UK Men's Basketball

Big Blue blasphemy? A&M star veers from UK course as one-and-not-done player

Texas A&M forward Robert Williams (44) grabbed a rebound from Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel during the teams’ game last season in College Station, Texas.
Texas A&M forward Robert Williams (44) grabbed a rebound from Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel during the teams’ game last season in College Station, Texas. palcala@herald-leader.com

Counting this year’s NBA Draft, Kentucky has had 31 players picked since John Calipari became coach. That’s almost twice as many players as the school with the second most selected: Duke with 17.

The NBA Draft’s Big Blue tint beginning in 2010 includes as many first-round selections from Kentucky (24) as from Duke (14) and Kansas combined (10). The same is true of lottery picks: UK 17, Duke eight, Kansas nine.

So Kentucky’s path to the NBA is well worn. But, of course, it’s not the only way to try to reach the summit of pro basketball fame and fortune.

This year saw Robert Williams of Texas A&M veer wildly off the course taken annually by multiple UK players, several of whom were significantly less accomplished as college freshmen.

Williams was voted second-team All-Southeastern Conference, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and to the All-Freshman Team for 2016-17.

Yet, he chose to return to A&M next season.

Huh?

“Robert is a unique kid,” A&M assistant coach Amir Abdur-Rahim said recently. “Very smart, very focused kid. . . . He’s able to do something a lot of kids have a tough time doing, and that is self-evaluate.”

Abdur-Rahim meant that Williams could honestly assess how prepared he was, mentally as well as physically, for professional basketball.

The assistant coach attributed this ability to Williams’ upbringing in a rural area. That setting shielded the player from the youth basketball machinery present in more populated areas, Abdur-Rahim suggested.

“Being from Oil City, La., a small town right outside of Shreveport,” he said. “It’s a different thing for a kid from Dallas or Houston or Atlanta where it’s a little bit more talked about on an everyday basis.”

Nor was Williams ranked in the top of the various recruiting lists. He was generally outside the top 50. This, too, was good in terms of making a level-headed decision about turning pro, Abdur-Rahim said.

“He was able to keep things in perspective and stay humble and stay grounded,” the A&M assistant coach said. “That’s the best thing about him, and that’s why next year when he has a chance to put his name in, he’s going to be prepared.”

Williams felt “some peer pressure” to enter this year’s NBA Draft, Abdur-Rahim said. But Williams wants to not just make an NBA team, but be a productive player. And he’d prefer to avoid spending time in the NBA’s development league. Ever more one-and-done players are being groomed in what the NBA now calls the Gatorade League (or G League).

Of the 60 players picked in the 2016 NBA Draft, 39 played in the development league at times this past season. That was true of 17 of the 30 first-round selections.

Kentucky connection

There’s a Kentucky connection with North Carolina State’s ongoing effort to build a basketball dormitory.

As part of the planning, Director of Athletics Debbie Yow toured UK’s Wildcat Coal Lodge two years ago. Of course, Yow once coached UK’s women’s team.

“The first one I saw was in 1978,” she said in reference to the Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge. “I went into the one that’s there now with the image of the ’78 version in my mind.”

The Wildcat Coal Lodge, which opened in 2012, made a good impression on Yow. But N.C. State does not plan to simply duplicate UK’s basketball dorm.

The biggest difference involves who will live in N.C. State’s basketball dorm. Players from both the men’s and the women’s teams will be residents.

Equity is a factor, Yow said. But, she added, “I think it makes for a healthier atmosphere in the residence hall.”

When asked how the presence of women makes for a healthier atmosphere, Yow said, “This is just the normal college atmosphere.”

N.C. State’s plan is for men to live on one floor and women on a separate floor, Yow said.

By the way, at UK, the players on the women’s team live in off-campus apartments or in dorms near the Craft Center.

Per NCAA rules, non-athletes must make up at least 51 percent of the athletic dorm residents.

Currently, players on N.C. State’s men’s team live in an apartment complex across a street from campus. Yow said she was concerned about agents gaining access to players. The planned dorm would have a residence adviser and two counselors monitoring access to player rooms, she said.

