By LARRY VAUGHT
This will be the third year that Hunter Sallis has started for Millard North (Neb.) High School for coach Tim Cannon and he’s emerged not only as a major recruiting target for Kentucky but as one of the top players in the 2021 recruiting class.
The 6-5 guard averaged averaged 22.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game last season after averaging 18.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game as a sophomore. Cannon says it has been a remarkable journey for Sallis — who had the nickname Bambi because it took him so long to coordinate his long arms and legs — to get where he is now.
“As a freshman, he was like 6-foot, 140 pounds,” his coach said. “He started JV as a freshman and was like seventh man on the varsity. I remember his dad telling me he didn’t even start on his eighth-grade team. A lot of friends of mine told me later they always thought Hunter would be the one to develop more than ones playing ahead of him.”
Kentucky is one of 12 schools Sallis has on his list of potential college choices even though he likely won’t make a decision until spring when he can see what team rosters might look like next season.
Cannon said it was five or six weeks ago when Kentucky got really involved with Sallis and offered him a scholarship.
“He is very, very interested (in Kentucky),” Cannon said. “North Carolina had been the most recent of the big boys to offer before Kentucky did. He’s had offers from Kansas, Oregon and Gonzaga for a long time. Kentucky offered and that changed the whole ballpark.
“I’ve got a friend here, Pete Kilgore, and UK is the only team he follows. He actually told me when (assistant) coach (Joel) Justus calls it is the real thing and within a week he called me.”
Cannon has no trouble pointing out what Sallis does best that has impressed so many college recruiters.
“I think just his ability to get to the basket. He is very slithery and gets through people and now goes over people also,” Cannon said. “He was really good getting between people and using his skinniness to his advantage.
“His shooting percentage is always high. It was right at 57 percent last season but he gets a lot of good looks at the basket and then gets his dunks. He has so many games where he gets to the basket so well.”
Cannon says Sallis has worked to improve his jump shot and that has made him even more difficult to guard.
“He goes to a trainer to work on his shot and moves and that type of thing,” Cannon said. “He is still doing that now. During the season he will do it on Sunday and maybe one night per week. But he’s always working on his moves and shot along with shooting here with us all he can.”
Off the basketball court, Cannon says Sallis is “very quiet and humble” even though he’s become a local celebrity because of his success.
“He is a legend in high school here,” Cannon said. “Anybody who follows basketball knows him. The other night he took a picture with my 12-year-old granddaughter. My grandkids like to take a picture with him and brag to their friends. Everywhere we go kids want pictures with him. They want their shoes signed. I have never seen him complain. He never gets tired of it.
“He’s a really nice kid who is nice to other people all the time. Very courteous. I saw him every day in (history) class for 180 days as a sophomore and 90 as a junior. He’s just a good kid.”
Certainly North Millard athletics trainer Lisa Moore shares that opinion after watching and working with Sallis.
“He’s going to be a great kid to see how his future turns out,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun to to watch big things happening for him.”
One plus for Kevin Knox during his second season with the New York Knicks was having Julius Randle, another former University of Kentucky player, on the roster to offer advice. Randle has played in 375 NBA games and averaged 16.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game in his career.
Kevin Knox Sr. said that former UK assistant coach Kenny Payne, who recently joined the Knicks staff, would give him “a little tidbit to tell Julius and stuff like that” during last season while Randle was doing the same for Knox Jr.
“Julius did a good job helping and reached out to Kev to work out and showed him the ropes in the beginning,” Knox Sr. said.
How good is Randle, who averaged 19.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game last season in his first year with the Knicks?
“He is am imposing, dominating big man. He is blessed with God-given gifts that you saw at UK. He is one big agile, shooting, dribbling guy.”
Knox Sr. hopes the hiring of Tom Thibodeau as head coach will take not only his son to a higher level but also Randle even though recent reports have surfaced that the Knicks may try to trade Randle.
“Coach KP (Payne) has a relationship with Julius and Kevin. He could see things in both of them at Kentucky and having him here to work with them both is going to be great,” Knox Sr. said.
Running back La’Vell Wright and safety Jordan Lovett will both bring a “love for the weight room” with them to Kentucky next season.
The North Hardin teammates are both incredibly strong already. Lovett has a 525-pound best on the squat while Wright has gone over 600 pounds.
“They love to get in the weight rom and do things that help you on the field,” North Hardin coach Brent Thompson said. “They stay in there and push each other the right way. Jordan was able to get in his workouts and keep lifting even before we could get back together. He just continues to work. If we are not at school, he is still working out.”
“La’Vell is the same way. He has leaned up a little bit to get faster but he still got stronger because of the way he attacks the workouts.”
