One of the reasons this year’s University of Kentucky basketball squad is considered by some to be the youngest in college history is that it is missing eight players from last year’s team.
Three of last year’s Cats — De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo — were NBA Draft lottery picks after just one season in Lexington. Two Kentucky high school stars who went on to play for UK — Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis — graduated along with Mychal Mulder. And Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries both chose to forgo the rest of their collegiate eligibility early to get their pro careers started.
Here is a look at how those eight former Cats’ first professional seasons are progressing:
Fox has dazzled and delighted Sacramento Kings fans for much of the season.
He has had his share of ups and downs, as is to be expected for a rookie point guard in a league full of high-caliber players at that position. But Fox’s speed — comparable to fellow former Wildcat John Wall — and his ability to get to the rim have shown he has an elite skill that could make him an NBA star.
“His afterburners already have left blisters on a few of his NBA contemporaries, including 7-foot rim protectors who know he’s coming, but are too slow to react,” The Sacramento Bee’s Ailene Voisin wrote in a commentary last week. “Two months into his career, or right about the time he turned 20, Fox picked up the pace, accelerated the learning curve, began to resemble the player the Kings envisioned when they drafted him fifth overall out of Kentucky.”
Fox has averaged 11.3 points and 4.3 assists overall. His numbers were even better the last two months: 14.1 points and 5.2 assists in January, and 13.1 points and 4.7 assists so far in February.
His play this season earned him a spot as an injury replacement in the Rising Stars game during the All-Star break.
Asked during the Rising Stars media availability what his best move is, he laughed and said, “Run by people.”
TNT analyst Kenny Smith, a former NBA star, agreed: “He has a gear that none of them have,” Smith said of the rookie class. “So he can dominate a game a little bit easier because he’s physically faster than guys, where he doesn’t always have to say I’ve got to put (the ball) between my legs, behind my back. You know what? I’m just going to run by you.”
Bam’s overall stats — 7.3 points and 5.3 rebounds — aren’t as impressive as Fox’s, but the rookie center’s numbers and play have been trending up all season for the Miami Heat.
He has averaged 10.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 blocks in 24.4 minutes per game in February.
Adebayo, who spent the All-Star break in Lexington and was the “Y” during Kentucky’s win against Alabama in Rupp Arena on Saturday, has recently taken minutes away from Hassan Whiteside.
The reason? The Miami Herald reported that though Whiteside averages one blocked shot more per game than Adebayo (1.7 to 0.7), players guarded by Adebayo are shooting just 43.6 percent, compared with 47.5 percent against Whiteside.
Adebayo’s athleticism has intrigued and excited the Heat since the team drafted him. Dwyane Wade, who joined the Heat as a midseason addition, is on board with that enthusiasm.
“Bam can jump out of the gym,” Wade told the Miami Herald last week. “Find a way to throw it real high and make him want to go get it. The kid is good, and as he continues to learn the game and has more time on the floor, it’s going to be real, real, real special.”
The opportunities — and minutes — have been few and far between for Monk in his rookie season with the Charlotte Hornets.
Overall, he is averaging 5.0 points, 1.2 assists and 0.9 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game.
But as the season has progressed, his numbers haven’t. That’s 7.9 points in October, 7.4 in November, 3.1 in December, 2.5 in January and 2.7 in February. That has come as his minutes have dipped from 21.7 in October to 4.7 in February.
The reason for limited playing time? His struggles to be effective while playing point guard.
“I think Malik is going to be a good player, (and) he could be a very good player. He is a shot maker, he has good quickness, he is bright and he has a good feel for the game,” Coach Steve Clifford told the Charlotte Observer during an All-Star break interview. “Playing the point, because it’s not his natural position, he wasn’t utilized in the best possible way. If you look at the numbers when he played, we just didn’t function well. We didn’t function well defensively, and we also didn’t function well offensively.
“For Malik to be an every-night starter, which he has the talent and potential to be, he’s going to have to play both spots,” Clifford continued. “To be an every-night starter you have to play at both ends of the floor unless you can (score) 26 a night. You have to be able to guard your position. He is undersized, so to say he’s going to be a (shooting guard) every night against every player (is a stretch).”
It might be a bit surprising that it is Hawkins, the former Madison Central star, that is the first of these former Cats who is already playing for his second pro team.
He started out in Denmark, but is now playing for Rapla in Estonia’s KML (the same league that Isaiah Briscoe plays in).
Hawkins has played five games in that league, and his 18.8 points and 5.4 assists per game would lead the KML if he had played enough games to qualify. His teammate, former Vanderbilt standout Nolan Cressler, is the league’s official leading scorer at 18.2 per game.
Rapla is third in the KML standings at 11-8 and is 3-2 since Hawkins joined the squad.
He was chosen to play in the league’s all-star game against a squad from Latvia’s top league. He scored eight points with three assists and two rebounds in that contest on Feb. 16.
Rapla also competes in the Baltic League. Hawkins has averaged 14.8 points, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals in four games and that squad reached the playoffs and will open play in the quarterfinals at the end of this month.
The former Bullitt East star gave a frank assessment of his pro career during Kentucky’s basketball game against Alabama on Saturday.
“It’s a grind. The G League sucks,” said Willis in an acknowledgment that no Kentucky player’s pro ambitions include a stop short of the NBA.
Willis has started 28 of 33 games for the Grand Rapids Drive as an affiliate player for the Detroit Pistons’ organization. He has averaged 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals in an up-and-down season.
His season high is 25 points against the Raptors 905 on Dec. 8. He made five three-pointers in that game.
His scoring averages by month: 12.2 in November, 16.2 in December, 12.2 in January and 6.0 in February.
Willis got some good news on Tuesday, Feb. 20: He was named to Team USA’s World Cup qualifying squad for upcoming games against Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Briscoe is fresh off an MVP performance in his league’s all-star game.
He scored a game-high 39 points and had two assists while representing his Estonian league squad, Kalev/Cramo, in the Feb. 16 game against a squad from Latvia’s top league.
Briscoe is seventh in the KML in scoring (14.8 per game), first in steals (2.6) and third in assists (4.2).
He has played in 10 games and his squad leads the league with an 18-1 record.
He has also averaged 21.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in nine games in the VTB United League. That team is 4-11.
Mulder was a first-round draft pick, ninth overall, by the NBA G League’s Windy City Bulls.
He has started 24 of the team’s 36 games and has averaged 8.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.3 steals in 31.6 minutes.
Mulder has shot 31.0 percent from three-point range and 78.0 percent from the free-throw line.
He scored a season-high 24 points against Fort Wayne on Nov. 11.
Windy City is 16-20 this season.
Humphries played his rookie pro season in his hometown of Sydney, Australia.
He averaged 6.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and one blocked shot in 16.1 minutes per game for the Kings, which just finished sixth in the eight-team NBL with an 11-17 record.
His season ended two games early after incurring a hit to his right eye during a game.
Humphries has since been leading his Inside-Out campaign, which promotes the “acceptance of everybody, irrespective of race, color, religion, gender, size or sexuality. (It) is a call to discourage bullying and promote tolerance for all.”