As NBA free agency grows in spectacle and significance with each passing season, the graduate transfer market in college basketball has heated up in a similar fashion. Now a major component of the recruiting scene, the portal represents a land of opportunity for disgruntled, oft-injured or underperforming players to seek a fresh start, take advantage of an extra year of eligibility, elevate their draft stock or simply compete on a higher level. For programs of all sizes, it offers an opportunity to bring in experienced players to help rebuild a program or fulfill specific team needs.
Shrewd pickups in the grad transfer market helped propel an unheralded Texas Tech team to the tournament final last year, with Chris Beard’s years of experience in the coaching netherworlds proving valuable in creating chemistry amongst recent arrivals. The trend spilled into programs known primarily for one-and-dones, as grad transfer Reid Travis was a key contributor to last year’s Kentucky team and Cameron Johnson established himself as one of North Carolina’s best players before being drafted.
With an eye to the approaching season, these are the 10 most impactful grad transfers that occurred over the last seven months. This is not a ranking of the best players, but rather an attempt to project how impactful they will be based on a combination of the player, their new team and their projected role on that team. In any case, these are some names you might hear deep into March.
10. T.J. Holyfield, PF, Texas Tech (From Stephen F. Austin)
The 6-foot-8, 230-pound Holyfield joins the Red Raiders from Stephen F. Austin after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. He averaged 10.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game across his three years with the Lumberjacks, starting all 101 of his collegiate games. 2017-18 was Holyfield’s best, as he finished first in the Southland conference in defensive rating and defensive win shares while pulling down the sixth-most boards. He also flashed plenty of offensive skill despite his modest scoring output, finishing first in the conference in true shooting percentage (62.4%) and knocking down 41.2% of his threes (albeit on just 68 attempts). Chris Beard sports a long track record of finding transfers who fit his team’s system and needs, and Holyfield should slide into one of the starting spots vacated by forward Tariq Owens and center Norense Odiase. Holyfield immediately becomes the Red Raiders’ best option in the post on both ends of the floor, so Beard will need him to be an anchor down low if he hopes to keep Texas Tech in the mix yet again.
9. Anthony Mathis, SG, Oregon (From New Mexico)
Considered one of the best pure shooters in the nation, Mathis returns to his home state to reunite with high school teammate Payton Pritchard in the Ducks’ backcourt. Oregon watched two of the three guards behind Pritchard depart in the offseason, so Mathis could slide into the starting shooting guard role immediately. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Mathis played four seasons at New Mexico but missed most of his sophomore year with an injury and didn’t start a game until his junior year. Still, he shot 43.1% from three as a Lobo, setting the school’s single-season three-point record with 106 makes in 2018-19. He made the All-Mountain West Third Team last year while leading New Mexico with 14.4 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game. Mathis’s preexisting chemistry with Pritchard and his 101 games of college basketball experience should give the Ducks one of the best backcourts in the Pac-12 (they also added NJCAA player of the year Chris Duarte, a 6-foot-6 guard) and help ease his transition into a new team. With the Ducks losing several key scorers from last year’s squad (Bol Bol, Louis King, Paul White), Mathis’s sharpshooting will be vital to a team looking to build on last season’s Sweet 16 run.
8. Justin Pierce, F, UNC (From William & Mary)
A long, athletic, 6-foot-7 hybrid forward, Pierce put up impressive numbers in three seasons at William & Mary. Deployed strictly from the bench as a freshman, he averaged 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists in his two subsequent years in the starting rotation. A career 34.5% three-point shooter, Pierce flashed the potential for even better numbers during a scorching 2017-18 saw that number tick up to 41.6%. Despite his propensity for “stat stuffing,” Pierce finished fifth in the CAA in both total assists and assists per game last season as well as seventh in total rebounds. He made the All-CAA Third Team in his swan song with the Tribe and will now help a young Tar Heels team that must replace Coby White, Luke Maye, Nassir Little, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams. Though not projected to start, Pierce will almost certainly be a major bench contributor and may see some starts early in the year as Roy Williams manages a rash of injuries. His versatility, experience and well-rounded game should make him an impact contributor as an elder statesman on a young, talented team.