North Hardin opened the season Friday night with a 19-16 win over Frederick Douglass and UK commits Jager Burton and Dekel Crowdus. Wright did not score but he ran 21 times for 86 yards, threw a 67-yard pass and caught four passes for 39 yards. That was 192 yards of total offense.
“Wright is one of the best running backs I have ever coached,” Thompson said. “Each year he has been in our program he’s added more running, more things he can do out of the backfield and he does a tremendous job blocking. He’s just a great team player.”
“He’s not a guy that says he has got to have the ball. He just wants to win and make the team better. Stats don’t matter to him.”
Lovett burst on the sense last year with a state-high 15 interceptions, 40 tackles and one fumble recovery after moving to the secondary. He moved to the North Hardin program as a freshman.
“To go from your first time playing defense to leading the state and being top three in picks in the nation was incredible,” Thompson said. “He is one of the best athletes, if not the best, in the school. We allow him to use his athleticism in middle but we have also been working a lot on his man to man (coverage) skills.”
Junior outside linebacker Jordan Wright admits once he started “taking” coaching better it turned him into a better player and now he has his chance to make a big mark on the UK defense this season.
“At first I was thinking maybe I could do it with athletic ability,” Wright said.
Wright said defensive coordinator Brad White told him point blank what was working for him and what wasn’t.
Remember the final play of last season was when Wright recovered a Virginia Tech fumble and returned it for a touchdown to finish off a 37-30 UK victory.
“That was the best feeling ever. My first college touchdowns in the last game (of the season. I could not do anything but thank God and smile,” Wright said.
Wright was a football-basketball high school star in Fort Lauderdale. He was ranked as the 80th best prospect in Florida but the nation’s 46th best defensive end in the nation by ESPN. He was also a part-time tight end who had six touchdown catches. On the basketball court he was a shooting guard who led his team to the Class 6A state title as a junior and thought he could play both sports in college.
Wright said football started “clicking” for him when he realized that was his best sport.
White said everyone develops at a difference pace before reaching a point where they started understanding how to play.
“He has transitioned from being a basketball guy to a football guy and it has been fun to see,” White said. “He did not fight me at all. He had some maturity growth things to go through that a lot of players do. A lot of it was learning how to be a football player.”
Safety Vito Tisdale is one Kentucky freshman that coaches and players have been talking about a lot during preseason practice and one freshman who may well play in the season opener at Auburn Sept. 26.
“People like being around Vito. He has a really good personality. His play is dynamic at time. There are a lot of things we need to clean up as far as technique and playing in the scheme of the defense. but he does things that are extremely natural,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White said. “Things you can’t teach.”
“He has a knack for being around the football,” White said. “He is a guy you could see down he line absolutely being one of our leaders. Right now his focus is where we want it to be on finding his place on this defense this year.
“We have been blessed with a lot of great leadership on this team. We are not going to put that on his plate. We have guys who have been in this system who have done a great job taking Vito under their wings. Our focus is to find a way to harness his ability and get him where we want him to go.”
Kentucky cornerback Kelvin Joseph, a LSU transfer, has noticed a lot of what Tisdale has done as well.
“I have been seeing a lot of interceptions and plays being made,” Joseph said. “Just small things he needs to work on. I am going to get with him so he will be ready to play week one.”
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has been just as impressed with Tisdale’s versatility and ability to play different positions. He’s even compared Tisdale for former Wildcat Mike Edwards, who now plays in the NFL.
“Mike is one of my all-time favorite players. So instinctual and such a good player for us. Vito coming in as a true freshman and us moving him … we’re playing him at nickel, at medium, at the sam position, he’s playing strong safety and really is doing some good things. He’s not quite there yet,” Stoops said.
“A lot of guys you couldn’t even think about putting at all those positions. He is able to handle a lot and I really like his demeanor. It’s a lot like Mike. No nonsense and just goes and does his business.”
Quote of the Week: “I don’t think Landon has been getting the recognition that he deserves. Certainly, Darian deserves the accolades and the attention he’s been getting because he is very, very steady and such a talented and good football player. And Landon is as well,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops on his weekly radio show when asked about the preseason recognition for offensive tackles Landon Young and Darian Kinnard.
Quote of the Week 2: “Without him, I obviously wouldn’t be here, and I appreciate him. Pretty much everything I have done at Kentucky has made it easier for me to transition to the NBA. They mold you into a pro from day one,” former UK standout PJ Washington on how coach John Calipari helped make it possible for him to average 12.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game as a rookie.
Quote of the Week 3: “I really need this extra year to show more of what I can do. Last year I played decent but not to my full potential. I can show out more and want to be better tackling and understanding the game,” UK senior cornerback Brandin Echols on why the SEC deciding to play this season was so important o him.