UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Ulis, Skal elusive targets for NBA Draft projections

Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere (1) blocked a shot by LSU guard Tim Quarterman (55) in the first half of the LSU at Kentucky men's basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, on March 5, 2016. Kentucky won 94-77.
Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere (1) blocked a shot by LSU guard Tim Quarterman (55) in the first half of the LSU at Kentucky men's basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky, on March 5, 2016. Kentucky won 94-77. palcala@herald-leader.com

With last week’s announcements, Kentucky may have two of the most intriguing players in this year’s NBA Draft.

Tyler Ulis was the model of consistent excellence this past season. But his size complicates what otherwise would be an easy — and early — draft night decision. His 5-foot-9, 160-pound package gives NBA types pause.

And Skal Labissiere, the mildest of Wildcats this past season, is the wildest of wild cards.

“He’s not a lock anywhere in the first round,” said Chad Ford, an NBA Draft analyst for ESPN. “Anybody who says for sure he’ll be a lottery pick, I just think that’s irresponsible.”

Of the two ex-Cats, Ulis is viewed as the choice less likely to create second guessing. Ford called him the third-best point guard prospect behind Kris Dunn of Providence and UK teammate Jamal Murray (easy to forget he is a point guard). Ulis is likely to be picked midway through the first round.

It’s sort of a Goldilocks zone: not hot commodities, but not players that leave you cold. In this range, NBA teams believe the picks can become dependable contributors.

“Most scouts tell you he won’t be a high-level starter in the NBA because of his size,” Ford said of Ulis. “Because of mismatch problems. They see him as an excellent guard coming off the bench. Give the team energy. Not make mistakes.”

Not making mistakes has more than one meaning with Ulis’ profile going into pre-draft workouts. The teams feel relatively comfortable that drafting Ulis will not be viewed someday as a mistake.

“More than one scout tells me they just guarantee he won’t wash out of the league,” Ford said of Ulis. “He’s too competitive. He’s too good. He’ll find a niche. So I think that they think he’s a pretty safe pick.”

Surrounded by his family, Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis announces that he will hire an agent and enter the NBA Draft.

Labissiere defies projection. His draft position may depend more on how he does in workouts for NBA teams and how he comes across in interviews.

“His range is a lot (wider) because he is going to be dependent on workouts and psychological tests,” Ford said. “There are so many questions that NBA guys have about him that his stock can improve with really great workouts and if he can answer the questions in ways that teams like. But he can also bomb those just like he struggled this year for Kentucky.”

From a purely basketball point of view, Ford said Labissiere made a mistake entering the NBA Draft. “He is so not ready,” Ford said. And, the analyst added, the NBA Development League has a “mixed” record as a launching pad for long-lasting NBA careers.

Incoming freshman Edrice “Bam” Adebayo can be the post presence for Kentucky next season. “It frees (Labissiere) up a little bit to play on the perimeter where I think he is much, much more comfortable,” Ford said.

But what if Labissiere did not blossom in this hypothetical sophomore season for UK? “His chances of being drafted in the first round would go down dramatically,” Ford said.

From an economical point of view, Labissiere made the right decision to enter this year’s NBA Draft, Ford said.

“The safest call is to go ahead and declare for the draft this year,” Ford said. “He’ll get drafted.”

Selected short subject

Trying to project where Tyler Ulis will be selected in this year’s NBA Draft sent analyst Chad Ford to the history books.

“I was trying to find the last player 5-10 or smaller drafted in the lottery,” Ford said. “And I haven’t found it yet.”

As Tyler Ulis talks about the transition to the NBA, he's joined by his Kentucky teammate Jamal Murray, who has also declared for the NBA Draft.

At that stage, Ford had looked at draft picks from the last 10 years.

For historical reference there’s this: Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player in NBA history, was the 12th pick in the 1987 draft.

Calvin Murphy, arguably the best NBA player under 6-foot tall, was the 18th pick in the 1970 draft.

Congratulations

To Asbury University grad Steve Smith. He coached prep school powerhouse Oak Hill Academy to the championship of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Nationals in Madison Square Garden last weekend.

It was Smith’s ninth national title in 32 seasons as Oak Hill coach. Even the Golden State Warriors might envy his career record of 1,026-65 (winning percentage of .944).

Smith and Oak Hill have lost one home game in those 32 seasons: against a team led by Lamar Odom in 1997. Smith noted that Oak Hill beat that team two nights earlier and might have been over-confident.

Even by his lofty standards, it was quite a year for Smith. In December it was announced that he had been nominated for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I don’t know if I’d ever get in,” he said at the time. “But just to be nominated is a thrill.”

