In each of the past two years, only two University of Kentucky basketball players have been selected in the NBA Draft.
That "only" is relative to the standard John Calipari set at UK, which sent a total of 15 players to the draft through his first three seasons as head coach. Following the Wildcats' victory over Arkansas a couple of weeks ago, Calipari made it clear that he expects a return to abnormalcy after this season is finished.
"I'm not afraid to tell you, a bunch of these kids are going to be in the NBA next year," he said. "Not just one or two."
DraftExpress.com analyst Jonathan Givony has six Wildcats projected for this year's NBA Draft. That number could change between now and the final declaration day, but it's apparent that most are expecting an exodus after what has so far been a historic season.
Never miss a local story.
At the top of the list is freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, who DraftExpress pegs as the No. 2 overall pick.
"He's the whole package, honestly," Givony told the Herald-Leader. "You look at his size, his length, his body, his mobility. He's been a lot more aggressive offensively, getting more touches. And he's starting to really emerge as a scorer. And that's on top of the rebounding and the shot-blocking that he already provides you with.
"He's just a really skilled, all-around player on both sides of the floor, and that's hard to find at 7 feet tall, 19 years old."
Though DraftExpress lists Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor at No. 1, Givony said there are NBA teams that would definitely select Towns first if put in a position to do so. If the right franchise ends up in the top spot, Calipari could have his third No. 1 overall pick in six years at UK.
"I've always maintained that they're right there together," Givony said. "They're both going to be very strongly in the mix, depending on who gets that pick. I think it could go either way. It's really just a matter of style of play and personnel and preference."
Next up is Willie Cauley-Stein, who's listed at No. 7 in Givony's mock draft and has the distinction of being the only non-freshman college player in the top 10.
Three seasons at Kentucky have given NBA scouts a large sample size to judge his talent, and they apparently like what they've seen.
"You know what you're getting there," Givony said. "He's a phenomenal defender, and that's hard to find. It's really valuable. Everybody is looking for that in the NBA right now."
Givony acknowledged Cauley-Stein's offensive shortcomings and predicted he's likely to be "fairly limited" on that side of the floor during his NBA career. "But I think that's fine," he concluded.
UK freshman Devin Booker sits at No. 15 in the latest mock draft — one spot out of the lottery. His emergence as a potential one-and-done player might be the biggest draft-stock surprise of any of the Wildcats this season.
Booker shot 43.6 percent from three-point range during the regular season, picking up comparisons to Golden State Warriors all-star Klay Thompson along the way.
While Givony thinks enough of Booker to put him in the top half of the first round, he finds the comparisons to Thompson off base.
"I think people are very lazy with these comparisons," he said. "We have cognitive biases. The way that we perceive players — if they remind us of someone visually.
"'OK, he looks like him. He's a great shooter. He's Klay Thompson.' It's a very lazy kind of thing, but it's hard to get past that. I don't see it. He's not as tall as Klay Thompson, and he's not as versatile as a player. But Klay Thompson is one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. So, if he's not Klay Thompson, it's fine."
Givony said it was "too speculative" to try to predict who would stay and who would go after this season — especially with an entire postseason left to play — but he did note that Booker's stock is "pretty high" at the moment.
The rookie salary for the No. 15 pick in this year's draft will be $1.6 million.
DraftExpress.com projects freshman Trey Lyles as the No. 25 overall pick, but scouts and analysts are having a tough time evaluating what kind of prospect he is because of where Calipari has been using him this season.
Few who watched him play as a high schooler thought he could successfully play the "3" in college, but Lyles has made it work as a Wildcat. That's not the position he's likely to play as a professional.
"I only see him as a 4," Givony said. "I don't think he's going to play one second at small forward in the NBA ... Him playing at the 3 this year, I don't have a great handle on where he is. I don't think you can say he's been phenomenal or anything. He's a little bit of a tough one to peg, because he's playing alongside two guys who are top-10 draft picks."
Only first-round picks receive guaranteed contracts, so the stay-or-go decisions might be tougher for the rest of the draft hopefuls on UK's roster.