7. Lamarr Kimble, G, Louisville (From St. Joseph's)
A wily, 6-foot point guard and the first three-year captain in St. Joe’s history, “Fresh” Kimble received a medical redshirt after missing most of his junior year with an injury. In his two seasons as a starter, Kimble averaged 15.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. A career 32.3% shooter from three, Kimble showed potential for more consistent shooting from range, clocking in at 37.2% as a freshman coming off the bench. However, his most valuable contributions to Louisville this coming season may come as the primary ballhandler following the graduation of Christen Cunningham. Kimble will compete with returning junior Darius Perry (Cunningham’s backup last season) and freshman David Johnson for the starting point guard role but appears to have the inside track on the spot given his experience and Johnson’s lingering shoulder issue. A drive-first guard who can create his own shot and get to the line, Kimble also posted respectable assist numbers during his four years on Hawk Hill. If he can lock down the starting role with conviction, Kimble will provide a veteran backcourt presence running the offense and feeding the ball to returning forwards Jordan Nwora and Dwayne Sutton as well as five-star freshman Samuell Williamson. Point guard remains the biggest question mark for a highly-regarded Louisville team, so Kimble will be under the microscope this season.
6. Shakur Juiston, PF, Oregon (From UNLV)
The other, more vital grad transfer component of Oregon’s on-the-fly rebuild, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound power forward got a medical redshirt for 2018-19 after a knee injury ended his season after just eight games. In his lone full collegiate season with UNLV in 2017-18, Juiston averaged a double double, putting up 14.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. He shot 63.9% from the field, good for first in the Mountain West and seventh in the nation. He led the conference in two-point field goals made, but Juiston does not venture far beyond the elbow (six career threes on 15 attempts) and is a poor free throw shooter at 52.3%. Juiston finished third in the conference in both rebounds (329), rebounds per game (10.0) and total rebound percentage (17.8). Described by scouts as a “banger” in the post, Juiston brings toughness, experience and a scorer’s touch to a new-look Oregon frontcourt that will rely heavily on its most recent acquisition. With the top four scorers at those positions from last season now elsewhere (Louis King, Bol Bol, Paul White, Kenny Wooten), Juiston will be expected to start and contribute immediately to Dana Altman’s team. A solid passer and decision-maker, Juiston will benefit from Oregon’s deep stable of guards and should enjoy a resurgence in his final year of eligibility.
5. Nate Sestina, PF, Kentucky (From Bucknell)
Only the third grad transfer of the Calipari era, Sestina follows Reid Travis as the second in two seasons at famed one-and-done factory Kentucky. The 6-foot-9 power forward played three full seasons with Bucknell, but his breakout came in 2018-19 as he started all 31 of the Bison’s games, averaging 15.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists last year while being named to the All-Patriot League Second Team. He was one of the best players in the conference, shooting 38% from three, 60.8% from inside the arc and 80.8% from the line.
No slouch on the defensive end, Sestina finished fifth in the Patriot League in blocks (33), third in defensive rebounds (201) and fourth in defensive rating (100.3). Scouts lauded Sestina’s catch-and-shoot prowess and ability to stretch the floor while also commending his skill as a rebounder and strength as a defender. With its typically youthful roster featuring no seniors and only two juniors, Kentucky will value Sestina’s veteran presence both in the locker room and in the frontcourt, where the now-departed Travis and PJ Washington roamed last season for the Wildcats. E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards will help fill some of those gaps, but Sestina is a proven scorer and projected starter who will allow Calipari to juggle his deep backcourt and play small lineups without sacrificing too much defensively.
4. Christian Keeling, G, UNC (From Charleston Southern)
Another grad transfer brought in to provide some leadership to a talented but youthful team, Keeling was a three-year starter for Charleston Southern in the Big South. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 17.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists for the Buccaneers, logging over 1,600 points across 93 games. Keeling is a career 35.2% shooter from three but also finished in the top 10 in the conference in two-point field goals in each of his three seasons. An All-Big South First Teamer in 2018-19, Keeling held his own on the defensive end as well. He led the conference in both defensive rating (94.6) and defensive win shares (2.3) last year while finishing eight in blocks (23) and second in defensive rebounds (206).
A shoot-first guard comfortable attacking off the screen or getting to his spots on his own, Keeling’s quick release and experience make him the perfect starting backcourt companion to projected lottery pick Cole Anthony. UNC ran into trouble last year when freshman guard Coby White went cold, and the rest of the offense stagnated along with him. With similar growing pains to be expected from Anthony and the rest of the Tar Heels' young, reshaped roster, Keeling provides a legitimate secondary scoring option experienced enough to create his own shot, which Roy Williams did not always have at his disposal last year. That presence should alleviate some of the pressure on Anthony to be the fulcrum of the offense, and as the young point guard finds his legs, Keeling will benefit as defenses flock to defend his younger, more heralded teammate.
