UK Men's Basketball

Here’s a thought: Not all UK basketball players need to leave early for the NBA

UK’s players leave the court after a loss to UCLA earlier this season.
UK’s players leave the court after a loss to UCLA earlier this season.

Unexpected — or, at the very least, difficult-to-comprehend — postseason departures from the UK basketball team have become a regular occurrence.

The Wildcats have had plenty of no-brainer early entrants into the NBA Draft under John Calipari, and they’ll likely have many more in the near future.

But a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts has been at work over the past few seasons, a notion that, “If I’m good enough to earn a scholarship offer from Kentucky, well, I’m good enough to go pro just about anytime I choose.”

That’s, obviously, not the case.

“Kentucky has had this crazy, like, train station of guys they send to the NBA every year,” ESPN’s lead NBA Draft analyst Jonathan Givony told the Herald-Leader this week. “It doesn’t mean that every guy has to leave as an underclassman. Isaiah Briscoe, right now, is, I think, playing in Estonia. Did he make the right move? Just because you came into Kentucky thinking you’re one and done, it doesn’t mean you have to leave after one or two years.”

Briscoe — a starting guard as a sophomore last season, and a five-star recruit before that — is just UK’s latest example of let’s-get-this-pro-career-started syndrome. (He is playing in Estonia, by the way, after going undrafted as a two-and-done player last year). He wasn’t projected as an NBA pick when he decided to stay in the 2017 draft, and — at 21 years old — it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll ever play in the league.

Several young players on this season’s UK team appear to be in a similar spot.

Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, who was 4 for 4 from three-point range, talks about his 19 points against Mississippi State.

Givony currently projects three Cats in first-round territory: Kevin Knox (No. 11), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 18) and Hamidou Diallo (No. 24).

Three others are projected toward the back end of the second round on ESPN’s Top 100 draft prospects list: Jarred Vanderbilt (No. 50), Nick Richards (No. 51) and PJ Washington (No. 52). None of those three players made the ESPN mock draft posted Thursday morning, however. The mock draft attempts to project which players will actually end up declaring and keeping their name in the draft.

Three more Wildcats were five-star recruits coming out of high school: sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones, and freshman Quade Green.

Givony’s advice for anyone who, by this spring, doesn’t look like a sure-thing, first-round pick?

“I think, before any of these guys declare for the draft, they need to call guys like Briscoe and Aaron Harrison,” he said. “This might be the best time of their life. So just because you go to Kentucky and think you’re going to get to the NBA so fast, it doesn’t mean you have to be in this huge rush to leave.”

That said, here’s what Givony told the Herald-Leader about the current NBA Draft prospects of Washington, Richards, Gabriel, Killeya-Jones and Green (his thoughts on Vanderbilt were included in a separate story earlier this week):

PJ Washington

It’s important to note that Givony spoke to the Herald-Leader about Washington before UK’s 78-65 victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday night, which was arguably the 6-foot-7 freshman’s best all-around effort of the season.

Washington is averaging 11.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Regarded as one of the best rebounders in last year’s high school class, he’s grabbed more than eight boards just once in 20 games as a Wildcat.

PJ Washington had 22 points against Mississippi State on Tuesday night. Alex Slitz

“He’s the guy that I’m actually the most disappointed in — what he’s shown this year,” Givony said. “I thought he would be someone that would play a little bit harder and would get a little bit more done, to be honest with you.

“It seems like his shooting hasn’t developed at all, which is a big red flag. Because that’s such an important part of his game. And he’s not really rebounding. He’s just kind of loafing around. He’s just another guy at this point, honestly, with the way that he’s produced. I think he’s really gotta think hard about going back to school.”

The version of Washington that showed up Tuesday night (22 points, six rebounds, three steals, 14 trips to the free throw line) is what scouts and analysts like Givony expected on a consistent basis this season.

It’s also difficult to peg his position at the next level.

Kentucky ended a two-game losing streak with a 78-65 win against Mississippi State on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Rupp Arena. PJ Washington led the way with a career-high 22 points.

“I always thought in college that he was going to be a center,” Givony said. “Because he’s got that great body, and he’s super long (7-3 wingspan). I think that if he were playing the ‘5’ somewhere, things would look a lot different. He’s not a ‘4’ man. And he needs to play alongside some more skill.

“If he could shoot, it would be a lot easier to slot him into different lineup configurations,” Givony said. “The fact that he’s not rebounding — and he’s really not playing very hard — he’s got no chance, if that’s going to continue.”

Nick Richards

The 7-footer — regarded as a first-round pick, possibly a lottery pick — before this season has had a tough stretch with relatively few bright spots in recent weeks.

Richards had zero points and one rebound in 11 minutes Tuesday night, playing just one minute in the second half. There hasn’t been much more to go on than potential so far.

“The market for old-school centers is very limited in today’s NBA,” Givony said. “And there’s just been a lot of guys that have surpassed him with their play this year. And so as those guys move up, someone’s got to move down. He looks like such a project right now that he just is not going to be very appealing to a team. There’s a million centers out there. I don’t know if the market is going to be there for a guy like that.

“Maybe 10-15 years ago, it would have been different. But an appetite for developing a guy like him — and then, three years from now, maybe he’s your backup — it’s just not all that appealing.”

Richards, who turned 20 in November and has been playing basketball for only a few years, would be the logical starting center on next season’s team if he returns for a sophomore season.

Sacha Killeya-Jones

The sophomore forward has played at least 12 minutes in each of the past nine games, giving UK some much-needed depth in the frontcourt. An intriguing prospect who shot exceptionally well for a 6-10 high school recruit, Killeya-Jones was on ESPN’s list of the Top 100 draft prospects as recently as last month (at No. 81 overall), but he’s no longer in that mix.

Givony pointed out that Killeya-Jones, who played sparingly last season, won’t turn 20 years old until August.

After losing out on the recruitment of Zion Williamson, who picked Duke, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was asked about UK’s recruiting on Monday.

“He’s a very young sophomore, and he could easily be a freshman. So, to me, he’s definitely a guy that’s staying three or four years,” he said. “He hasn’t really shown anything, so far to indicate that he’s a legitimate NBA prospect. His body hasn’t really evolved, nor has his skill or feel. I think he’s someone that people are going to want to look at as an upperclassman, and he can probably develop into a very good player for Kentucky. But, there’s really nothing that separates him at this stage.”

Wenyen Gabriel

Givony stressed that Gabriel — the Cats’ leading rebounder, despite starting zero games — “plays very hard” and might be UK’s “most important” player in many ways so far this season. That doesn’t exactly translate to an elevated NBA Draft status for the 6-9 sophomore.

“He’s another guy that’s going to have to show people — as a junior or a senior — that he’s improved enough to the point that he can be a legitimate NBA prospect,” Givony said. “He’s just not very skilled. His basketball IQ is still very limited.

“You have to wonder if he’s ever going to be able to put enough weight on his frame to play the ‘4’ in the NBA. I love how hard he plays though.”

Quade Green

The freshman point guard has never been on the radar as a realistic one-and-done pick, and he’ll need to show a lot — at 6-feet tall with limited athletic ability — to eventually insert himself into the pro conversation.

“I think he’s another guy that is going to have to unpack his bags and really become a top-shelf college player first, before we can start to talk about him as an NBA player,” Givony said. “He’s not getting it done with productivity, and he’s definitely not getting it done with his upside. So there’s not a whole lot to go on right now.

“But, I mean, most guys stay three or four years in college. So it’s unfair to judge him as an NBA prospect right now.”

This is the third in a series of articles looking at the NBA Draft prospects of the current UK team near the midway point of this season.

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