The last two Kentucky players to walk off the Philips Arena court following Thursday night’s season-ending, 61-58 loss to Kansas State were Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Both Wildcats appeared stunned at the outcome. If NBA Draft projections and recent history are any indication, it would be fairly stunning if either plays in a UK uniform again.
Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander are generally considered to be lottery picks in this year’s NBA Draft, and it’s rare — almost unheard of — for Cats in the John Calipari era to return to school under such circumstances.
In the postgame locker room, none of Kentucky’s players gave answers one way or another on if they would stay or go after this season.
Knox, ranked No. 14 on ESPN’s latest list of top draft prospects, somberly reflected on his freshman season as a Wildcat.
“It was great,” he said. “I learned so much as a player, as a person. My teammates taught me so many things. My coaches taught me so many things. I grew as a player. My game has gotten so much better since I got here. Give that all to the coaches; we put in a lot of work this year.
“I’m just going to go from here. I’m proud of my teammates and what they did for me this year.”
Knox said he would go back to Lexington and concentrate on his studies in the short term, adding that he would sit down with his parents soon to go over his future plans. He was widely seen as a one-and-done player coming into this season, and that remains the likely outcome.
Gilgeous-Alexander, the No. 7-ranked recruit in UK’s freshman class, was expected to be a multi-year player coming into this season, but he’s now the Cats’ top draft prospect. ESPN has him at No. 10 on its list. Sports Illustrated put him at No. 14 in a mock draft earlier this week. He’s also expected to leave.
“I haven’t thought about anything at all as far as my future,” he said. “I’ve just been focused on the day-to-day.”
Those are the only two Wildcats projected as first-round picks in this week’s ESPN draft rankings, but there will likely be more defections to the pro ranks.
Hamidou Diallo tested the waters last year after enrolling in classes at UK for the spring semester and practicing with the Wildcats (but not playing). He took his decision then down to the last day — the very last hour, in fact — before deciding to return to school and play a season of college ball.
Diallo had an uneven freshman campaign, but he’s been steadily climbing the draft boards in recent weeks, and the word around the program has been that he’d likely leave if there was a chance of being selected near first-round territory. ESPN has him as the No. 36 prospect for the draft.
“I really don’t know,” Diallo said of his future. “And I’m not really worried about that right now. We just ended our season on a terrible note, so I’m not worried about that. Whatever happens, happens.”
Sitting a few feet away from Diallo was Jarred Vanderbilt, who missed the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament with a sprained ankle after missing the first half of his freshman season with a foot injury. He has a history of foot and ankle injuries, and he, too, has been mentioned around the program as a player likely to leave if given positive draft feedback.
ESPN’s latest rankings put Vanderbilt at No. 62 overall — two spots out of the second round — but he’d still have a chance to win over scouts at the NBA Combine. And there’s always the possibility that a team would take a chance on him much earlier than that.
“Right now, I’m focused on Kentucky basketball,” he said. “That’s the main thing I’m focused on right now.”
PJ Washington, who scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in Thursday night’s loss to Kansas State — and has been playing his best ball of the season over the past few weeks — has actually jumped ahead of Vanderbilt on some draft boards recently. ESPN has him in mid-second-round range, at No. 45 overall.
It’s likely he’ll at least test the draft waters, though he was non-committal on specifics Thursday.
It seems far-fetched that any of UK’s other players would be drafted anywhere other than the back end of the second round, if at all, this year. Sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel is the only other Kentucky player on ESPN’s list, coming in at No. 98 overall, well out of draft range.
“I’m not here to talk about that right now,” Gabriel said Thursday night of his future.
Five-star center Nick Richards saw his playing time dwindle in the latter stages of the season.
“I haven’t thought about my future,” he said. “We lost a really big game to go to the Elite Eight.”
Quade Green and Sacha Killeya-Jones — UK’s other two main rotation players — are not projected as NBA Draft picks this year.
Sophomore center Tai Wynyard finished the season under a suspension for violation of team rules, and his future with the program is uncertain.
“I don't know that yet until we get back on campus and we get with all the players,” Calipari said Thursday night in regards to Wynyard’s status.
Freshman guard Jemarl Baker did not play this season due to injury, but he said earlier this month that he’s getting healthy and moving in the right direction.
All of the Wildcats will spend the next few weeks huddling with their families and other advisers. They’ll have one-on-one meetings with Calipari and — if they express an interest in getting feedback from NBA scouts — the UK coach will gather that information and pass it on to the players. Some will get invitations to the NBA Combine, and there will be opportunities to work out for NBA teams.
The deadline to withdraw from this year’s draft will be May 30.
If the bulk of this roster does return next season, it could be a special Kentucky team.
Bringing back several players with experience — something that didn’t happen this season — and adding to that group incoming recruits Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley, all seen as instant-impact players, would yield another offseason of great expectations.
“I feel like we have a great group of guys in here that love to win and love to fight for each other,” Washington said. “I feel like if a lot of guys come back next year, it’ll be the same and we’ll just continue to do what we do at Kentucky.”
Kentucky is also still recruiting five-star big man E.J. Montgomery, who will play in the McDonald’s All-American Game here next week and is expected to make a college decision sometime soon.
Other star prospects — like James Wiseman and Ashton Hagans — have been rumored to be reclassification candidates. Wiseman, who has continually denied the reclassification rumors, and Hagans would both be instant contributors, perhaps stars, at the college level, and Kentucky would be among the favorites for both if they ended up making the jump to 2018.
Whoever suits up for the Wildcats next season, a trip to the Final Four will be part of the plan. But, as everyone saw throughout this campaign — and especially Thursday night — it’s never easy.
“We’re going to always be really good,” Diallo said. “There’s always going to be a lot of bumps in the road, just like this year. We had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of bad times. But, at the end, we just all wanted to fight for each other, and that’s what we tried to come out here and do. But it was just that we fell short tonight. I feel like we put our all in it. We just fell short.
“We’re not worried about next year, really. We’re worried about this right here.”