Smith will not be a first-ballot inductee, which did not come as a surprise. “I wouldn’t expect a high school coach to get in the first year … ,” he said. “I figured if I ever got in, it’d take a few years.”

Smith said he’ll be on the ballot for four more years.

There are at least three high school coaches in the Hall of Fame: Morgan Wootten (DeMatha), Bob Hurley (St. Anthony’s) and perhaps lesser known Ernest Blood, who led Passaic High to 159 straight victories and seven New Jersey states titles.

‘Best I ever had’

Amid all the annual hoopla about Kentucky’s incoming freshmen, let’s not forget that other schools are recruiting, too.

For instance, Duke. Its star recruit, Harry Giles, was at Oak Hill Academy this season. As those addicted to recruiting know, he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Oak Hill’s first game.

When asked how good the 6-10 Giles is, Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith said, “I honestly think, from watching him practice, he’s the best player I ever had.”

That’s saying something, considering Smith has coached such players as Carmelo Anthony and Jerry Stackhouse. The multitude of stars to play for Smith include at least five who went to Kentucky: Ron Mercer, Rajon Rondo, Jules Camara, Cliff Hawkins and, briefly, Alex Legion.

Smith said Giles is better than any of them.

“I can’t think of a basketball skill he doesn’t do well above average,” Smith said. “And he’s driven.”

Giles, who earlier in his career tore the ACL in his left knee, should be completely recovered from the latest injury by the end of the summer, Smith said.

Verne reflects

Columnist Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about CBS telecaster Verne Lundquist, who just called his 32nd NCAA Tournament.

Of the NCAA Tournament’s exploding popularity during that time, Lundquist said, “I’m not sure how it happened. Somehow, it’s become a national celebration for the sport ... I think ‘bracketology’ has probably added to the moment of it all.”

Then there’s the NCAA Tournament’s evergreen David-versus-Goliath story line.

“There is some part of all of us who wants to root for the little guy,” Lundquist said, “and it’s such a charm when the little guy prevails.”

Don’t blame media

Football stories trend on websites for newspapers in the South throughout the year. But basketball stories can be hard to find, even in the middle of basketball season.

So the media can be a handy scapegoat for those trying to explain why there are empty seats at Southeastern Conference basketball games. But former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who has been hired to help raise the profile of SEC basketball, does not point a finger at the media.

“A lot of people blame the media for a lot of things,” he said, “but I’ve just never been one. Win, and there will be more stories.”

Good question

In a battle of regular-season co-champions, Kentucky beat Texas A&M in the finals of the SEC Tournament. As UK fans know only too well, Kentucky was a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Texas A&M was a three-seed.

“Which, obviously, does look very odd,” said Terry Holland, the former Virginia coach and a former member of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

Then, without prompting, Holland asked a pertinent question. “When was that game played?” he said.

To satisfy its TV masters, the SEC plays its tournament championship game on Selection Sunday afternoon. That ties the committee’s hands, making head-to-head competition relatively meaningless, Holland said.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey hired Mike Tranghese to help boost the league’s basketball profile. When he was Big East commissioner, Tranghese got the league to move its tournament finals to Saturday night.

“Probably one of the biggest fights I had,” Tranghese said.

When asked if the SEC might fight this same fight, Tranghese said, “Greg is open-minded to talk about everything. He told me that.”

Pittsburgh pairing?

Former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings’ move to Pittsburgh might bring about a father-son reunion. His son, Jacob Stallings, is a minor-league catcher for the Pirates.

When Pittsburgh hired the elder Stallings as coach, he was watching his son play in spring training. After the game, son drove father to the airport to catch a flight to Pittsburgh.

The younger Stallings was a seventh-round pick in the 2012 baseball draft. He hit .275 for the Pirates’ Double-A team in Altoona, Pa., last season.

Summer camp

Former UK guard Dale Brown plans to run a two-day basketball camp in Lexington this summer. The camp will be July 20-21 at the Imani Athletic Center (1555 Georgetown Road).

Among the guest speakers/instructors will be former LSU guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly known as Chris Jackson), former Louisville wing Dwayne Morton and former UK shot blocker Andre Riddick.

Cost of the camp is $35 (one day) or $60 (two days).

Brown played on UK’s Final Four team of 1992-93.

To register for the camp, call Brown at (404) 281-4992 or email him at DaleBrown3114@yahoo.com.

Happy birthday

To Erik Daniels. He turned 34 on April 1. … To Brian Long. He turned 24 on April 2. … To Kyle Macy. He turned 59 on Saturday. … To Nerlens Noel. He turns 22 on Sunday (today). … To Isaiah Briscoe. He turns 20 on Wednesday. … To Derrick Jasper. He turns 28 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

  Comments