3. Chris Clarke, SF, Texas Tech (From Virginia Tech)
A hallmark of last year’s excellent Red Raiders team was the versatility of its players, and Chris Beard’s recruiting in the grad transfer market demonstrates that as one of his priorities. Enter Clarke, a 6-foot-6 small guard/forward who was the No. 62 player in the class of 2015 and played three seasons for Virginia Tech. He missed all of last season after being suspended indefinitely, and an April charge for misdemeanor marijuana possession was later dropped. In his three prior seasons with the Hokies, Clarke was a swiss army knife of sorts. Though his 9.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game may not be the flashiest, Clarke’s impact is felt on the defensive end. Rob Dauster of NBC Sports called him a “junkyard dog,” and Clarke finished either first or second on the team in defensive rating each of his three years with Virginia Tech (beating out fellow 2019 grad transfer and tenacious defender Kerry Blackshear Jr. on two occasions).
Clarke is far from a liability offensively, as he shot over 60% from inside the arc each of his last two seasons, finishing sixth in the ACC in two-point percentage in 2017-18. Clarke also got to the free throw line consistently, averaging 94 attempts a year. Despite only taking 33 threes last season (roughly one a game), Clarke hit 42.4% of those shots. Described by scouts as a “quick-twitch athlete with a big-time motor,” Clarke’s athleticism and basketball IQ allow him to play and guard multiple positions. That should help him to slide immediately into Chris Beard’s starting lineup at several spots depending on how Texas Tech wants to play. With several key frontcourt contributors gone along with Matt Mooney and Jarret Culver, Clarke will be a vital, versatile cog in the rebuilt Red Raiders rotation as they attempt to return to the heights of last year’s finals run.
2. Admon Gilder, G, Gonzaga (From Texas A&M)
A defensive stalwart in his three seasons at Texas A&M, Gilder missed last season with a blood clot in his arm. Now fully healthy, the 6-foot-4 guard takes his talents to Gonzaga to help Mark Few replace most of his backcourt from last season. Gilder, projected to start along with fellow grad transfer Ryan Woolridge, averaged 10.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists across his three years (two as a starter) in College Station. He surpassed 1,000 points, shot a reliable 37.4% from three and hit 77.4% from the free throw line while racking up 246 assists. However, his defensive presence in the Aggies backcourt was more pronounced. Gilder possesses some of the stickiest fingers in college basketball, snatching 131 steals in three years, including 60 during the 2016-17 season.
Dubbed “one of the best defensive players in the SEC over the last three seasons” by scouts, Gilder will likely be tasked with locking down some of the best guards in the country as Gonzaga looks to replicate the deep March runs it has become accustomed to in recent years under Mark Few. With three key guards from last year’s team out of the picture, Gilder’s leadership and defense should help keep a new-look Bulldogs team grounded on the defensive end. With a talented frontcourt featuring Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev and a batch of four-star freshmen, Gilder will get to facilitate for more talented players than he did while at Texas A&M. Gonzaga needs stability and experience at the point guard spot to take a young team with a lot of new pieces deep into March, and Gilder has the talent and miles to be an impactful addition for this Bulldogs team.
1. Kerry Blackshear Jr., PF, Florida (From Virginia Tech)
The consensus best of the bunch in the grad transfer market, Blackshear Jr. was a force in his three years with Virginia Tech. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound Floridian returns to his home state to play for the Gators after receiving an extra year of eligibility for missing the entire 2016-17 season. A low-post bruiser in the truest sense, Blackshear also possesses the smarts and savvy to serve as the focal point of any offense. He averaged 11.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, racking up 1,152 points and 616 boards in 103 games as a Hokie. He posted solid averages from the field, shooting 57.9% from two and 31% from three as well as 70.4% from the line. His skill as a passer and facilitator is apparent, as he logged a 17.3% assist percentage last season, meaning he assisted on about one of every five of his teammates’ baskets. He finished top-20 in the ACC in most offensive and defensive metrics across the last two years, highlighted by an All-ACC second team selection last year as well as an NCAA tournament All-Region selection (he went for 18/16/5 against Duke in Virginia Tech’s tight loss to the Blue Devils in the Sweet 16).
A solid rebounder who finished seventh in the ACC with 264 last season, Blackshear Jr.’s size, toughness and “mean streak” make him a formidable opponent on the defensive end. He joins a Florida team loaded with backcourt talent and perimeter shooting highlighted by returners Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke as well as five-star recruits Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis. Nembhard and Locke made good use of Florida’s less talented options at the center position a year ago (a third of Nembhard's assists went to Florida’s centers in 2018-19), and now they can feed one of the best big men in the country down low. In turn, Blackshear Jr.’s skill as a passer and deep bag of offensive tricks should free up the perimeter shooting talent surrounding him as teams converge in the lane to stop him. It appears to be a great fit for both Blackshear Jr. and the Gators, and they should be in the hunt at the top of the SEC.