Justin Edwards, D.J. Wagner look comfortable in first real test at GLOBL JAM

Reed Sheppard, Aaron Bradshaw, Justin Edwards and D.J. Wagner at the McDonald's All-American Game in March. They will lead a talented Kentucky team next season. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Reed Sheppard, Aaron Bradshaw, Justin Edwards and D.J. Wagner at the McDonald’s All-American Game in March. They will lead a talented Kentucky team next season. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s not even a month out from the 2023 NBA Draft and a few potential lottery picks in the 2024 NBA Draft have already started to hit the court as some college teams travel overseas for summer competition with their new teams. Kentucky had the No. 1 recruiting class coming in led by Justin Edwards, D.J. Wagner, Aaron Bradshaw, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard.

Many NBA scouts were in Las Vegas taking in Summer League action while some left early to travel to Toronto, Canada, for the GLOBL JAM to watch the talented freshmen in their first real test in a Kentucky jersey playing under head coach John Calipari.

The Wildcats went 4-0 and took home the gold medal after defeating Team Canada, 89-72, winning by an average of 12.8 points. In between Games 2 and 3, the entire team took a break from basketball on Friday and went swimming at Drake’s mansion outside of Toronto. The Canadian superstar has been seen at several Kentucky games and has made appearances for “Big Blue Madness” prior to the start of the season.

Many Kentucky fans traveled to Canada to take in games. If there were any nerves from the star freshmen hitting the court for the first time against international competition, it hardly showed on the court. Yahoo Sports takes a look at how each freshman player fared in their first real competition as a Kentucky Wildcat.

Justin Edwards

The 6-foot-8 wing led all Kentucky players in the gold-medal game with 23 points (10-for-20 from the field) and added seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in 28 minutes on the court. It took Edwards a couple of games to settle in but once he did, he showed why he’s a potential top-10 pick in next year’s draft. His 3-point shooting got better as the tournament went on as he let his shot come to him during the final game against Canada, not forcing things early in the shot clock.

Edwards’ length and change of pace are most impressive on the defensive end in the way he deflects passes or grabs steals in the open court. He loves to play above the rim and has an extra burst in transition. Edwards and Wagner are starting to get more comfortable in the dribble hand-off, and Edwards was sliding down to the corner more fluidly when Wagner or Dillingham drove the lane. His ball-handling needs to get a little tighter, but with three elite guards on the court alongside him that will not be his primary assignment. Edwards showed glimpses of cutting off the ball well and made good decisions in the zone, pulling up for a short-corner jumper instead of forcing shots at the rim.

D.J. Wagner

There was speculation on how Wagner and Dillingham (two dominant ball-handling guards) would co-exist in the backcourt and who would have the ball the majority of the time. If this gold-medal run for Kentucky is any indication as to what’s coming this season, it looks like Calipari has given Wagner the keys to lead this team.

Wagner started at the point in three out of the four games and looked comfortable controlling the offense and distributing the ball. In high school as a top recruit, he was forced at times to put his team on his back and make big shots. During the GLOBL JAM, Wagner was making the extra pass after getting downhill and relied on other shooters like Edwards and Antonio Reeves to make the outside shots when the clock was running down.

Wagner finished with 13 points in the final game against Canada and averaged 14.8 points throughout the tournament. He loves his little hesitation off the dribble before using an explosive first step to get around defenders. There’s always a learning curve for freshmen coming in, especially point guards, adjusting to the pace and physicality of the game, but Wagner looked right at home. Yes, there were a few turnovers each game, but he makes up for his early mistakes in how he projects as the primary ball-handler for this Kentucky team and being a three-way player who has a ton of offensive tools.

Reed Sheppard

The most surprising freshman to hit the court in Toronto had to be Sheppard. The 6-3 combo guard is a phenomenal passer, has a high IQ, is unselfish and just plays the right way. Both his dad, Jeff, and mom, Stacey, played at Kentucky with his dad winning two national championships in 1996 and 1998.

“I’m going to do whatever is asked of me next season,” Sheppard told Yahoo Sports in February. “Whether that’s scoring, passing, getting water for my teammates during timeouts, whatever Coach Cal asks me to do, I’m going to do as best as I can. I’m ready to get to work and help this team win games and help my teammates get better.”

He showed exactly that during the GLOBL JAM tournament. His best game came against BAL Select, a NBA Academy team out of Africa, where he put up an efficient 18 points and eight assists in the 104-92 win.

Sheppard recognized when there were shooters on the court, hitting Reeves several times in the zone set or making the skip pass when the defense shifts. Sheppard averaged 5.8 assists per game off the bench.

Rob Dillingham

Dillingham is the most athletic and quickest guard off the dribble on this team. He complements Wagner well when both are on the court and commands attention from the helpside when he drives the lane, allowing open shots off the swing. Dillingham has tremendous body control around the rim and finds different ways to get around defenders. His 3-point shooting came alive during the gold-medal game against Canada where he hit back-to-back 3s late in the second quarter, with one of those being a four-point play after he was fouled. Dillingham started two of the four games with Calipari trying out different rotations each game and had eight points (3-for-8 from 3) in 19 minutes in the final game.

Aaron Bradshaw

Bradshaw, a 7-2 center, was noticeably absent on the court and didn’t travel with the team to Canada after recently having surgery to repair a fractured foot. Calipari is optimistic Bradshaw will return to the court in November, telling reporters in June, “This kid is so excited to be here and wants to help us win … we will not rush him back and for what he did and how he did it. When he decided [he wanted to get the surgery] it was a day and a half, two days later when he had the operation.”

Kentucky opens up the 2023-24 regular season on Nov. 14 against Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic.