February 12, 2024 

It’s finally clicking for Ajae Petty

“My mom has made so many sacrifices in order for me to be where I'm at"

At the end of last season, Kentucky Head Coach Kyra Elzy sat down her then-junior forward and now star senior, Ajae Petty, for a tough conversation. Her point: she was selling herself short.

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“She just wanted me to take the game more seriously, she wanted me to kind of just realize what I could actually be and what I could actually do. It was a really hard and tough conversation,” Petty told The Next.

And this conversation sparked a summer of transition for Petty. It started in the gym, but transformed into Petty’s embarking on the most challenging summer of her life, both academically and in basketball.

Petty explained to The Next that she changed things in her personal life — her relationship with God, her academics, and her focus on herself – and it quickly trickled down to her game. Petty, who plans to go to nursing school after college, spent the summer taking nutrition, physiology, and anatomy classes, which gave her an extra edge.

“I actually think that helped me also because it changed the little things that a lot of people don’t understand about basketball,” Petty explained.

She walked out of summer practices as the team’s summer MVP and with a new mindset: she wasn’t rising to her full potential.

“My mom has made so many sacrifices in order for me to be where I’m at, and where I’m from a lot of people don’t get the same opportunity as me,” Petty said. “And I don’t think I was really thinking like that. I don’t think I really understood these people are paying so much for my education. … So I think this summer, that really just popped into my mind, like the days where I was supposed to get up early in the morning.”

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Petty grew up in Baltimore, and started playing basketball in middle school. She admits she wasn’t initially any good, but made her school team because she was tall. And despite her initial mediocrity, she had an intense mindset for the game.

“I didn’t start off young so I had to do a lot of catching up,” Petty explained. Her high school routine consisted of daily 4 a.m. workouts, school, after-school practice, and often another workout. In 10th grade, she finally started to get good, and the offers began to come in.

Kentucky senior Eniya Russell is the person who’s perhaps seen Petty’s growth most intimately. The two met when they were in fifth grade, playing AAU together for the Baltimore Stars. They went on to play together in high school, and both embarked for the SEC: Petty to LSU and Russell to South Carolina.

Both played two seasons at their respective schools, Petty averaging 5.7 ppg and 4.7 rpg, until Russell jumped in the portal after their sophomore year and convinced Petty to do the same.

“I was just talking to her about it and told her to think about it and give it some time,” Russell told The Next. “She thought about it, and she came on a visit here, she liked it, and we just both came in together. I just wanted to play with her again.”

Now, the two share a gym again, but instead, Petty’s doubled her LSU and junior stats, and averages 14.6 ppg and 10.5 rpg. She’s now a dynamic post, dangerous on both ends of the court, and uses her size and footwork exceptionally well for college players.

“She is a totally different player now. When we first started playing together, she always had a hard time catching my passes… she was definitely shorter, she was skinnier,” Russell said. “[Now] she’s in better shape, she eats well, she moves without the ball well, she runs the floor well. I feel like she’s the best post in our conference… Way better than last year.”

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Petty’s fresh mindset was best on display in the Wildcat’s first SEC game, where Petty scored 22 points and put up 19 rebounds against Arkansas. And as she left the court, Petty was informed by team staff she was just on rebound shy of being the first player since 1982 to have a 20-point/20 rebound game.

“When I walked off the court, I was a little upset. I’m like, ‘Dang, I just needed one more.’ And then I was like, ‘It’s okay, I’m just gonna go back and get it.’”

And although Petty’s having her breakout season leading her team, times are tough in Lexington. Kentucky has only one win once since their SEC opener and just nine wins on the season. Maddie Scherr, Kentucky’s sharpshooter, has had a slow season, and the team hasn’t gelled. There’s plenty of work to be done, but it’s given Petty ample room to grow, and Kentucky is known to have a surprising postseason.

From the outside, it seems like it’s all clicking for Petty: the lanky teenager who had to work twice as hard to catch up is leading her team and shining across the league. But from Petty’s perspective, it’s just the beginning.

“I do see the work working, but I would just say that I’m still not satisfied,” Petty said.

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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