UK Men's Basketball

‘Deal with the devil’ keeps Kentucky basketball’s revolving door spinning

Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro have developed a chemistry

Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson talks about his on-court relationship with roommate and fellow freshman Tyler Herro. Johnson leads UK in scoring at 16.4 points per game. The Wildcats play at Alabama on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.
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Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson talks about his on-court relationship with roommate and fellow freshman Tyler Herro. Johnson leads UK in scoring at 16.4 points per game. The Wildcats play at Alabama on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019.

Before every Kentucky home game, the public address announcer shouts a reminder to the crowd that Rupp Arena is home to “the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball!!!” Maybe Patrick Whitmer should update this proclamation by announcing UK as “the greatest way station en route to the NBA!!!”

ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla all but suggested that change during a conversation about UK basketball’s annual rite of spring: Players declaring for the NBA Draft. This year’s early entrants are sophomore PJ Washington and freshmen Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and EJ Montgomery. Johnson and Herro became the 26th and 27th UK freshmen in the last 10 years to forego their remaining college eligibility and link their basketball fates to an NBA Draft. Montgomery has left open the door for a return to UK.

“This is the deal with the devil,” Fraschilla said. “The devil being the one-and-done.”

Fraschilla did not mean to criticize nor suggest something evil. He explained that his friend, UK Coach John Calipari, has built a highly successful recruiting pitch around the idea of Kentucky preparing players for NBA careers. To make it work in the most attention-getting way, players must be NBA-bound ASAP. The revolving door ever spins. That is the bargain UK makes with its recruiting pitch.

“These guys feel like, ‘This is exactly why I came to Kentucky, period,’” Fraschilla said of decisions to turn pro made by UK players. “Being part of the great tradition (also). But, let’s face it. The biggest draw has not been the history and tradition of the program as much as it’s been, ‘John can help me be an NBA player.’”

Another ESPN analyst, Jay Bilas, suggested another factor leads players to enter an NBA Draft. A competitive nature that helps them become good enough to play major college basketball creates peer pressure.

“When we were younger and some kid made the McDonald’s All-American Team, another player sat there and said, ‘I’m just as good as he is,’” Bilas said. “A guy plays golf and a friend of his is playing from the back tees. ‘I’m just as good as he is. I’m playing from the back tees.’

“They look at who’s going (in the NBA Draft) and say, ‘Wait a minute. I played against this guy my whole life. I’m good enough, too.’ That’s just the way it is.”

On occasion, an incoming freshman will talk about wanting to make his mark on college basketball. Michael Porter Jr. spoke of staying at Missouri longer than a season if additional time was needed to make a lasting impact on the program. Because of injuries, he played only three games as a freshman. Then he entered the 2018 NBA Draft.

Fraschilla said that Kentucky has proven that players can gain iconic status in one-season college careers. John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns come to mind.

Incidentally, UK announced Monday that DeMarcus Cousins, whose one college season was 2009-10, will be one of this year’s inductees into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame.

“You’re still revered by Kentucky fans …,” Fraschilla said. “They’ll always be part of the Kentucky family. But they really come to Kentucky to fulfill the next dream beyond playing at UK.”

As for the future, the NBA is expected to resume allowing players to go directly from high school to the draft within the next few years. But Bilas suggested this change will not affect Kentucky’s annual rite of spring. If a player feels ready after one season, he will enter the NBA Draft.

Several UK freshmen were not considered NBA ready coming out of high school. But they became one-and-done players. Herro fits that description.

“That’s the way it’s going to be going forward,” Bilas said.

Good timing?

Projected as picks in the middle of the first round, Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson are taking advantage of a “very, very weak” year as NBA drafts go. That’s how ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla saw the UK freshmen entering this year’s NBA Draft and closing the door on returning for a sophomore season.

“This is one of the weakest draft classes I can remember,” Fraschilla said. “There’s absolutely somebody that’s going to take a flyer on Tyler Herro or Keldon Johnson in the first round.

