He might not be quite as fast as former Kentucky point guards John Wall and DeAaron Fox, but very few players are. Yet Kentucky coach John Calipari does see some of both Tyler Ulis and DeAndre Liggins, two great defensive guards, in Ashton Hagans.
He has the tenacity and quickness to stay with opposing offensive players just like Ulis did. Like Liggins, Hagans can be a physical defender who will maul an opponent rather than let him score.
“He knows to stay in front and to body you. He’s not afraid to be physical,” Calipari said. “DeAndre was a little longer. Ashton off the ball isn’t the same as he is on the ball, where DeAndre could keep you from catching it. But Ashton can get there because of his athletic ability to where he can do it.”
The athletic ability runs in his family because he has two cousins that were professional athletes. Ronnie Brown played football at Auburn and then in the NFL while Trey Thompkins played basketball at Georgia and then in the NBA and overseas. Brown and Thompkins were both all-SEC players.
“They are like mentors to me telling me to keep my head on, play my game and just do what I have to do to get to the next level. It is a blessing to have them in my life because they have been through it all,” Hagans said. “They tell me what to expect and the hard work you have to put in not just at practice but in the mornings and the afternoons. That extra work it takes to make me a better player.”
Most star athletes in Georgia grow up to be football players. Hagans had the same opportunity as his Little League team won the state championship with him playing quarterback, running back and cornerback.
"He’s a guy that’s still learning. He’s thinking about what’s next instead of just reacting to what’s next, and that’s just a natural progression of any young player."
“I was really good at football. I wouldn’t say I was soft. I could take the hits, but I really didn’t like getting hit, especially when it was cold outside. I would just ball up (in the cold). I had to go to the indoor sport (basketball) that was warmer,” Hagans said.
As he got better and better in basketball, he realized he could become a Division I player. He originally committed to play basketball at Georgia before changing his mind. He then reclassified from the 2019 recruiting class to the 2018 class and became a late addition to UK’s class.
Getting a chance to play with freshman E.J. Montgomery at Kentucky had special appeal to Hagans. The two Georgia stars had tried to play AAU or high school basketball together, but it never worked out.
“We had a lot of discussions before he committed to Kentucky and I was trying to get finished with everything (school-wise). Once he made his decision to come, I knew that was my chance to play with him finally,” Hagans said. “I have always wanted to play with somebody that could open up my game with the ability he has. That’s just making this year even more fun for me.”
Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee says the best is yet to come for Hagans.
“He’s a guy that’s still learning. He’s thinking about what’s next instead of just reacting to what’s next, and that’s just a natural progression of any young player,” Barbee said. “Sometimes it comes quicker than others. We don’t want him out thinking defensively because he’s so disruptive. He puts pressure on the ball, and if you can disrupt the timing of any offense starting at the point then your defense can be really good, and that’s what Ashton brings to the floor. Now we just need him to pick some of the other things up and he will.”
ESPN recruiting director Paul Biancardi has no doubt Hagans will do that — and more.
“He’s a bullet. He has so much speed in the open floor. He’s a great two-way player, the kind Cal loves,” Biancardi said. “His offense will keep getting better, but his defense is always there. Cal takes pride in having a great defensive team and Ashton can help give him that.”