The commitment of five-star basketball recruit Mohamed Bamba to Texas on Thursday was certainly a downer for John Calipari and the Wildcats.
The rationale Bamba provided for his college decision, however, might be a silver lining for Kentucky in the long run.
Shaka Smart — the head coach at Texas — was also the head coach of the USA Basketball U18 team last summer, a squad that included Bamba, who used that time to get to know Smart on a personal and professional level.
“Coach Smart may not have been aware of it, but I put him through a weeklong job interview last summer when he coached me on Team USA in Valdivia, Chile,” Bamba said when announcing his commitment. “We instantly formed a bond. … His attention to detail is truly unbelievable — I can’t tell you how many times he picked up on something I mentioned in passing and brought it back full circle several months later.
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“I’ve seen firsthand how much he genuinely cares about me and my family and how he’s going to challenge me to be in a state of continuous improvement.”
Earlier this year, Calipari was named the head coach of the Team USA U19 squad that will compete for a FIBA gold medal in Egypt this summer. Next month, Calipari will oversee a training camp at Team USA headquarters in Colorado Springs featuring the best American players in that age group before choosing 12 for his squad.
The roster for that camp will almost certainly include some of UK’s top recruiting targets in the class of 2018, and that could be a major recruiting advantage for Calipari.
Smart seriously recruited four of the uncommitted prospects on his U18 team last summer, and two of those players — Bamba and point guard Matt Coleman — ultimately committed to the Longhorns. PJ Washington (Kentucky) and Trae Young (Oklahoma) were the other two Smart targets in that bunch, but a 50 percent success rate isn’t bad when it means landing two Top 50 prospects you might otherwise have missed on.
The Team USA U19 roster in 2015 — the last time that age group competed in a FIBA event — featured five-star prospects Harry Giles, Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum and Terrance Ferguson, and all of those players were uncommitted at the time.
Giles and Tatum ended up at Duke under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was overseeing the Team USA national team at the time.
Ferguson committed to Arizona’s Sean Miller, the head coach of the U19 team, before ultimately skipping college to play overseas. Jackson signed with Kansas, but Arizona was a major player until the very end of his recruitment.
It’s also worth noting that Calipari coached a young (and uncommitted) Karl-Anthony Towns with the Dominican national team a few summers ago, and Towns later picked Kentucky.
A number of top prospects in the 2018 recruiting class could end up on this year’s Team USA U19 squad.
Immanuel Quickley (the first 2018 point guard to get a UK scholarship offer) and Javonte Smart (another point guard on Calipari’s radar) played for the U17 team last summer.
Cameron Reddish — one of Calipari’s top 2018 targets — would have been on the U17 team last year if not for an injury. Another top target, Romeo Langford, was cut during U17 training camp last summer but could be back for a second try this time.
Top 2018 recruits Marvin Bagley and Zion Williamson would also be eligible for consideration on this year’s U19 squad. (There will be no U17 or U18 team this summer, so recruits from the class of 2018 will have to make the U19 squad or not play for Team USA.)
Now they get into a situation where you have a lot of good kids around you. ... It shows the kids, ‘Hey, I can go play with another all-star and I don’t have to shoot it every time.’
Paul Washington, father of PJ Washington
The U19 training camp roster is expected to be released in the next couple of weeks, and the players will gather for the week-long camp in Colorado Springs on June 18. Calipari’s team will compete in the FIBA World Championships in Egypt on July 1-9.
Kevin Knox Sr. spoke to the Herald-Leader about the benefits of Team USA ball a couple of months ago, after it was known that Calipari would coach the U19s but long before his son, five-star recruit Kevin Knox, signed with Kentucky.
The younger Knox has played in the Team USA system the past two summers under the tutelage of Don Showalter, a respected high school coach from Iowa who is responsible for the U16 and U17 squads.
Knox Sr. was asked if he’d consider it a recruiting advantage for college coaches in charge of the older age groups to coach uncommitted players.
“That’s a no-brainer,” he told the Herald-Leader. “Of course it is.”
Knox Sr. pointed out that, in addition to the coach getting more face time and actual instruction time with the recruit to sell his own coaching style and personality, the coach also gets a better sense for how that recruit reacts to that coaching style.
“You’re able to see the kid up close and personal,” he said. “Is this the type of kid that we want? Does he hustle? Does he work hard? Does he process information? Does he like to play defense? Can he hit big-time shots? What kind of personality does he have? Does he like my coaching style?
“All those things are put into play. So, yeah, it is an advantage.”
Knox added that — if his son were to pick UK, something that happened earlier this month — Kevin Knox would probably play Team USA ball for Calipari.
“You get a jump-start on the upcoming season,” he said. “What a great opportunity.”
Paul Washington’s son, PJ, was already signed with UK by the time Calipari was announced as the Team USA U19 coach.
“He wanted to get to Kentucky and get started for the season,” Washington said of his son. “And then Cal’s name was out there, and he had always said, ‘If Cal’s the coach, I’ll go play.’ It just makes it sooner that he can get in front of Cal. So that’s big.”
Washington also said the USA Basketball experience gets players — most of whom have always been the clear stars on their own teams — to recognize that their talents can be magnified if they play alongside other great players, something that has been a key tenet of Calipari’s team-building philosophy in recent years.
“Now they get into a situation where you have a lot of good kids around you. And you have to make a team, so it reminds you of like an NBA,” Washington said. “It shows the kids, ‘Hey, I can go play with another all-star and I don’t have to shoot it every time.’”
In addition to getting early and abundant face time with recruits like Langford, Reddish and Quickley, the UK coach will actually get to spend an entire training camp and FIBA tournament with his own future players.
Members of UK’s incoming recruiting class with Team USA experience include Knox, Washington, Quade Green and Jarred Vanderbilt, and all four would be eligible for this year’s U19 team. Hamidou Diallo played on last year’s U18 squad and, if he returns to UK and retains his amateur status, would also be able to play for Calipari this summer.
UK sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones was invited to U18 training camp last summer but was asked to report to Lexington instead. He, too, would be eligible for this year’s U19 squad.
The fact that many college coaches don’t want their incoming or returning players to play Team USA ball — preferring them to be on their own campus during the summer — means Calipari could stack his squad with a healthy mix of UK players and recruits.
You get a jump-start on the upcoming season. What a great opportunity.
Kevin Knox Sr., father of Kevin Knox
There is one possible drawback to Calipari’s seemingly enviable position.
The UK coach could decide to cut one of his coveted recruits in training camp, which happened to Sean Miller two years ago.
Miller cut five-star recruit TJ Leaf, who was committed to Arizona at the time, during U19 camp. A few weeks later, Leaf decommitted from the Wildcats, and a few months after that, Leaf committed to Pac-12 rival UCLA.
“It could hurt him with some guys, if he decides to cut them,” Scout.com’s Evan Daniels recently told the Herald-Leader. “So there’s a couple of different ways to look at it.”
Daniels also pointed out that Calipari would have a much bigger recruiting advantage if he were coaching a team like the U17s, which is normally made up almost entirely of uncommitted players.
“But, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “If there’s two or three guys on that team and they’re uncommitted, yeah it’s an advantage.”