Ex-Cats

Ten Years of Coach Cal: Ranking the 10 best UK players in the NBA

Ranking the top 10 UK players in the NBA during the John Calipari era at Kentucky

The Herald-Leader Sports staff ranked the top 10 players from the University of Kentucky during the John Calipari era based solely on their performance in the NBA, as part of our Ten Years of Cal series.
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The Herald-Leader Sports staff ranked the top 10 players from the University of Kentucky during the John Calipari era based solely on their performance in the NBA, as part of our Ten Years of Cal series.

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Ten Years of Coach Cal

John Calipari’s first 10 years as head coach at the University of Kentucky were jam packed with memories. As Coach Cal embarks on his second decade under a newly signed “lifetime contract,” the Herald-Leader Sports staff voted on and ranked the biggest moments, best players, toughest losses, top recruits and more from the past 10 years and created this 12-part series.

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of 12 stories ranking the most memorable moments, teams and players of John Calipari’s 10 years as University of Kentucky head coach. Rankings were compiled through voting conducted by members of the Herald-Leader Sports staff. Watch for a new story every day between today and July 27.

One of the lasting legacies of the John Calipari era — and the one the Kentucky basketball coach himself might be the most proud of — is the number of Wildcats that have gone on to fulfill their dreams of playing in the NBA.

Calipari has coached a total of 38 players at Kentucky that have become NBA Draft picks, starting with five first-round selections in the 2010 draft, when Calipari infamously declared it to be perhaps “the biggest day in Kentucky basketball history.”

UK has produced three No. 1 overall picks, several NBA All-Stars and dozens of pros on Calipari’s watch. The combined salaries of those Cats is now in the billions, and many of Kentucky’s former stars are still not in their prime as professionals.

The past several seasons have been a blast for Kentucky fans who also follow the pro game. The future could be even brighter. These have been Calipari’s top 10 NBA players as UK’s head coach ... so far.

1. Anthony Davis — The unanimous choice for the best college player during the Calipari era was also our panel’s unanimous choice for the best NBA player that UK has produced in that span. The first-round pick of the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) in 2012 has averaged 23.7 points and 10.5 rebounds over the past seven seasons, and his 2.4 blocks per game leads all active NBA players. The six-time All-Star has appeared in just 13 playoff games and been on the winning side of just one playoff series so far in his career, but Davis joined LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason. Big expectations will follow. Davis, still just 26 years old, has two seasons remaining on a five-year, $127,171,313 contract.

2. John Wall — The first UK megastar of the Calipari era became the program’s first No. 1 overall draft pick in 2010, going to the Washington Wizards and quickly establishing himself as one of the league’s top point guards. Wall has averaged 19.0 points and 9.2 assists per game over nine seasons — earning All-Star honors five times — but the past two seasons have been marred by injuries, and he could miss the entire 2019-20 campaign with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. He’s been in 37 playoff games and is due to make $171 million over the next four seasons.

3. Karl-Anthony Towns — The third No. 1 overall pick during Calipari’s time at UK went to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2015 and has averaged 22.3 points and 11.9 rebounds per game over four seasons. Towns, still just 23 years old, is also Calipari’s only NBA Rookie of the Year during his time at Kentucky. He’s still looking for his first playoff series victory and is due to make $158,253,000 over the next five seasons.

4. Devin Booker — “And he didn’t even start!” Calipari would say about the shooting guard who settled into a “platoon” bench role on the 38-1 team before being selected with the No. 13 pick in the 2015 draft. Booker emerged as a starter in his rookie season with the Phoenix Suns and averaged 26.6 points per game this past season. In 2017, he became just the sixth player in NBA history to score 70 points in a game. Booker is due to make $158,253,000 over the next five seasons.

5. DeMarcus Cousins — The No. 5 overall pick by the Sacramento Kings in the 2010 draft, Cousins has averaged 21.2 points and 10.9 rebounds over nine seasons. He was with the Golden State Warriors this past season — limited to just 30 regular-season games due to injury — and will join the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2019-20 campaign. The four-time All-Star will have earned an estimated total of $89.5 million after this season.

6. Eric Bledsoe — The third member of Calipari’s first UK team to make this list, Bledsoe exceeded his recruiting expectations and was selected with the No. 18 overall pick in the 2010 draft. Since then, he’s averaged 14.1 points per game, most recently tallying 15.9 points per game as a starter for the Eastern Conference regular-season champion Milwaukee Bucks. Bledsoe was an NBA all-defensive first-team selection this year and by the end of next season will have made more than $92 million in earnings.

7. Julius Randle — The top player on UK’s 2014 Final Four team was the No. 7 overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers that year. He was lost for the season due to an injury in his very first NBA game but bounced back and has averaged 15.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game over his career so far. This offseason, Randle signed a three-year, $62.1 million contract with the New York Knicks.

8. Jamal Murray — The Denver Nuggets selected Murray with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 draft, and he’s already emerged as one of the franchise’s key players. The Canadian guard averaged 18.2 points and 4.8 assists per game last season and recently agreed to a five-year contract extension worth nearly $170 million.

9. De’Aaron Fox — The youngest player on this list, Fox is still just 21 years old and has played only two seasons in the NBA, but it’s clear he’s an emerging star. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 draft averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 assists during a breakout second season with the Sacramento Kings, and he’s due to make a total of $35 million by the end of the 2021-22 season. A bigger payday is on the horizon.

10. Enes Kanter — He never played a game at Kentucky, but Kanter was still part of the 2010-11 team and went to the Utah Jazz with the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft. He’s since played for Utah, Oklahoma City, New York and Portland, averaging 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game for his NBA career. Kanter has already earned nearly $90 million in contracts and recently signed a two-year deal with the Boston Celtics.

Other players receiving votes: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Brandon Knight, Patrick Patterson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Willie Cauley-Stein

Note: All base contract numbers courtesy of Spotrac.com

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About this series

A vote by the Herald-Leader Sports staff has generated lists of the biggest shots, the top individual performances and the best players of the Calipari era, along with the toughest losses and the biggest disappointments. We also ranked each of Calipari’s 10 teams, re-visited some of his biggest recruiting hits and misses and recalled the most indelible Cal memories of the past decade.

We hope you’ll have as much fun tapping into your Big Blue memories as we did compiling these lists as you read them in the coming days on Kentucky.com and in the Herald-Leader.

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Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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