MADISON, Wis. — There’s no getting around it, the transfer portal is and will continue to be a crucial recruiting tool across college basketball, even for a developmental program like Wisconsin, who’s historically ridden the wave of four and five-year players growing within their system. The Badgers still don’t want to deviate too far from what they do and what’s made them successful over the last two decades-plus, but in order to maintain a high standard, they admittedly need to utilize the portal annually.
When UW and head coach Greg Gard evaluates a potential transfer, they start with one question, “What are they about?”
It’s next to impossible to project how a player will adjust to a new school, new system, new setting, new teammates, etc. It becomes even more of a crapshoot when bringing a player into the Big Ten Conference from a mid-major program.
UW’s approach to the portal? If you’re a character fit on and off the floor and winning is at the top of your priority list, you’ll be just fine.
“It’s us bringing in the right types of kids, right character kids, kids that are about winning, said assistant coach Sharif Chamblisswho also transferred to UW from Penn State for two seasons.
“If they’re about winning, they’ll do anything to win.”
There’s only been a select few transfers in the Gard era, but so far, the Badgers have a relatively strong track record with guys who weren’t exactly at the top of the wish list for other programs.
In 2018-19, UW brought in Micah Potter from Ohio State. Now with the Utah Jazz, Potter averaged in double figures for two seasons and sparked an improbable run to a share of the 2019-20 Big Ten title as the Badgers went 15-5 ounces he became eligible.
Last season, center Chris Vogt was one of the most under-the-radar transfer portal additions nationally. The seven-footer, who played previously at Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, was an instrumental defensive presence. Gard even acknowledged the Badgers don’t win a share of the league crown without him.
Before transferring to Valparaiso for a sixth season, Trevor Anderson provided UW with solid backcourt play behind Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice for three years after playing one season at UW-Green Bay. The story is yet to be written on senior guard Jahcobi Neathbut the Wake Forest transfer, who played much of last season injured, did play almost 10 minutes per game off the bench in 2021-22.
For the second time in the Gard era, UW signed two scholarship transfers in the off-season, hoping to alleviate the losses of Davison and reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis, a lottery pick of the Washington Wizards this past June. A pair of in-state additions, Kamari McGee (UW-Green Bay) and Max Klesmit (Wofford) figure to each play major role for the Badgers this winter.
UW won’t officially kick off its regular season until Nov. 7, but thus far, it’s felt like a relatively seamless transition for both.
“I don’t think we could have picked two better transfers to come join this team,” said junior forward Carter Gilmore, who lives with McGee. “Our coaches do a really good job of finding kids who just fit this program. I think Kamari and Max were the perfect fit. Both are great players, they’re gonna help us out. Off the court, both are just as great.
“We’re really lucky to have them.”
It’s almost been too smooth of a transition for both Klesmit and McGee, who also got four exhibition games in with their new teammates in France.
“They blended in right away,” said assistant coach Dean Oliver. “Usually, you have a little bit of tension, guys are trying to find their own way and carve out roles. They came in and they embraced the competition, but at the same time, they got along with everyone right away off the court.
“The trip to France was huge. I really like how they handled coming in to compete every day, but at the same time, understand that we’re all working together. No selfishness has crept it.”
Klesmit spent two seasons with the Terriers. A third-team All-SOCON selection as a sophomore, Klesmit averaged 14.9 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game while shooting 44.6 percent from the field, including 34.0 percent from 3-point range and starting all 31 games.
A Neenah native, Klesmit had originally narrowed his list of choices to four — South Carolina, Clemson, Vanderbilt, and Colorado State. Once the Badgers made a move and hosted Klesmit on an official visit, it was all over.
“It’s a huge honor,” he said. “It hasn’t really hit me yet. It’s still kind of surreal. Every time you come into that locker room and you see your jersey sitting there, you get butterflies.”
Klesmit scored in double figures in all but five games as a sophomore, including a career-high 27 points against South Carolina on Nov. 23. While facing power-five competition, Klesmit averaged 18 points while shooting a combined 50.0 percent from the field.
