UK Men's Basketball

'Winning matters.' Cal explains why UK isn't headlining this year's draft

Kentucky has had at least one player taken in the first seven picks of every NBA Draft since John Calipari became coach.
Kentucky has had at least one player taken in the first seven picks of every NBA Draft since John Calipari became coach. aslitz@herald-leader.com

In assessing a relatively modest outlook for Kentucky players in this year’s NBA Draft, John Calipari offered what sounded like a chicken-or-egg explanation.

Calipari linked no UK player projected in the front end of the lottery to last season’s pedestrian 26-11 record. More victories translates into an elevated draft stock, he said. Although it could also be argued that players with an elevated draft stock would have led Kentucky to more victories.

“We lost four in a row,” Calipari said Monday of UK’s losing streak in early February. “That hurts your draft position. ... If we won 38 straight games (as UK did in the 2014-15 season), what? These guys would have been considered right there. That’s why winning matters here. That’s why winning championships matters. That’s why winning national championships and being in Final Fours matters. And you try to tell the kids.”

Kentucky has had three players chosen as the first overall pick of NBA Drafts: John Wall (2010), Anthony Davis (2012) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2015). UK has had at least one player taken in the first seven picks of every NBA Draft since Calipari became coach. And UK players went an unprecedented 1-2 in the 2012 draft: Davis at No. 1 and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at No. 2.

In mock drafts for this year, SI.com and NBAdraft.net have Kevin Knox as the first UK player selected at No. 9 and No. 10, respectively. Gary Parrish and Reid Forgrave, analysts for CBSSports.com, have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the first UK player taken at No. 13 and No. 11 respectively.

Calipari, who has said his job at this time of year is to promote his players, spoke highly of Knox, Gilgeous-Alexander and the other three former Cats in this year’s NBA Draft: Jarred Vanderbilt, Wenyen Gabriel and Hamidou Diallo.

The risk of re-injury next season led Vanderbilt to remain in this year’s draft despite playing only 14 games last season. “That was our conversation,” Calipari said of the UK-or-NBA decision, “the whole conversation.”

Outside of his zealous rebounding (7.9 per game in an average of 17.0 minutes), Vanderbilt’s statistics were not eye-catching (5.9 points, 42.6-percent shooting). But Calipari said other numbers were.

Vanderbilt’s “analytics stuff” was “off the chart,” the UK coach said. “NBA motor. Goes after balls. Feel for game. A quick twitch.”

Calipari projected Vanderbilt being drafted late in the first round or by midway through the second.

Gabriel attracts attention as a 6-foot-10 player who can shoot, Calipari said. He needs time to toughen up and stand up to the NBA’s physical play.

“If someone can get him in that late second (round), that’s a steal, in my mind,” Calipari said.

Calipari likened Knox to Jayson Tatum, the third pick in last year’s draft who starred for the Boston Celtics in the playoffs.

“People knew he was good,” Calipari said of Tatum. “They didn’t know he was that tough. And Kevin falls into the same mold right now. When that toughness sprouts, that’s when everybody says, ‘How did we pass on this guy?’”

Gilgeous-Alexander has reportedly not worked out for many teams. This fueled speculation that he had been given an assurance about his draft position.

Not true, ESPN draft analyst Bobby Marks said later Monday. Gilgeous-Alexander’s agent had a short list of players that the ex-Cat would work out against. When those players passed on workouts, so did Gilgeous-Alexander, Marks said.

Calipari projected Diallo as being picked late in the first round or midway through the second.

“You’re talking about one of the best athletes in the draft who played at Kentucky,” Calipari said. “Which means everything was thrown at him.”

Calipari also said Diallo kept a good attitude despite an uneven season.

“Never, not one time, was an issue for me as a coach,” Calipari said. “And he could have been.”

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