CHICAGO — In more ways than one, former Kentucky defensive ace DeAndre Liggins credits John Calipari as the person most responsible for his participation in the NBA Combine here this week.
Upon arriving at Kentucky in the spring of 2009, the UK coach opened Liggins' eyes to the possibility of becoming an NBA player someday.
"He defined my game," Liggins said Thursday at a combine media interview session. "He told me who I was. 'This is how you'll get noticed.'"
Calipari did this with a blunt dose of tough love: Be a defender and rebounder or else.
"'If you don't do this, you won't play,'" Liggins recalled Calipari saying. "'You might as well leave.'"
Liggins stayed and became an invaluable defender and offensive sniper for UK's 2011 Final Four team.
Ironically, Liggins' decision not to return for a senior season can also be laid in Calipari's lap.
Liggins, who projects no better than a second-round pick at this point of the process, acknowledged that NBA officials suggested a return to college.
"I thought hard," he said of that option. "I thought of winning a national championship, and the team we'd have. I also thought of the (NBA) scouts wanting to see my offense. Some teams said I needed to go back to improve my offense."
So why didn't Liggins follow the NBA advice?"I thought, how could I do that when we've got this bigger class coming in," he said of UK's latest No. 1-rated recruiting class (Michael Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer). "They'll want to start."
Liggins said he spoke with his family and high school coach, but not Calipari, before deciding to keep his name in this year's NBA Draft.
When it comes to deferring to more highly regarded prospects, Liggins took a been there/done that attitude.
After an uneven freshman season, Liggins' playing time, shots, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and points all diminished as a sophomore when Calipari depended on that year's ballyhooed freshman class: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe.
This past season saw Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and junior Darius Miller as offensive options.
"I think my offense got better at Kentucky during the year," Liggins said before adding, "I didn't have the ball a lot."
When asked whether he could have shown more offensively if called upon, Liggins said, "Right.
"But we had other guys more highly recruited," he said. "They had more hype than me. Coach Cal would rather live with their mistakes than my mistakes.
"I'm just glad I have the opportunity to show I can do more than I did at Kentucky."
That opportunity includes the combine, where Liggins and 53 other players interview with NBA teams and go through light drills and a medical examination.
So far, he's talked to close to 10 teams at various settings.
"Kind of overwhelming," said Liggins, who acknowledged his preference to show what he can do rather than talk. "They determine my future, so I don't have a choice except to talk to them and be polite."
His most infamous moment for Kentucky has been a topic for NBA teams to explore. That's when he refused as a freshman to re-enter UK's game against Kansas State.
"I just tell them it was immaturity," he said. "I was just a freshman. I learned from my mistake. I'm an older guy now. I'm a mature guy. I know what to do and what not to do."
The site of the combine, a downtown Chicago hotel, served to illustrate how far Liggins has come. He grew up a 20-minute drive — and a world — away. He grew up under difficult circumstances where positive feedback was not common.
"It's tough to get out of Chicago and make it," he said. "You've got so many people who don't want you to make it. So many distractions. You have to stay on course."
Fatherhood helped keep Liggins on course. He spoke of the influence of his son, Bracyn, who was born earlier this year.
"Becoming a father, my whole mindset changed," he said. "How hard I work. What I did off the court. How I presented myself. How I talk to people.
"He needs a role model," Liggins said of his son, "and I wanted to be that."
Liggins noted how he and former Morehead State star Kenneth Faried became fathers within the last 15 months. Faried's daughter, Kyra, is 14 months old.
"We're both not playing for ourselves," Liggins said. "It's not about us anymore. It's about our children. It's about our family."