Thursday’s NBA Draft increased the total of picks from Kentucky in John Calipari’s 10 seasons as coach to 38 draftees. That included 29 first-rounders and 21 lottery selections.
Analyst Jay Bilas has suggested as recently as ESPN’s telecast of this year’s draft that no college program “produces” NBA players. More than once this week he tried to make this point by saying NBA teams do not claim to produce all-star players.
“I don’t agree,” Calipari said at a Saturday news conference. “What about Tyler Herro? What about Eric Bledsoe? I don’t know. Maybe I’m missing something.”
Herro, a four-star prospect at No. 37 in 247Sports’ composite ranking of high school seniors a year ago, was drafted by Miami with the No. 13 pick Thursday. Calipari suggested that this evolution proved how Kentucky’s program helps improve players to an NBA-caliber level.
Bilas acknowledged that college programs can enhance players’ abilities, but he said he did not accept a college program claiming to “produce” NBA-level players.
Calipari seemed to make that claim.
“I think there’s a culture that we have, a system, a process that we have in developing them with an idea of what the end result will be …,” the UK coach said. “To say why go there when you can go anywhere is what he’s saying. I don’t believe it. But he can say it.”
As if to emphasize his point, Calipari told assembled reporters, “I want you to hear: It doesn’t matter what school you go to. You’re going to make it if you’re supposed to.
“Do you believe that’s true? Does anybody believe that’s true?”
Calipari said he stops short of saying in his recruiting pitches that Kentucky alone can get a player to the NBA.
“That’s not what I say,” he said. “But to say it doesn’t matter, I don’t know.”
Of course, this year’s NBA Draft saw three former Kentucky players picked. PJ Washington and Herro were lottery picks at Nos. 12 and 13.
Keldon Johnson was taken at No. 29, the next to last pick of the first round, which Calipari said he found puzzling.
“They said he was a top-10 pick when he left here,” the UK coach said. “Then a month and a half later, he’s picked 29th.”
To try to explain this slippage, Calipari said Johnson did not work out for a few teams that might have selected him. Two teams that the UK coach thought might take Johnson traded the pick.
“You slip a little bit, and then all of a sudden, ‘What’s wrong with this kid?’” Calipari said. “There’s nothing wrong with him. And what proved it was San Antonio took him. … By them taking him, it confirms who he is.”
The name unspoken at the news conference was Kerry Blackshear, the big man looking to transfer from Virginia Tech. He visited UK earlier in the week. Earlier in his graduate transfer process, he visited Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee.
NCAA rules prohibit a public discussion about an unsigned prospect. When asked if Kentucky needed to add to its collection of “bigs” for next season, Calipari said, “No. We’re good one way or the other. If we add, fine. If we don’t, I’m good.”
Presently, UK’s “bigs” for next season are two holdovers from last season, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards, plus graduate transfer Nate Sestina.
“I look at the group we have, and I’m really pleased …,” Calipari said before adding, “I think our guard play is going to be good, too. The whole idea defensively is do you have a shot blocker behind them? Do you have athletes who are guarding?
“This team should be a great defensive team. … I would guess people will talk, ‘Man, are they good defensively.’ That’s what we should be.”
Without mentioning Blackshear’s name, Calipari laid out a scenario that would be interpreted as a choice the big man may have to make: Play for a star-studded Kentucky program that demands a team-first approach or go to a program that promises you center stage. Tennessee reportedly has mentioned to Blackshear that he could fill the gap created when two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams departed for this year’s NBA Draft.
Calipari said Miami Heat executive Pat Riley admires the UK approach that stresses competitive spirit and teamwork.
Reid Travis update
Because he was recovering from the knee sprain he sustained late in the season, Reid Travis could not work out for teams in the pre-draft process, Calipari said. Travis went undrafted.
Two NBA teams have invited Travis to play for their summer league teams, said Calipari, who added that Travis “improved himself immensely” last season.
“I told him … ‘Every team you worked out for a year ago, go back and work out for that same team, (and) they’ll see (the improvement),’” Calipari said.