UK Men's Basketball

UK's mass of talent can make it difficult to evaluate NBA potential

Kentucky's Quade Green, left, PJ Washington, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Wenyen Gabriel and Kevin Knox gathered on the court during the SEC Tournament semifinals against Alabama on March 10.
Kentucky's Quade Green, left, PJ Washington, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Wenyen Gabriel and Kevin Knox gathered on the court during the SEC Tournament semifinals against Alabama on March 10.

For NBA evaluators, Kentucky’s annual treasure trove of star players, can be an example of too much of a good thing. Or, more precisely, the garish light of UK’s galaxy can complicate an exact reading of an individual star.

“With Kentucky guys, you kind of want to see them away from that setting at times,” ESPN’s NBA Draft scouting analyst Mike Schmitz said on a teleconference Monday.

UK’s many talented players can remove the need for an individual player to show the full range of his abilities.

“Most Kentucky guys, they have so much talent that (Coach John Calipari) puts them in a very specific role ...,” Schmitz said. “These Kentucky teams are so loaded that it’s really beneficial to see these guys in a different environment.”

During this year’s pre-draft process, Kevin Knox could be Exhibit A. He has “really helped himself” in workouts for teams, Schmitz said.

Schmitz cited several other examples. For one, Devin Booker, a reserve on UK’s 2014-15 team who has become a NBA star with the Phoenix Suns.

“Really popped with the freedom in the NBA,” Schmitz said. “He played such a specific role at Kentucky.”

Another example cited by Schmitz was Karl-Anthony Towns.

“You see him now, he’s a stretch-‘big,’” the ESPN analyst said. “You can probably count on one or two hands how many threes he took at Kentucky.”

Towns made two of eight three-point shots for a UK team that won its first 38 games before losing to Wisconsin in the 2015 Final Four. For the Minnesota Timberwolves last season, he made 42.1 percent of his shots from the NBA’s longer three-point distance. His accuracy in his first three NBA seasons is 38.7 percent.

But Towns could better balance Kentucky’s attack as a low-post scorer.

UK’s talent level can require sacrifice and supplementary roles.

With Booker, “they had other ballhandlers: the Harrison twins, Tyler Ulis,” Schmitz said. “They had guys who could handle the ball. So Devin Booker’s role was to catch-and-shoot. Sprint off screens, and probably not put it down more than one or twice in a possession.”

By contrast, Phoenix is a team with a losing record that needs more from Booker. “They need him to have the ball in his hands, and he blossoms into a player he is today,” Schmitz said.

Of course, the one-for-all approach suits Kentucky. And 31 draft picks (24 in the first round and 17 in the lottery) during Calipari’s time as coach shouts that the sacrifice has not hurt a UK player’s draft stock. It just requires more scouting to get a fuller picture of what a player can do.

“Teams have seen these guys prior to Kentucky,” Schmitz said. “Kevin Knox played heavy minutes on the USA basketball circuit. Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) played in the Nike Hoop Summit.

“There’s usually a reason they’re at Kentucky. They have the measurables and have the talent.”

'Intriguing prospect'

Bobby Marks, ESPN’s front office insider, called Mitchell Robinson “one of the more intriguing prospects” in Thursday’s NBA Draft.

Of course, Robinson was the on again-off again recruit who never played at Western Kentucky. He ultimately decided to skip college basketball to use his time to prepare for the draft.

“Unbelievable agility for a player his size,” Marks said. “We’ve seen him not look out of place alongside some of these guys at the top (of mock drafts). Deandre Ayton. Mo Bamba. Others.

“The question with his is not what happens on the court. It’s his approach to the game. ... Obviously, the route he took didn’t really help him.”

Robinson might need time and multiple chances to make it in the NBA, Marks said. “It might take him to his second team, maybe third (team) to fully maximize his potential.”