UK Men's Basketball

NBA a 'futures league,' Calipari says. More than ever, teams drafting what they can't yet see.

Kevin Knox, who does not turn 19 until August, fits the profile of a typical prospect in the ever-younger NBA
Kevin Knox, who does not turn 19 until August, fits the profile of a typical prospect in the ever-younger NBA

In terms of how the NBA Draft is trending, Kentucky’s Kiddie Cat program is not an outlier. UK’s fuzzy-cheeked players fit right in.

UK Coach John Calipari suggested as much at the NBA Combine. When asked about his players’ draft status, he returned again and again to their relative youth. Patience and time will be required to properly assess his players' value as draft picks, he said. More than ever, that’s true not just for UK players, but for many draft prospects.

“This league has become a futures league,” Calipari said. “You’re not drafting for what they look like right now. . . . So you look at them and watch them, and this kid got the better of him. But you’re watching and you say, ‘That’s only because he’s three years older. Where’s this kid going to be in three years?’

“That’s the challenge of what all these (NBA scouts) have to do.”

Then Calipari chuckled as he added, “My challenge is to rebuild a team every year.”

The first seven picks of last year’s NBA Draft were freshmen: Markelle Fultz (Washington), Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Jayson Tatum (Duke), Josh Jackson (Kansas), De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky), Jonathan Isaac (Florida State) and Lauri Markkanen (Arizona). That broke the previous record of four, set in 2014: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Aaron Gordon.

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Kentucky's Hamidou Diallo took part in drills during the NBA Combine in Chicago last week. Charles Rex Arbogast AP

The eighth pick last year was Frank Ntilikina, who had played in France and was 18 at the time. The ninth, 10th and 11th picks were freshmen: Dennis Smith Jr. (North Carolina State), Zach Collins (Gonzaga) and Malik Monk (Kentucky). Overall, 16 freshmen were among the 30 first-round picks.

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla has likened the NBA Draft to Major League Baseball’s draft. The Cincinnati Reds do not draft a high school pitcher who throws a 95 mph fastball and expect to immediately put him in the starting rotation. He needs time to mature and harness his talent.

Likewise, NBA evaluators must project ahead when assessing, say, Kevin Knox, who turns 19 on Aug. 11. Calipari suggested Knox was young, even by the standards of a speculative draft pick.

“There are some guys who would be 18 and have the beard,” Calipari told reporters. “And then there’s some guys who reach for the ball and you go, ‘You don’t have hair under your arms.’ OK? He’s one of those. . . .

“You look at some of these guys and they tell you he’s 19, and you go, ‘Get the hell out of here. I want to see his birth (certificate). That kid’s got two kids.’ Not this one. This one’s a normal kid. Someone’s going to take him and everybody’s going to say, ‘How did people pass on him?’”

If so, they may not say this until about 2021.

Looking ahead

Last week CBSSports.com put Kentucky No. 4 in its top 25 (and one) ranking going into next season. Ranked ahead of UK were Kansas, Duke and — surprise — Tennessee.

The Vols are expected to lose only James Daniel, while returning Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander and several other regular contributors from the 26-9 team of last season.

As for Kentucky, CBSSports.com touted a veteran presence in Nick Richards and Quade Green, plus maybe Wenyen Gabriel, PJ Washington and/or Jarred Vanderbilt. “And the freshman class will be strong again — especially if class of 2019 guard Ashton Hagans reclassifies, which is expected,” the website said. “So John Calipari should have a team good enough to make a run at a fifth Final Four in a 10-year span.”

Other SEC teams in this top 25 (and one) were No. 10 Auburn (Bryce Brown and Jared Harper among returnees), No. 15 Mississippi State (top six scorers return) and No. 20 LSU (top-five recruiting class joins Tremont Waters).

Syracuse to upgrade

Kentucky may not be the only college basketball program changing some bleachers to chair-back seating. Syracuse, which has long been the chief threat to UK leading the nation in attendance, is also considering more chair-back seating as part of a planned renovation of the Carrier Dome.

