The NBA holds its annual draft of college players Thursday night. Not so coincidentally, the occasion again figures to advertise Kentucky's come-one, come-all early summer clearance of fine basketball merchandise.
This may never be more so than at last year's draft when five NBA teams picked UK players in the first round. No college program had ever produced so many first-round picks in a single year, which caused UK Coach John Calipari to famously gush about "the greatest day in Kentucky basketball history."
Was this eyebrow-raising comment a pragmatic concession to the way of the world? An indication of how far college sports has drifted from the idea of educational pursuit? A serious appraisal of draft picks as more of an achievement than, say, such team goals as winning a national championship or being first to 2,000 victories? Or merely not missing a chance to remind the next round of prospects of how easily Kentucky can put you behind the wheel of a brand new NBA dream?
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas gives Calipari credit for honesty.
When asked about a college coach using the NBA Draft as a recruiting tool, Bilas said, "All of them do. I tend to think John is one of the most honest about it."
Any top program's media guide — which is more sales packet for prospects rather than guide for reporters — contains a section touting the players produced for the NBA.
"John's out front (with) 'We want to prepare you to be a pro,'" Bilas said. "Nothing wrong with that. Kids want to be pros. It's OK to pursue that dream."
Earlier in the week, Calipari predicted that the names of two of his players — Brandon Knight and Enes Kanter — would be called within the first 30 minutes of this year's draft.
Calipari then thought aloud of a best-case scenario in which DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson joined Knight and Kanter as first- rounders from UK this year.
"If all four are drafted in the first round, I'd probably retire because what more could I do?" he said. "I'd be done."
Not only does Calipari make no secret of selling Kentucky as a means to prepare for the NBA, it seems at the heart of the program. In speaking to reporters at one of his "satellite" camps on Monday, he noted the "20-percent bump" UK provides in draft position and shoe contract deals.
"There's long been a commercialization of college sports," said noted observer Murray Sperber, a professor emeritus at Indiana and now teaching at Cal-Berkeley. " ... He embraces it. You'll get the best training for the pros at Kentucky. You're only here a year, but it's at the top AAA level.
"At one level, it's sort of chutzpah. At another level, it's total realism."
However it strikes you, it's effective. At an NBA Players Association-sponsored Top 100 Camp earlier this month, prospect J.P. Tokoto noted the many so-called one-and-done players at Kentucky.
"Kentucky is kind of a factory," he said. "Coach Calipari, give him credit. He's getting them ready in a year. If I was one of the players to be one-and-done, Kentucky would definitely be the spot for me."
Tokoto committed to North Carolina this spring.
"I see myself playing (multiple years), trying to get my degree," he said.
When asked about likening UK to a basketball "factory," Tokoto said he did not mean to disparage Kentucky basketball.
"Coach Calipari had Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, John Wall," he said. "Guys have seen that. Coach Calipari is a great coach. People are going to follow. Guys are kind of attracted to one-and-done. (They say) 'I should go there.'"
Another prospect in the class of 2012, Gary Harris, said Kentucky appeals as more than just a NBA training ground.
"He's definitely a good coach," Harris said of Calipari. "He's always had teams that win. That can only help. That appeals to a lot of people. They can win.
"They also develop players for the NBA."
More than once, Bilas emphasized the notion that there's nothing wrong with a player attending college as a means toward pursuing a pro career. The ESPN analyst said he did the same when he went to Duke in the 1980s.
When asked why such a recruiting approach draws criticism, Bilas said, "It's not the way the NCAA hierarchy would recommend you do this. ... The idea that other coaches are not addressing it (the same way) is absolute nonsense. Of course, they are."
Bilas saw "some hyperbole" in Calipari calling the 2010 NBA Draft the pinnacle for Kentucky basketball. But Calipari spoke the truth in terms of sustaining Kentucky basketball's viability going forward.
"Part of that was really smart," Bilas said. "Kentucky fans, he's already got them. That was not said for Kentucky fans. It was said for Kentucky recruits."
School: Morehead State
Height, weight: 6-7, 225
2010-11 stats: 17.3 points, 14.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks
Age: 21 Class: Senior
Position: Power forward
Hometown: Newark, N.J.
Projection: Mid to late first round
Height, weight: 6-2, 205
2010-11 stats: 16.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists
Age: 22 Class: Junior
Position: Point guard
Projection: Late first or early second round
Height, weight: 6-7, 205
2010-11 stats: 17.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists
Age: 21 Class: Junior
Position: Shooting guard
Projection: Outside shot at second round
Year Player Pick Team
2010 John Wall 1 Washington
1984 Sam Bowie 2 Portland
1949 Alex Groza 2 Indianapolis
1978 Rick Robey 3 Indiana
1993 Jamal Mashburn 4 Dallas
2010 DeMarcus Cousins 5 Sacramento
1953 Frank Ramsey 5 Boston
1986 Kenny Walker 5 New York
1997 Ron Mercer 6 Boston
1984 Melvin Turpin 6 Washington
1996 Antoine Walker 6 Boston
1967 Pat Riley 7 San Diego
1988 Rex Chapman 8 Charlotte
1949 Wah Wah Jones 9 Washington
1997 Derek Anderson 13 Cleveland
2010 Patrick Patterson 14 Houston
1996 Tony Delk 16 Charlotte
1978 Jack Givens 16 Atlanta
2010 Eric Bledsoe 18 Okla. City
1975 Kevin Grevey 18Washington
2000 Jamaal Magloire 19 Charlotte
1996 Walter McCarty 19 New York
2006 Rajon Rondo 21 Phoenix
1979 Kyle Macy 22 Phoenix
2002 Tayshaun Prince 23 Detroit
1999 Scott Padgett 28 Utah
2010 Daniel Orton 29 Orlando
1998 Nazr Mohammed 29 Utah