable long range shooter. On top of all that, he’s a very good rebounder, passer and ball handler.”

That raw, rare athleticism suggests that he’s just getting started; his bloodlines suggest that maybe he was born for this. He’s the son of former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins and Marita Payne-Wiggins, who won an Olympic silver medal in track and field for Canada. His upcoming recruiting visits have been scheduled so that his parents can attend.

Wiggins visited Florida State, his parents’ alma mater, in December. After taking his official visit to Kentucky, where he’s been twice on unofficial visits, he’ll also visit Kansas (March 3) and North Carolina (March 8). Huntington Prep’s season will end shortly thereafter, and then Wiggins will hit the all-star game circuit. He didn’t have to ask for invitations to the McDonald’s All-American Game or the Jordan Brand Classic; the games came to him.
Wiggins said he was “probably in eighth grade” when he started to realize he had special basketball talents. It was about then, he said, that other people started to take notice, too.

“It all motivated me to play better, play harder and take my talents to America to really test myself more,” he said.

He first left his Toronto-area home for the United States as a ninth-grader, then returned to Canada after the basketball program at school he attended in North Carolina fell apart amongst allegations of improprieties, none of which involved Wiggins.

His star has risen in two seasons at Huntington Prep, where’s he played with longtime friend and Florida State signee Xavier Rathan-Mayes and a handful of other high-level prospects. With Wiggins as the high-flying main attraction, Huntington Prep plays a national schedule and was 28-3 coming into this week.

Huntington is about a two-hour drive from Lexington, Ky., and practically borders the northeast portion of the Bluegrass State. Rabid Kentucky fans have known about Wiggins for two years now, and they’ve come in droves to see him play.

“We’ve played six games in the state of Kentucky this season,” Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford said, “and we’ve had almost 35,000 people in the stands.”

Fulford said Wiggins has avoided his recruitment becoming either a circus or a distraction by “just putting his phone away.” Wiggins shut down interviews for a period last fall while he sorted through his re-classification and recruitment, and through this season has spoken to the media usually only after games. Fulford said Wiggins has been great with children who approach for a moment with a rising superstar but otherwise remains unchanged and unfazed by all the attention or by the big decision that looms ahead.

“He really is a good kid,” Fulford said. “He’s not a prima donna. He knows when to turn it on.

“He obviously has great talent, and he’s worked hard to become a more complete player than he was a year ago. We know what’s ahead, we just don’t know where it’s going to be.”

Fulford seems convinced that Wiggins hasn’t made up his mind on a college, that both Wiggins and his parents are anxious to see the campuses and hear the pitches on their remaining visits. On the night he scored 57 points against the Marietta College junior-varsity team earlier this month, Wiggins said he “really doesn’t think about (college) or any of that. I’m busy having fun with my teammates now.”

A lot of kids still don’t know where they’ll go to college five months before they go, and a lot of kids go to college with some sort of five-year plan.

Nobody does the nine-month plan like Calipari, and that makes Kentucky the favorite. Calipari, his staff and Big Blue Nation can solidify their favored status when Wiggins visits Wednesday, leaving Kansas, North Carolina and Florida State to play from behind.

Every remaining contender can make a case; just probably not the kind of case Kentucky can make with four of Scout.com’s Top 10 players in the class of 2013 already having committed to be Wildcats next season.

All four finalists for Wiggins’ services play in major conferences, and what Florida State lacks in both basketball tradition and current talent on the roster could be negated by Wiggins’ family ties and by the presence of Rathan-Mayes. North Carolina and Kansas also have rabid fan bases and top-notch, decorated programs, and all will roll out the red carpet the way Florida State did in December.

It’s clear, though, that Wiggins is on a fast-track for the game’s highest level, and of late no one has kept that track moving like Calipari. Maybe he can’t temporarily move Rupp Arena to the Toronto area, but he might try. All indications are that Wiggins is worthy of the hype.

In a conversation earlier this month, Fulford started to say that Wiggins will benefit from playing with and against competition more on his level next season in college, then he quickly corrected himself.

“There won’t be anybody on his level,” Fulford said. “He will have somebody pushing him. That will just push him higher.”

That’s why this recruiting battle should continue to be a fun one to watch, even with Kentucky as the program to beat.