It goes without saying that Klesmit knows he belongs at the high major level.
“That’s one thing I would never tell you about Max, is that he’s intimidated,” said Chambliss. “He plays with the utmost confidence and he carries himself with that.”
While he was a prolific scorer for the Rockets in high school, UW fans might be pleasantly surprised by Klesmit’s toughness and gritty play on the defensive end. Klesmit had a game-high 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting at the Red-White scrimmage, but was able to defend numerous players, including star guard chucky hepburn.
“Playing physical for sure is gonna be huge,” said Klemsit. “Just playing with a chip on your shoulder and being competitive every possession.”
Coming off a big freshman campaign at Green Bay, McGee posted 11.6 points and 1.9 assists per game en route to All-Freshman Horizon League honors. Playing for head coach Will Ryanthe son of legendary former UW head coach bo ryanMcGee opted to leave a program starting to build around him in order to chase a dream of getting to the next level.
“That definitely was a tough conversation that I didn’t want to have, but I felt like I needed to have,” McGee explained. “After talking to people in my circle, I feel like it had to go down. I wanted to be in an opportunity to get to that next level. I wanted to play against that level night in and night out.”
UW was one of the first schools to reach out to McGee upon entering the transfer portal. The Racine native, who won a state title at St. Catherine’s High School as a senior, was thrilled.
Attending UW’s Round of 32 loss to Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament, McGee fell in love with the atmosphere, even though he was there to support his former teammate, Tyrese Hunter.
“Just seeing the Red, it was crazy. It was red everywhere and I loved that,” he said. “The fans were into the game each play. That’s just something growing up as a kid, you want that. Just seeing how they love and support their team, I just loved it. When I entered the portal and they called, I had just seen this a few weeks ago.
“I had to jump at it.”
McGee ended his freshman season by scoring in double figures in UWGB’s last five games. During that span, he averaged 17.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game on 50.7 percent shooting, including 40.0 percent from 3-point range. McGee also had a 14-point, three-assist effort against Minnesota and a 14-point, two-assist effort against Kansas State in December.
Playing behind or alongside Hepburn this season, McGee likely won’t be asked to score as much at UW. McGee did have nine points (4-6) and three assists at the Red-White scrimmage, but his defensive intensity against Hepburn stood out above all else.
“Defensive-minded player. That’s what I love about him,” said Hepburn. “He doesn’t care if he’s scoring or not. He wants to go out there, win, and do whatever it takes to stay on the floor.”
McGee, who said he’s not afraid to “get down and dirty” and doesn’t shy away from the bumps and bruises, relishes that role.
“I feel like bringing that mentality to a team that’s already accustomed to winning, that’ll keep us going in the right direction,” he said.
In fact, whatever role the Badgers ask McGee to fill, he’ll step in, no questions asked.
“The thing about Kam, he’s so open and such a great listener, that he’s been soaking things in,” said Oliver. “He’s willing to take any criticism or praise. He looks you dead in the eye and tries to get better daily. He’s a good point guard, because he cares about his teammates. He wants to do it, not just because coach says that, he wants to do what the team wants him to do.
“He’s a true point guard. That’s a great quality for an incoming guy to have, that selflessness.”
Both Klesmit and McGee acknowledge the physicality, intensity, and speed of the game will be a transition. There have been some eye-opening moments for both, trying to stay in front of a guard like Hepburn, who possesses a combination of explosiveness and strength on the ball not seen much at the mid-major level or match up with a swiss-army knife like Tyler Wahl, who can play and defend multiple positions and has a motor you can’t turn off.
As Oliver alluded to, both have walked the tight line of trying to blend in with their teammates, while at the same time finding their own way and making an impact on the floor, graciously.
“They’re both in-state guys. They know the culture, they know the tradition here,” said junior guard Jordan Davis. “Those were perfect guys to fill our program.”