Ex-Cats

How Kentucky’s six NBA rookies fared during their debut seasons

Kentucky’s John Calipari: ‘I’m proud of these guys, I’m proud of my team’

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari speaks to the media after a 77-71 overtime loss to the Auburn Tigers on Sunday, March 31, 2019, in the Elite Eight of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
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Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari speaks to the media after a 77-71 overtime loss to the Auburn Tigers on Sunday, March 31, 2019, in the Elite Eight of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

Six former University of Kentucky players made their NBA debuts in 2018-19. That includes four first-year pros and two that started their careers overseas before reaching the league for the first time this season. Here’s a look at how each fared during the regular season:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers: A strong first pro campaign has seen Gilgeous-Alexander finish the season even better for the playoffs-bound Clippers.

His overall numbers are impressive for a rookie — 10.8 points (ninth among first-year players), 3.3 assists (third), 2.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals (fourth) while starting 73 of 82 games — but the last couple months of the season were a breakthrough. He averaged 14.2 points, 4.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.4 turnovers in March and 15.0 points, 4.0 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.3 turnovers in four games in April. His three-point shooting percentage for March was 59.4.

Gilgeous-Alexander talked to The Orange County Register recently about his lone season at Kentucky and how it enabled him to quickly be an NBA starter who could make a difference as a rookie for a playoff-caliber team.

“If I’d gone from high school straight to the pros, that’s a pretty big gap,” Gilgeous-Alexander said on March 31. “That’s hard to even describe. At Kentucky we went at it every day in practice. We had good players competing with each other, and then we played about 40 games, against the best teams. I think it prepared me.”

Clippers Coach Doc Rivers told The Orange County Register: “I liked him when we drafted him, I really liked him during camp, and so I don’t know if he’s better than I thought or not. He ran into the rookie wall there for about a month, but then he made the adjustment.”

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The New York Knicks’ Kevin Knox, top, went to the basket against the Philadelphia 76ers’ Amir Johnson on Dec. 19, 2018. Matt Slocum AP

Kevin Knox, New York Knicks: Knox led Kentucky’s NBA rookies in scoring with 12.8 points per game (seventh among first-year players), but that came with him struggling mightily with his shot for most of the season. He finished up at 37.0 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three-point range.

More season-long numbers for Knox: 4.5 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 28.6 minutes while starting 57 of 75 games.

He did pick up the pace a bit after the All-Star break by averaging 13.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists. In six games in April, he averaged 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists. His three-point percentage for March was 43.1, but that was back down to 30.6 percent in six games in April.

The Knicks were happy with the improvement they saw from Knox late in the season. “Hello, Kevin Knox. It was good to see him play well,” Coach David Fizdale said, according to The New York Times, after a win over the Los Angeles Lakers on March 18. “He’s had his bumps. We know it’s there, it’s in there. It’s just a matter of the ball going in and him getting his confidence up. But I really thought he came with a mindset that he was going to get out of this rut. The way he was attacking, the force he was playing with.”

Fizdale also said the up-and-down season and taking on stars such as LeBron James will help Knox in the long run.

“Welcome to the league, kid,” Fizdale said. “This is what it’s about. This is why I wanted him in this. Take those lumps now. Later on in his career, no one will remember this stuff when he is the guy beating up on kids. This is all good for him.”

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The Orlando Magic’s Isaiah Briscoe headed up the court against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 5. Matt Slocum AP

Isaiah Briscoe, Orlando Magic: After spending his first pro season overseas — and winning a league title and being named the VTB United League Young Player of the Year while playing in Estonia for Kalev/Cramo — Briscoe earned a spot on the Magic’s roster for the 2018-19 season. Briscoe appeared in 39 games and played his way into Orlando’s regular rotation before a torn meniscus in his right knee sidelined him for the rest of the regular season.

“There’s two things (about Briscoe). The penetration part and then also he plays with such pace,” Magic Coach Steve Clifford said of Briscoe, the Orlando Sentinel reported on March 1. “We play quicker and we get more chances to get to the basket before the defense gets set. He’s physical … makes contact plays. He likes to compete … that’s contagious.”