Yow also toured the basketball dorm at Kansas. It serves only the men’s team. The facility has two- and four-bedroom apartments with each including living and dining rooms, plus kitchens.

There’s also a half-court basketball court in a public area, which Yow ruled out for N.C. State as cost prohibitive.

N.C. State planned for the dorm to have a capacity of 65, Yow said. Construction of the $15 million dorm is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2018. The dorm would open in the summer of 2019.

Conspicuous absence

Ex-Cats and ex-Cards are conspicuous by their absence from games being played in the inaugural Big3 basketball league this summer. No former players for Kentucky or Louisville are on any of the eight teams.

Rapper Ice Cube, one of the league founders, said no ex-Cat nor ex-Card expressed interest in playing. So no local connection when the league comes to Rupp Arena on Aug. 6.

When asked if the league invited any former UK or U of L players to participate, Ice Cube said, “We’ve been promoting this for six months, and we had 70 players try out for 24 spots, so here we are. To me, I don’t believe you have to extend an open invitation to every single player who is a baller. If you can’t sniff this out, then you don’t want to play.”

Ice Cube seemed to hold out the possibility of ex-Cats and ex-Cards playing in future seasons.

“We’ll be here next year, and I have a feeling this isn’t going to be the last time we come through Kentucky,” he said. “So we’ll be back.”

Local disconnection

Former North Carolina star Rashad McCants is playing in the Big3. He did not get a warm welcome when the league played in Charlotte last Sunday.

Of course, in 2014, McCants claimed that UNC kept him eligible through fake classes. He said Coach Roy Williams was aware of the deception, which Williams has denied.

An NCAA investigation continues.

Sportswriter C. Jackson Cowart of the Charlotte Observer reported that McCants played “through a chorus of boos” in his Big3 game last Sunday.

McCants’ two seasons playing for Williams included UNC winning the 2005 national championship. The two now have no relationship, McCants told Cowart.

“The things he’d done and said and denied, I just can’t respect,” McCants told Cowart. “As a coach, he’s a great coach, and he’s deserving of the Hall of Fame and everything that’s coming to him. But as a man, I don’t have anything to say.”

‘Bigs’ and threes

In case you missed it, former Vandy big man Luke Kornet holds the distinction of having made more college three-pointers than any other 7-footer. He made 150 while playing for the Commodores from 2013-14 through last season.

Kornet signed with the Knicks as a free agent. Of course, his ties to Lexington include father Frank Kornet, a standout player for Lexington Catholic before going to Vandy, and grandfather Milton Kornet, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UK from 1963 until retiring in 1999.

Another former Vandy player, David Przybyszewski (2002-05) made the second-most three-pointers (131) by a 7-footer.

Derek Selvig of Montana (2009-12) made the third most, 106. The fourth most were made by a player familiar to UK fans: Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin (2012-15). He made 103.

Multi-sport champion

Gene Conley, a member of championship teams in baseball and pro basketball, died Tuesday at age 86.

Conley pitched for the Milwaukee Braves team that won the 1957 World Series. He was also the backup center to Bill Russell on Boston Celtics teams that won NBA titles in 1959, 1960 and 1961.

Only one other athlete has played for championship teams in two of the major pro sports leagues: Otto Graham, a forward-guard for the Rochester Royals’ 1946 National Basketball League (precursor to the NBA) title team and, more famously, quarterback for the Cleveland Browns’ many title teams in the 1940s and 1950s.

Conley’s obituary in The New York Times noted how his baseball managers discouraged him from playing basketball. Presumably, they feared he’d get injured. Meanwhile, the Celtics’ coach, Red Auerbach, saw baseball as a harmless, almost leisurely activity.

“Red Auerbach used to say, ‘Well, Gene, the playoffs are over. The season’s over,’” Conley once said. “‘Now, you can go down and try to get out of shape so you can pitch.’”

Happy birthday

To Carlos Toomer. He turns 45 on Sunday (today). . . . To Bernard Coté. He turns 35 on Wednesday. . . To incoming freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He turns 19 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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