With his “players first” credo, John Calipari makes no secret of the foundational element for the Kentucky basketball program. The players’ ambitions come first. The fulfillment of player dreams propels UK to on-court success. Not vice versa.
Hence, Calipari’s famous declaration at the 2010 NBA Draft that five first-round picks from UK marked “the biggest day in the history of Kentucky's program.”
Since arriving at UK in January, Hamidou Diallo has served as a striking example of this players-first philosophy. He did not play in a game. He only participated in practices. Then he entered his name in this year’s NBA Draft.
This raised an obvious question: If Diallo went to the NBA, what did Kentucky — and its fans — get out of his one semester on the team?
The news release early Thursday morning announcing Diallo will return to UK and play next season seemed sensitive to that question.
“Just so everyone knows, I always planned to pay the school back for my spring tuition for allowing me to enroll last semester … ,” Diallo is quoted as saying in the release. “If I knew I was leaving after one semester, I would have played to help the team.”
What Diallo said at the NBA Combine this month suggested that a player-first sentiment would be a part of his decision-making. “Anybody who really has anything negative to say, I feel like at the end of the day, I’m the one playing,” he said, “and the one trying to provide for my family and provide for myself as well.”
That echoed the players-first philosophy Calipari has promoted. Financial security for life must trump winning games and championships.
If Diallo had remained in the NBA Draft, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said he could not understand how any Kentucky fans would believe the player had used his connection with UK without the program (or fans) getting any benefit.
“Oh, God,” Bilas said with a tone of exasperation. “Use the program?! How did he use the program?”
Making use of the training facilities. Being coached by Calipari, a Hall of Famer with NBA connections. Being observed by pro scouts who come to Kentucky practices.
“I’m sorry,” Bilas said. “But that’s nonsense.”
NBA scouts would have had plenty of opportunity to watch and evaluate Diallo prior to his arrival at UK, Bilas said.
Bilas also scoffed at people who lament a player cutting short his education or throwing away the college experience.
Bilas then offered a translation for what such people really are saying. “We want to watch them play longer,” he said. “That’s all it is.”
As Kentucky reminded us again this year, it’s a new basketball world increasingly governed by a players-first philosophy.
NBA Draft analyst Jonathan Givony cited a league rule in suggesting that Hamidou Diallo took a risk — surely not a significant risk — by entering his name in this year’s draft.
The NBA allows a player to enter the draft and withdraw twice. But there’s a caveat with the second withdrawal. After two withdrawals, a player cannot enter another NBA Draft until after his senior season.
So if Diallo enters his name in next year’s NBA Draft, and for whatever reason chooses to withdraw again, then he could not be drafted until after a senior season.
“So I thought it was a peculiar move to enter the draft and to not compete at the Combine,” Givony said. “That made no sense to me.”
Another NBA Draft analyst, Chad Ford of ESPN, said he believed the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks were “especially interested” in Diallo. The Los Angeles Lakers also had interest.
Ford said Diallo was in a win-win situation: Stay in this year’s draft and be assured of being picked, then continuing his development, possibly in the D-League. Or return to Kentucky, possibly become a lottery pick in 2018 and then more than likely continue his development with a NBA team.
Ford cited two risks with Diallo returning to UK: a serious injury and failing to improve his perimeter shooting.
“His jump shot continues to be a weakness,” Ford said. “And that scares some teams off in this draft.”
Best Cal player?
ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale heaped praise on one of Kentucky’s incoming freshmen, Kevin Knox.
Vitale suggested that the best Kentucky players in John Calipari’s eight seasons as coach have been Anthony Davis, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, in that order.
“I’m telling you, Kevin Knox is going to be in that conversation,” Vitale said.
Knox, a 6-9 wing, signed with Kentucky over Duke, North Carolina, Missouri and Florida State.
Robert Williams defied convention (at least by Kentucky standards) when he decided to return to Texas A&M to play as a sophomore next season.
In a video interview on the Aggies’ website, Williams cited several reasons for not becoming a one-and-done player.
He didn’t like how the Aggies’ 2016-17 season ended: a 66-41 loss to Vanderbilt in the second round of the SEC Tournament. “After that game, I pulled aside one of our coaches,” he said, “and I was, like, ‘Hey, look coach, like, I can’t leave it like this. I can’t leave this scene as messy.’”
Williams cited another reason: He thinks he can be the overall No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. DraftExpress.com currently projects him as the fifth player chosen next year.
The other reason for returning involved what he thinks Texas A&M can achieve in the next college season.
“We have confetti dreams next year,” he said.
Besides Williams, who was SEC Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman last season, Texas A&M returns three other starters: big man Tyler Davis, shooter DJ Hogg and guard Admon Gilder.
Plus, highly regarded point guard JJ Caldwell, who was academically ineligible last season, will join the team.
Confetti dreams refers to A&M doing more than merely getting a NCAA Tournament bid. “It doesn’t stop there,” Williams said. “It’s so much more.”
A&M players are thinking about the shower of confetti that falls to the court at the end of a national championship game. Helping feed those confetti dreams is the site of the 2018 Final Four: San Antonio, which is about a 180-mile drive from Texas A&M.
“We talk about this every day after practice or a workout,” Williams said. “We just talk about it’s in San Antonio. A&M in the playoffs in San Antonio will be sold out. So it’s much more.”
Former UK player Skal Labissiere attended the 12th annual Dick Vitale Gala, a fund-raiser for cancer research held May 12.
Dick Vitale gushed about the impression Labissiere made.
“We had a post-gala party for celebrities,” Vitale said. “He was terrific with all the people. You can tell John (Calipari) he made an incredible impression on everyone.”
By the way, the fund-raiser generated more than $3 million, which will be used in research involving cancers that afflict children.
‘Feel like I’m 27’
Dick Vitale, who will turn 78 on June 9, signed a contract extension with ESPN last week.
We’ll let that sink in for a moment.
Vitale will analyze college basketball through the 2019-20 season, or until he’s approaching the age of 81.
“Right now, at 77, I feel like I’m 27 … ,” Vitale said last week. “The only time I know my age is when I look in the mirror. I feel great.”
Vitale sounded vigorous during the telephone conversation. He said he watches what he eats (“rarely red meat”) and exercises daily.
“To be honest, I don’t like working out,” he said. “But I do it because I want to be able to enjoy things.”
Vitale said his exercise routine includes walking at a fast pace for at least an hour each morning. He does sit-ups. He plays tennis two or three days a week. “I play singles,” he said.
Vitale acknowledged that he’s sensitive about references to his age.
“I resent when guys ask me that stuff about age,” he said. “The only reason they ask it is they know the number. I know how I feel. I know what I do.”
Vitale has worked for ESPN since the 1979-80 college basketball season. He called the first game televised by the network: DePaul beat Wisconsin on Dec. 5, 1979.
Talk of the contract extension began the January day Alabama played Clemson in football’s national championship game. John Skipper, who heads ESPN, visited Vitale and told him he had earned, in essence, a lifetime contract.
“As long as I’m able to work, I have a job,” Vitale said.
To Cedric Jenkins. He turned 51 on Thursday. … To Adam Delph. He turns 27 on Sunday (today). … To Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland. He turns 60 on Sunday (today). … To former UK president David Roselle. He turns 78 on Tuesday. … To former Florida Coach Billy Donovan. He turns 52 on Tuesday.