Sophomore center Dakari Johnson is projected as the No. 38 overall pick.
He hasn't received as much playing time as Towns, Cauley-Stein or Lyles, but his scoring and rebounding production (adjusted for minutes played) is second only to Towns.
"His production has been really solid," Givony said. "Listen, when you have (as many guys as) they do in the frontcourt, it's hard not to get lost if you're not a focal point. We've seen Karl Towns get lost earlier in the year. And they kind of switched the focus a little bit more in his direction. It's natural that if one guy steps up, another guy is going to take a step back. And I think that's kind of what's happened with Dakari. But he's had some good games this year, especially early on, I thought he was maybe the most productive guy in the non-conference (schedule)."
One knock on Johnson has been his inability to finish plays in the post. He often creates high-percentage scoring opportunities only to see his shot get blocked or roll off the rim. Givony attributed some of that to the way UK's lineup is constructed.
"I agree that he's not a great athlete, and that's going to be one of the biggest things holding back his stock," he said. "But at the same time, there is a cost of playing Trey Lyles at the 3 and Karl Towns at the 4, and that's the fact that you're not going to have great spacing. When you go to the NBA, there's just a lot more space for everybody to operate. Kentucky's offense does tend to get bogged down at times. And the defense collapsing on Dakari is a product of that."
Like last year, Andrew and Aaron Harrison have seen their draft stock fall as the season has progressed.
DraftExpress projects Andrew as the No. 51 overall pick — that's in the last third of the second round — and Aaron is no longer projected as a draft pick at all.
Givony noted Andrew Harrison's offensive production — or lack thereof — as one of the main areas of concern.
The UK point guard has made just 36.6 percent of his two-point attempts this season and just 37.0 percent of his two-point attempts during his career with the Wildcats. "It's just a very significant red flag," Givony said.
The questions don't end there.
"Can he create his own shot? That's a big question," Givony continued. "Can he finish around the basket? What kind of shooter is he going to be? He's been more consistent as of late, but overall he's still a very streaky guy. How big is his upside? He's not a freakish athlete. What is the one thing he can really hang his hat on? He's a nice, versatile player, but I don't know if there's one thing he excels at from an NBA standpoint."
DraftExpress no longer considers Aaron Harrison to be among the Top 100 prospects eligible for the NBA Draft.
What can he do to raise his stock?
"Make some shots," Givony said, matter-of-factly. "As a guy who is not very athletic and is not going to be able to create his own shot in the NBA — I mean, he's shooting 29 percent from three. So what are you going to do to get on the court in the NBA? That's the question right now."
Givony said he had "no idea" if the Harrisons would declare for the draft after their sophomore seasons and isn't confident that either player would be drafted if they did. He mentioned UK's recruiting efforts — the signing of No. 1 point guard Isaiah Briscoe and the pursuit of No. 1 shooting guard Malik Newman, as well as the likely return of Tyler Ulis — as a sign that UK is preparing for their departure.
Injured junior Alex Poy thress is another Wildcat who could potentially throw his name into the draft, but the timing of his season-ending knee injury — in addition to his disputable draft status before that — make him a question mark as well.
"Once you get outside the top 30-40 picks, anything can happen," Givony said. "I don't think he would be a first-rounder, but maybe someone would take a stab at him (later). I'm not sure. It really depends on which other players enter the draft.
"And then, when they look at his knee — not all knee injuries are created the same — some of them are, 'OK, this guy's going to be fine,' and some of them could be an issue long-term. That'll play a role in, whenever he enters the draft, how he's evaluated."
Who goes and who stays will impact Kentucky's continued recruiting efforts, though most of Calipari's remaining targets seem content to wait out those decisions before announcing their own.
And, of course, UK's current players are hoping to play nine more games before they're faced with the choice. The result of those contests could have a profound effect on who returns to Lexington for another run.
"How Kentucky finishes their season is going to have an impact," Givony said. "If they win a championship, that might play a role in which guys decide to come back. And if they get upset early, that might impact their decision, too. You can always move up in the draft ... but you can always move down, too."