Briscoe averaged 3.5 points, 2.2 assists and 1.9 rebounds in 14.3 minutes per game. His numbers had picked up later in the season, though, as he averaged 6.6 points, 2.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds in 21.0 minutes in the five games he played after the All-Star break.

“My job is to just stay ready when my number is called, so that’s what I did,” Briscoe told the Orlando Sentinel on March 1. “I stayed ready. … Sometimes … it’s a great feeling. You get back late, 3 in the morning, and I’m riding home and I just think about last year and where I was at and it just makes me appreciate all the little things.”

However, with Briscoe not expected to be ready for the playoffs, the Magic released him on April 4 to make room on the roster for another backup point guard, Michael Carter-Williams.

“Per a source: Orlando hopes to re-sign Isaiah Briscoe this summer, but they feared he would not be ready for the playoffs,” Yahoo Sports’ Keith Smith tweeted. “They didn’t want to be caught in the playoffs with just two healthy PGs, thus they waived Briscoe and kept Jerian Grant. Magic remain very high on Briscoe.”

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The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Hamidou Diallo dunked during a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 23, 2018. Kyle Phillips AP

Hamidou Diallo, Oklahoma City Thunder: The highlight of Diallo’s rookie season so far was undoubtedly winning the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest. His performance included soaring over 7-foot-1 Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.

“Yeah, I was sure,” Diallo said, according to ESPN, as to whether he knew he could dunk over O’Neal. “I wouldn’t have brought him out there if I wasn’t sure.”

Diallo’s playing time with the playoffs-bound Thunder has been limited. He averaged 3.7 points and 1.9 rebounds in 10.3 minutes in the 51 games he played in. Only six of those appearances came after the All-Star break.

He also played in six games for the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G League affiliate, averaging 19.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.8 steals.

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The Atlanta Hawks’ Isaac Humphries made his NBA debut against the San Antonio Spurs on April 2. Darren Abate AP

Isaac Humphries, Atlanta Hawks: After spending his first pro season in Australia with the Sydney Kings and then a short stint in Serbia with FMP Beograd, Humphries competed for the NBA G League’s Erie Bayhawks this season. He signed with the Atlanta Hawks on April 1.

“I just stood up and my heart just started pounding,” Humphries told Fox Sports Australia of getting a 10-day contract with the Hawks. “You think, like, how are you going to react when you find out you’re going to be an NBA player, or you’re going to get an NBA contract? I just had no idea how I’d react. I’d seen my friends and how they reacted. I just stood up in my empty apartment, and my heart just started pounding and pounding and pounding. I was in complete disbelief.”

Humphries closed out his NBA G League season with Erie with four straight double-doubles. He averaged 11.3 points, 7.0 rebounds 1.2 assists and 1.1 blocks in 46 games.

He made a good first impression in his NBA debut — four points and five rebounds in 18 minutes — and made his first NBA start on April 7. Humphries averaged 3.0 points and 2.2 rebounds in 11.2 minutes in five games.

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The Denver Nuggets’ Jarred Vanderbilt warmed up before the team took on the New York Knicks on March 22. Mary Altaffer AP

Jarred Vanderbilt, Denver Nuggets: After being sidelined for nearly a year with a foot injury that also limited his playing time at UK, he made his NBA debut on Jan. 25. Vanderbilt has averaged 1.4 points, 1.4 rebounds and 0.2 assists in 17 games for the playoffs-bound Nuggets.

He also played in four games in the G League, averaging 7.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 16.2 minutes for the Delaware Blue Coats.

Also

Wenyen Gabriel, Sacramento Kings: He signed a two-way contract with the Kings, but spent all of the 2018-19 season in the G League and did not make his NBA debut.

In 42 games for the Stockton Kings, Gabriel averaged 10.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.1 blocks in 20.7 minutes. He shot 37.0 percent from three-point range. He only played in three games in March before being sidelined by an ankle injury.

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