July 19, 2024

Kentucky’s Justin Edwards is first top-3 recruit to go undrafted; can he find NBA redemption on two-way deal?

Justin Edwards went undrafted in the 2024 NBA Draft. The former Kentucky wing is the first top-3 recruit to go undrafted in the history of internet-era recruiting rankings (no top-3 prospect, per the industry-generated 247Sports Composite, had ever fallen out of the first round before Edwards). 

Reed Sheppard’s catapult up draft boards to being the No. 3 pick by Houston and the first American off the board is almost too absurd for a Hollywood script. But Sheppard’s remarkable surge is closely correlated with numerous top prospects in the Class of 2023 failing to meet expectations.

Edwards is one of ’em, but he’s far from alone. Five-star Isaiah Collier, once the top-rated recruit in his class, dropped all the way down to Utah at No. 29. Aaron Bradshaw and DJ Wagner, fellow five-stars who headlined Kentucky’s ballyhooed recruiting class, had underwhelming freshman seasons and hit the transfer portal after John Calipari dipped for Arkansas. Michigan State’s Xavier Booker, Iowa State’s Omaha Biliew and UCLA’s Aday Mara were all once projected as potential first-round picks, but the trio struggled to even get on the floor in college.

The top prospects in the Class of 2023 struggled mightily, and Edwards — who ranked 30th in CBS Sports’ prospect rankings ahead of the draft — was not immune. 

Explaining what went awry for Justin Edwards

“The reality is that nothing was what we expected at Kentucky this year,” said Adam Finkelstein, 247Sports’ Director of Scouting. “Sheppard was way better than anyone expected. Rob Dillingham too. Justin Edwards, DJ Wagner, and Aaron Bradshaw all underachieved relative to their five-star expectations.”

Edwards’ game is far from broken. The 6-foot-6, 190-pound wing shot over 37% on 82 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. But he was merely an off-ball, play-finisher for a Kentucky squad anchored by a backcourt trio of pros. Sheppard, Rob Dillingham (No. 8 to Minnesota) and Antonio Reeves (No. 47 to New Orleans) earned the spotlight. Edwards’ minutes fluctuated significantly throughout the season, and he had the sixth-highest usage rate on his own team. Behind Dillingham. Behind Reeves. Behind Sheppard. Behind Wagner. 

“A big part of building draft stock is picking a good fit,” said Travis Branham, 247Sports’ National Basketball Analyst who scouted Edwards extensively in high school. “Calipari is known for his guard play and unfortunately for Edwards, he picked Kentucky when they had a roster loaded with guards that Calipari would inevitably play through. It resulted in him falling between the cracks and losing confidence which led to inconsistent results on the court and now being undrafted.”

A freshman season gone awry took a toll on him. Edwards told The Athletic’s Kyle Tucker that Sheppard connected him with a mental health coach during the season.

“The way they talk about players, I feel like they don’t remember that we’re human,” Edwards told The Athletic. “Coming in, everybody expected me to be the top guy that people said I was — and I still believe I am — and they were angry when I wasn’t. But me going through that early part of the season helped me be the person I am today.”

The late-season flashes, like a 28-point showing against Alabama or 16 points in a road win over Dalton Knecht and Tennessee in the regular-season finale, gave credence to the theory that Edwards had found the strength to move past failing to meet his own lofty expectations. Edwards, who is repped by Klutch, could have returned to college (like Wagner and Bradshaw) and tried to emulate the Kel’el Ware model. The five-star big man had a rough freshman season at Oregon but transferred to Indiana where he shined. Miami selected Ware Wednesday with the No. 15 pick.

“Edwards bet on his potential to carry him in the draft process,” Finkelstein said. “There’s plenty of precedent to suggest that can work: Peyton Watson in 2022, Dariq Whitehead and Nick Smith in 2023, and even AJ Johnson this year. So, while the season didn’t go as Edwards hoped, the pre-draft process obviously didn’t either for whatever reason.”

Edwards’ athletic testing at the NBA Combine left much to be desired. The 6-foot-10 wingspan is a positive, but a 32.5-inch max vertical and iffy agility scores raised questions about his explosiveness. 

Edwards, once considered a potential No. 1 pick, is now forced to play his way into the NBA with few guarantees. Edwards signed with his hometown team, the Philadelphia 76ers, on a two-way deal. And now, we wait to discover whether Edwards becomes an incredible story of resilience or a cautionary tale.

“We only saw the Justin Edwards from high school in glimpses,” Branham said.