Syracuse has announced renovations to the Carrier Dome that will include a fixed roof, a new video board and upgrades to lighting, Wi-Fi and sound systems. The changes are scheduled to be completed by 2020.

Should Syracuse replace some bleachers with chair-back seats, there is no estimate on how the change would affect the Carrier Dome’s capacity for basketball. But the capacity is expected to continue to exceed 30,000 regardless.

The change from bleachers to chair-back seats in some sections of Rupp Arena is expected to reduce UK’s capacity to about 20,500.

No-show a no-no?

Jarred Vanderbilt surprised observers by not participating in the NBA Combine. UK Coach John Calipari said Vanderbilt was not physically able to participate in any of the activities. Of course, injuries sidelined Vanderbilt for the first 17 games and final six games of this past season.

“If he’s not prepared to show his best self, then maybe he’s making the right decision,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said on the first day of the NBA Combine. “But you think if a guy is pegged as a second-round pick, you want to come and show what you got.”

Bilas suggested that Vanderbilt could benefit from playing another season for Kentucky.

“He’s got some very good tools to work with,” Bilas said. “He’s not a polished product yet. . . . Maybe he’s better off going back to school and getting a full year in where he can really play and show what he’s capable of doing.

“I don’t know what advice he’s getting on why he’s (skipping the Combine). If you know you’re not going to show your best self, I get it. I understand why they’re doing it.”

Five-on-five

The consensus view was that PJ Washington improved his draft stock by playing well in the Combine’s five-on-five games.

But there can be a limit on how much the five-on-five games can raise a player’s stock.

“Five-on-five helps more than what athletic testing is . . . ,” ESPN analyst Bobby Marks said before adding, “you’ve got to be careful. If a guy comes out and goes for 28 in a game . . . I think you have to look at the whole body of work there.”

Here’s a hypothetical: What if a player with a suspect shot shoots well in the Combine’s five-on-five games? How does that play on an NBA mind?

“I think I’d want to get him in for an individual workout and see how my coaches feel about him,” Marks said.

Shai is ‘unique’

At the NBA Combine, UK Coach John Calipari was asked how well Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s game would translate in the NBA.

“He’s going to be unique,” Calipari said. “You’re talking about a player who can do both sides of the ball. And he’s only now beginning to know all the stuff he can do.”

Calipari also saluted Gilgeous-Alexander’s composure under stress.

“Eighty-some games,” he said of the NBA schedule. “His stuff never changes. It’s always the same.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was modestly rated as a prospect. Now he sees NBA as great proving ground.

Brief, but enduring?

Although the one-and-done era gives college basketball an element of hello-I-must-be-going, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander suggested that lasting bonds can be formed.

“We’re a close-knit group,” he said of the Kentucky players of 2017-18. “Like family. Been together for almost the last year. Yeah, it’s memories I’ll never forget.”

Together again?

SI.com’s mock NBA Draft, which was updated Tuesday, had Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander reuniting as the 12th and 13th picks. Both picks belong to the Los Angeles Clippers.

“That would be really fun,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of such a reunion. “It would be really helpful for both of us.”

The two know each other’s game, where each likes the ball, he said.

“Kevin’s, obviously, a really special talent, and even a better guy off the court,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “One of my best buds. Playing with him would be fun.”

Bottom line

John Calipari used Kevin Knox as an example of what the NBA considers a make-or-break quality for a player.

“If you shoot it, you’re good,” Calipari said. “If you can’t shoot it, you’re probably not good. And he can shoot it.”

Remembering Bearup

There will be a remembrance of former Kentucky player Bret Bearup next Saturday. The public is invited.

The remembrance will be at UK’s Spindletop Hall beginning at 7 p.m.

Bearup was an avid reader. His family asked that donations be made to www.shelteringbooks.org.

Happy birthday

To Cedric Jenkins. He turned 52 on Friday. . . . To Adam Delph. He turns 28 on Monday. . . . To Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland. He turns 61 on Monday. . . . To former UK president David Roselle. He turns 79 on Wednesday. . . . To former Florida coach (and UK assistant) Billy Donovan. He turns 53 on Wednesday.

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