For the first time in his tenure as Kentucky’s basketball coach, John Calipari might be guiding a team that does not feature a future top-10 NBA Draft pick.
There’s still time — plenty of it, in fact — for one or more of these young Wildcats to break out and keep Calipari’s streak, which also dates to his final two seasons at Memphis, intact, but zero UK players were featured among the top 10 in ESPN’s latest 2018 draft prospect rankings released earlier this month.
That doesn’t mean — despite what the more pessimistic segment of the UK fan base might think — that this team is without its future pros.
ESPN’s lead NBA Draft analyst, Jonathan Givony, placed three Wildcats in first-round range in his recent update: Kevin Knox at No. 11, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at No. 18, and Hamidou Diallo at No. 24.
Knox — a 6-foot-9 freshman — leads the Cats in scoring with 14.3 points per game and has just two fewer rebounds (107 in 19 games) than the Cats’ leader in that category, Wenyen Gabriel. Knox is also the team’s leader in minutes (32.2 per game).
“He’s kind of the prototype of what you’re looking for at the combo forward position, with his size and his length and, theoretically, his potential to make outside shots,” Givony told the Herald-Leader this week.
The draft analyst acknowledged that Knox has been inconsistent from three-point range this season — he’s UK’s leader in made threes but is shooting just 29.8 percent from deep — though he’s viewed favorably in that area as a prospect.
“He’s got good shooting mechanics and he’s very young,” Givony said. “You can project him being a good shooter and a good defender down the road. He still has a long ways to go to put it all together. And I think these guys are hoping to see that when he’s playing more of his natural position in the NBA — which is probably going to be more at the ‘4.’”
Knox has often played the ‘3’ — or even the ‘2’ — during his time at Kentucky. “Everybody could have told you before the season that that’s not really the kind of player he is,” he added.
Givony mentioned the UK freshman’s youth, and that’s important to note. Knox doesn’t turn 19 until August, and he’s the third-youngest player on ESPN’s first-round board, older than only Jaren Jackson (No. 7) and Jontay Porter (No. 30).
Those who have watched UK closely might have also raised their eyebrows at Givony’s comment projecting Knox as a “good defender.”
He acknowledged the inconsistency in that area, but said Knox has the physical tools to make it happen, and he’s shown ability in the past.
“I think that — when he wants to play really good defense — he can make a huge impact,” Givony said. “I just don’t know that he’s ever really fully bought in to being a defensive stopper. I think, in his mind, he’s some kind of wing player who needs to shoot all the time.”
In past viewings of Knox on the high school, Nike league, USA Basketball and all-star settings, Givony noticed a player who “always would kind of fluctuate with his motor and his intensity,” noting that NBA teams would definitely be paying attention to that as they continue to evaluate him as a prospect.
“But you have to also remember that he’s one of the younger players in this draft,” Givony said. “And this is kind of a weird draft. There’s not a whole lot. There’s like seven or eight players that people really like, and then after that it really kind of falls off. And at that point you start looking at guys that can fit certain roles in the NBA. And everybody’s looking for wings, forwards, combo forwards — and there just aren’t that many of them.”
Gilgeous-Alexander — a 6-6 freshman guard — wasn’t even on ESPN’s Top 100 list of NBA prospects when the season started, but he’s been steadily working his way up those charts with inspired, and somewhat unexpected play, so far, especially with starting point guard Quade Green’s recent injury troubles.
“He’s been called upon to do a lot more with Quade out and with Hamidou being very inconsistent, and with Kentucky, in general, really not having much in terms of ball handling or shot creation,” Givony said. “I think he’s been inconsistent, you know, but he’s stepped up and shown that maybe he’s a little bit further along than we had initially thought.”
Scouts liked Gilgeous-Alexander at settings such as the Nike Hoop Summit, and he was still a highly touted recruit — ranked as high as No. 20 overall in the 2018 class by 247Sports — coming out of high school.
As of now, what sets Gilgeous-Alexander apart is his defense.
“If he doesn’t do anything else in the NBA, there’s one thing you know he’s going to be able to do: play lockdown defense,” Givony said. “And that’s always going to kind of keep him around, I think. And the hope is that he can develop into more than that. Because he’s shown some flashes of being able to do some stuff offensively, but he’s still very raw in many ways.”
Gilgeous-Alexander is a 47.8 percent three-point shooter so far this season, but he’s attempted an incredibly small amount of threes for a guard playing 30.7 minutes per game — just 23 long-range shots in 19 games.
“Is he going to be able to score enough at the NBA level to stay on the floor? That’s a big question,” Givony said. “He’s not a very good off-the-dribble shooter. He’s just an OK ball handler. I think he wants to make the right pass. He wants to be a point guard, but there are question marks about that.”
The perfect role for Gilgeous-Alexander might be as a big guard who plays alongside a superstar that can handle the ball and create for himself offensively (think LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, etc.). The UK freshman’s ability to make spot-up jumpers, move the ball unselfishly and defend multiple positions would be ideal for that role.
“And that’s a really coveted role in today’s NBA,” Givony said. “Almost every team has one guy like that. Those players are important, and they’re hard to find. So that’s going to give him some value. He’s not going to be your go-to guy. He’s not going to be your star or carry you offensively, but he’s going to give you some utility alongside some really good players.”
And then there’s Diallo, who was at No. 18 on ESPN’s board when the season started and has backed up six spots since.
The 6-5 freshman — he enrolled at UK midway through last season but didn’t play — is averaging 13.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in 28.6 minutes. He’s shooting 34.8 percent from three-point range — better than the reputation that preceded him — but he’s also taken a relatively small number of long-range shots (46 in 19 games).
Givony noted that Diallo has had some good games against legit competition (Virginia Tech and Texas A&M, for example) but many of his best performances have come against the likes of Monmouth, UIC and Harvard. He’s scored more than 10 points just once in seven league games after doing it in nine of UK’s 12 non-conference games.
“When he’s the best athlete by a mile, on the court, he’s very, very hard to contain,” Givony said. “Teams that have other athletes — where he has to be more of a thinker — that has been more of a problem for him, because his basketball IQ is just not very high. Even though he’s improved his shooting, I think he’s still — in many ways — a reluctant shooter from outside. He wants to be a driver. He wants to operate in the open court.
“And if he was surrounded by a little bit more shooting, I think he would look better. But the paint is just so clogged all the time for Kentucky. He’s driving in the paint and everybody’s just collapsing on him, because they’re all just there anyway.”
As of right now, Diallo doesn’t appear to be a sure-thing first-round pick.
NBA decision-makers will take that lack of spacing into account when they’re evaluating Diallo (and other UK players) as next-level prospects — “You have to wonder, ‘How much better would they look in a more modern offense?’” Givony said — but there’s another, larger truth that’s hard to deny for those hoping to see more tangible production from these young Kentucky players.
“It’s easier in college than it is in the NBA,” Givony said.
This is the first in a series of articles looking at the NBA Draft prospects of the current UK team near the midway point of this season.
UK players in ESPN’s latest NBA Draft prospect rankings