“Along with that it means guaranteed money. Being a first-round pick is the equivalent of in ‘The Godfather’ being a made man.”

Working ESPN2’s telecast of the Nike Hoop Summit gave Fraschilla a sense of a higher-quality NBA Draft in 2020.

“Given what I saw of James Wiseman and some of these other talented kids at the Nike Hoop Summit, I’m not sure any of those (2019) guys would move up dramatically in next year’s draft,” he said.

Standout point guard

The point guard for UK’s only national championship team of the last 21 years was … Marquis Teague.

Teague can get lost in the glare of star UK point guards that came before and after him in John Calipari’s 10 seasons as coach. But Teague’s numbers meet the standard. His 191 assists in the 2011-12 season are the third most for a Kentucky point guard in the last 10 seasons. Only Tyler Ulis (246 in 2015-16) and John Wall (241 in 2009-10) had more.

Teague’s assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.8-to-1 is the fifth best. Ulis had far and away the best ratio: 3.6-to-1 in 2015-16. Incidentally, that’s also Ulis’ ratio for his two seasons at UK: 381 assists and 107 turnovers.

No doubt having ultra-talented teammates (including the first two picks in that year’s NBA Draft, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) assisted Teague, so to speak, in putting up good numbers. But his NCAA Tournament numbers — 29 assists, 15 turnovers, an average of 33.5 minutes per game — say he capably fulfilled his duties.

Teague was in Lexington recently for an autograph session with five other players on UK’s 2012 national championship team. He said he played in South Korea last season and hopes to return to an NBA team next season.

Meanwhile, he also works for his family’s Indianapolis-based fitness center, The Factory.

“Just being around these guys has been so much fun,” Teague said of the mini-UK reunion. “I just miss the brotherhood and how much fun we had. All the crazy fans here. How much love it is.”

Perfect storm

In a note last week, National Association of Sports Officials president Barry Mano said youth sports made for a “perfect storm” of conditions leading to abuse of referees: Less-talented players, coaches and referees mixed with emotionally charged parents.

Reader Darryl Hofe of Lexington sent an email in which he vouched for the volatility in youth basketball.

“I coached 13 years as a volunteer for youth through freshmen,” he wrote. “I have seen too much near violence, from parents threatening refs after games (requiring volunteers to protect them) to parents and even a coach attempting to attack 12-year-olds following spirited play in a preseason scrimmage.”

In what he called “a risk management tool,” Hofe held preseason meetings in his home with parents of the kids on his teams. “I politely explored the odds of youngsters advancing to high school and college rosters and emphasized sports as character building,” he wrote. “Then I unloaded my policy of dismissing any misbehaving parent and his/her son should a single incident occur.”

Hofe, now retired from the insurance industry, recalled playing sports as a youth. In those more relaxed times, his father attended games when he could.

“It just wasn’t that big a deal,” Hofe said in a follow-up phone call. “Today, it seems like everybody is going to the NBA for some reason.”

Happy birthday

To Derrick Millar. He turned 51 on Thursday. … To Michael Bradley. He turned 40 on Thursday. … To Doug Flynn. He turned 68 on Thursday. … To Nate Knight. He turned 41 on Thursday. … To Scott Padgett. He turned 43 on Friday. … To UK fan Ashley Judd. She turned 51 on Friday. … To Ryan Harrow. He turns 28 on Monday. … To Bob McCowan. He turns 70 on Tuesday. … To Fred Cowan. He turns 61 on Tuesday.

Looking ahead

With this coming week set aside for time off, here are UK basketball birthdays for the period of April 25 through May 1.

To Dillon Pulliam. He turns 24 on April 25. … To Todd Bearup. He turns 52 on April 25. … To former UK assistant coach David Hobbs. He turns 70 on April 25. … To Bob Tallent. He turns 73 on April 26. … To LeRon Ellis. He turns 50 on April 28. … To Dwight Anderson. He turns 59 on April 28. … To Chris Harrison. He turns 46 on April 30.