UK Men's Basketball

Year removed from Combine finds ex-Cat grappling with ‘hardest school in the nation’

Former Kentucky player Marcus Lee played against Reid Travis three times last season
Former Kentucky player Marcus Lee played against Reid Travis three times last season AP

This time a year ago, Kentucky forward Marcus Lee was preparing for the NBA Combine. Now, after a transfer to Cal-Berkeley, his mind was preoccupied last week with an imposing non-basketball concern: final exams.

“Been studying all week,” Lee said Wednesday.

When casually asked if he was ready for final exams, which coincide with this coming week’s NBA Combine, Lee said, “I sure hope so.”

A trace of doubt in his voice was unmistakable.

“I’m now at the hardest school in the nation,” he said of Cal-Berkeley, “so I’ve been studying harder than I ever have before. Usually school comes real easy to me. Usually when tests come around, I can just skim through my notes. Here, I have to, like, teach myself all over again and make sure I know it like the back of my hand.”

Of course, Lee knows about the Combine, an annual basketball crossroads that will run Tuesday through next Sunday in Chicago. Although he ultimately decided to return to college, Lee said he enjoyed spending a few days with fellow players as colleagues rather than unsparing competitors.

“You get to pick their brain,” he said, “and just hang out and just chill.”

Four UK players will participate in this year’s NBA Combine: Bam Adebayo, Isaiah Briscoe, De’Aaron Fox and Hamidou Diallo.

Lengthy delays during a round of medical testing give players plenty of time to get acquainted, Lee said. Participants leave the Combine with “a huge packet” of information about how the players compared in agility and skill tests, he said.

By NCAA rule, the players who have not retained agents have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and retain college eligibility. Among UK players, this option remains open only to Diallo, whom projected last week as the sixth player taken in this year’s second round.

Lee likened the move from college to the NBA to other advancements on the basketball ladder: middle school to high school, high school to AAU, high school to college.

Each step requires a re-learning of how to play. The relative freedom of middle school followed by a more restrictive high school level. A return to freedom in AAU.

College? “Everything is controlled,” Lee said. “You are in a huge system as a team. Everything you do is systematically placed for you to succeed.

“Then the NBA is a total switch. You have to do things on your own. You have to strive to be great.”

Lee’s path will include a third college coach in three years. John Calipari at Kentucky followed by Cuonzo Martin as he sat out last season as a transfer. Now, with Martin having moved to Missouri, Cal-Berkeley promoted assistant Wyking Jones to head coach.

The coaching carousel isn’t quite as dizzying as it might seem. In an earlier stint as an assistant at Louisville, Jones recruited Lee. Jones worked with Cal’s big men last season. So the two are well acquainted.

“I’m really confident in him,” Lee said, “and in what he has in store for us.”

Wiltjer enthused

A story about Kyle Wiltjer’s newsy first season in professional basketball appeared in The New York Times last Sunday. The former UK player was not drafted, then signed as a free agent with the Houston Rockets.

Wiltjer played much of the season with the Rockets’ team in the NBA Development League, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He averaged 20.7 points and 6.9 rebounds. Maybe most importantly, he made 38.7 percent of his three-point shots. The Rockets have made the three-pointer a key component of their offense.

The Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, noticed Wiltjer’s willingness to play in the D-League.

“Kyle was enthusiastic about it from the beginning,” Morey told The Times. “Kyle may be the most enthusiastic D-League player we’ve ever had.”

Wiltjer’s cooperative attitude took some getting used to.

“He was probably one of the greatest draft interviews of all time,” Morey told The Times, “which, honestly, sometimes makes me like guys less.”

Why is that?

“He was like the student who sits in the front row, giving an apple to the teacher and sucking up to everybody,” Morey said. “I couldn’t get him to break form.”

Wiltjer played briefly in 14 of the Rockets’ regular-season games. More NBA playing time in the future seems possible.

“I do think he’s on track to help us more next year,” Morey said.

‘Alternative models’

Last week’s note about UK’s lifetime scholarship program revolved around former athletes like Oliver White (football) and Erik Daniels (basketball) returning to school years after their eligibility expired in order to continue working toward a college degree.

David Ridpath, president of the Drake Group and a professor of sports business at Ohio University, applauded UK’s program. He pointed out that only the United States tries to twin athletic development with the pursuit of a college education.

“We have this mythological belief that these kids are getting an education or it’s about an education,” he said. “And it’s not.”

In its way, The Post-Eligibility Program at UK allows for the educational component to piggyback on athletics.

Ridpath went to Europe to study how Europeans handle athletic development. Of course, the Europeans divorce athletics and academics. Club teams allow athletes to work on their skills. A college education is left to colleges and universities to handle.

Ridpath wrote a book about what he’s learned about athletics in the U.S. and Europe. Its titled “Alternative Models of Sports Development in America,” and due out in the fall.

Separating athletics and academics appeals to Ridpath. He spoke of athletes not being required to take any classes while on college teams. Education can come later.

“Why does it have to be we put them in this box where they have to be registered for 12 hours?” he said. “That just leads to issues like (fake classes at) North Carolina, and all those other things because we’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole.”


Of course, not all players need a lifetime scholarship. UK seniors Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis graduated this spring.

This prompted a congratulatory tweet from UK Coach John Calipari and a warning. “We must guard against devaluing education, especially in this one-and-done era.”

Calipari’s warning echoed a similar sentiment voiced by former Georgetown Coach John Thompson in the ESPN 30 for 30 film, “One and Not Done.”

Player friendly

Freshman Hamidou Diallo is testing the NBA waters this spring. He came to UK in December and practiced with the team the rest of the season. It was understood he might enter his name in this year’s NBA Draft while retaining the option of playing for Kentucky next season.

Amy Perko, the CEO of the reform-minded Knight Commission, welcomed Diallo’s decision.

“You know, any student can decide to leave college early and enter the job market,” she said. “So I think this is just another example of treating athletes like other students. We may see more of this in the future since the rules for testing the water are more player friendly.

“And, frankly, I think these new rules are a good thing because it doesn’t punish players for evaluating their employment opportunities.”

‘Free market situation’

The move to allow graduate transfers may be reviewed. Cleveland State Coach Gary Waters questioned this practice after several of his players departed (including Trey Lewis to Louisville). UK had a graduate transfer in Julius Mays (2012-13).

Amy Perko said the propriety of such transfers will be debated in the near future “because of some of the unintended consequences that have resulted.”

Unintended consequences?

“A free market situation has evolved . . . that some schools don’t think is healthy,” Perko said.

Lower-profile programs are “running the risk of losing their best players in their senior years,” Perko said, “where there’s a pretty active recruiting situation going on under the surface.”

Fish story

Lexington attorney/UK fan Terry McBrayer returned last weekend from a fishing trip to Argentina. The accompanying photograph provides evidence of a rainbow trout he caught (although given the size of the fish, it’s conceivable the trout caught McBrayer).

McBrayer traveled 13,000 miles round trip. The rainbow trout in southern Argentina can weigh as much as 20 pounds, he said.

Upcoming fishing expeditions for McBrayer include trips to Canada later this month and Alaska in August.

Happy birthday

To Anthony Epps. He turned 42 on Thursday. … To Larry Steele. He turned 68 on Friday. … To former UK president Lee Todd. He turned 71 on Saturday. … To Jarrod Polson. He turns 26 on Monday. … To Heshimu Evans. He turns 42 on Monday. … To J.P. Blevins. He turns 38 on Monday. … To Jon Hood. He turns 26 on Tuesday. … To former UConn Coach Jim Calhoun. He turns 75 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton