UK Men's Basketball

Calipari to NBA: Ex-Cats Ulis, Skal are safe bets

Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis took the floor for practice before NCAA Tournament regional play in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2016.
Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis took the floor for practice before NCAA Tournament regional play in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2016. cbertram@herald-leader.com

In promoting his players going into Thursday’s NBA Draft, Kentucky Coach John Calipari dismissed concerns about Tyler Ulis’ supposed hip problem and Skal Labissiere’s freshman struggles.

“Did he look like he had a hip injury?” Calipari said Tuesday of Ulis’ stellar play for UK in the 2015-16 season. “There may be something structurally they’re looking at that I don’t know about. But I just don’t believe it.”

Speaking on a teleconference Tuesday, Calipari then joked that if the NBA wanted to have concerns about hip problems, the league should examine him. “I had both of my hips replaced,” he quipped. “They may be talking about me.”

Of course, the ever-green question about Ulis is his size: 5-foot-9.

Calipari deflected any concern about Ulis standing up to the rigors of the NBA’s 82-game schedule. The UK coach noted how Ulis averaged 36.8 minutes, the most for a UK player in more than 40 years.

Ulis will have a “long career” in the NBA, Calipari said. Because of the David-and-Goliath appeal, Ulis “will sell a lot of tickets,” the UK coach said.

Calipari said he changed his recruiting philosophy because of Ulis.

“They’re going to say he’s too small,” the UK coach said. “I said that. My whole career I said I’m not playing with a small point guard.

“You know what? I played with him. Last year and the year before, he was a big reason we won.”

As for Labissiere’s struggle to get untracked last season, Calipari second-guessed his approach in trying to develop the player.

“A lot of that is on me,” Calipari said. “I was trying to use the blueprint for Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis. Guess what? That lesson plan didn’t fit him.”

As he did with Towns and Davis, Calipari tried repeatedly to make Labissiere add low-post play to his face-the-basket shooting. The UK coach suggested that Labissiere deserved the credit NBA types gave him for trying to make it work.

“He never stopped,” Calipari said. “He never quit. He never complained. He just kept trying.”

Because of an injury and then being ruled ineligible, Labissiere essentially missed his final two seasons of high school basketball. That set back the player’s development.

Labissiere’s journey to the NBA Draft includes surviving an earthquake in his native Haiti.

“When you hear his story, it makes you cry,” Calipari said.

In a separate teleconference, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called Labissiere “the most difficult prospect to figure out in this whole draft.”

A question that looms over Labissiere is whether he can hold his own against physical NBA players.

“He got pushed around by guys who got pushed around by other people,” Bilas said. “That was a little bit surprising to me, frankly. He didn’t show the ability to handle physicality. Yeah, you’d question his toughness.”

Of the other two Kentucky players in this year’s NBA Draft, Calipari pointed out that Jamal Murray can shoot accurately with either hand out to three-point range. Murray also brings sunny disposition to practices, the UK coach said.

“I believe Jamal Murray will be the leading scoring rookie in the NBA,” Calipari said.

Alex Poythress returned last season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in December 2014. Poythress may have been more hampered last season than people thought, Calipari said.

Suggesting that Poythress might be picked late in the first round, Calipari said, “If there’s a better athlete, a more dominating kind of athlete in this draft, tell me who he is.”

Calipari plans to attend the NBA Draft in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Thursday. Since becoming Kentucky coach, he has watched 25 of his players get drafted (19 in the first round).

His Zelig-like presence at NBA drafts has raised suspicion that Calipari uses the occasion as a promotional tool for Kentucky’s recruiting efforts.

“It’s their graduation night,” he said of his annual attendance at the NBA Draft. “I’m not going to go to graduation? ... I’m going to my sons’ graduation.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

NBA Draft

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

TV: ESPN

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