UK Men's Basketball

Five Calipari-era UK players who misjudged the NBA Draft

Dakari Johnson, fourth from left, was one of seven 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball players who turned pro early.
Dakari Johnson, fourth from left, was one of seven 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball players who turned pro early. Lexington Herald-Leader

Since John Calipari became Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball coach before the 2009-10 season, UK has had a whopping 27 players (not counting Enes Kanter, who never actually played for Kentucky) selected in the NBA Draft.

Of those 27, a whopping 25 (all but Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller) have left UK with remaining college eligibility, 17 as one-and-done players.

Given that track record, it is noteworthy how few Calipari-era, UK players have blown what can be the tricky test of when to turn pro.

Of all the decisions Kentucky players have made these past seven years on whether and when to turn pro, there are five most open to second-guessing.

5. Alex Poythress

What he did: Having completed his senior season at UK, Poythress did not hear his name called in Thursday night’s 2016 NBA Draft.

The alternative scenario: What if the Clarksville, Tenn., product had gone one-and-done? His recruiting hype (the number eight recruit in the 2012 Rivals 150) and the promise of his athleticism would have induced an NBA team to select him. In four seasons in a Kentucky uniform, Poythress never bettered his freshman scoring average of 11.2 points.

So had the physically sculpted, 6-foot-8 forward turned pro after his freshman season (2012-13), he almost certainly would have been drafted, maybe even in the first round.

4. Daniel Orton

What he did: Orton was the most highly touted member of Billy Gillispie’s 2009 UK signing class, but spent 2009-10 backing up another freshman center, DeMarcus Cousins, once Calipari brought a major talent infusion to Lexington. In that role, the 6-10 Orton averaged a meager 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in 38 games. Yet late in the 2009-10 season, Orton’s name started popping up in mock drafts. One that ran in the Los Angeles Times even had him going in the lottery at No. 12 overall.

Once Orton put his name in the 2010 draft, however, he barley went in the first round (29th, Orlando). Plagued by knee problems, he’s played in only 41 NBA games since then. After bouncing around the NBA Development League, Orton played for a pro team in China this past season.

The alternative scenario: What if Orton had instead returned to Kentucky for his sophomore season (2010-11)? Remember, once Turkish recruit Enes Kanter was declared ineligible, 6-10 senior Josh Harrellson became an interior staple on a team that reached the Final Four.

What if Orton instead logged those center minutes for UK in 2010-11? He might have played his way into the draft lottery for real in 2011.

3. Skal Labissiere

What he did: After an uneven freshman season at Kentucky, the willowy Haitian big man put his name in the 2016 NBA Draft anyway. The good news is he was chosen in the first round by Phoenix at No. 28, but is slated to be traded to Sacramento.

While that will bring a guaranteed contract, it also puts Labissiere with a dysfunctional franchise where his odds of succeeding as a developmental prospect seem problematic.

The alternative scenario: Labissiere should have bet on himself and returned to Kentucky for his sophomore year. Yes, if he came back and failed to improve, he might have ended up suffering the same undrafted fate as Poythress.

However, had Labissiere — a 7-footer who can make jumpers and block shots — displayed consistently the flashes of excellence he showed late in UK’s 2015-16 season (see LSU game in Rupp) he could have played his way into the top five of next year’s draft.

2. Dakari Johnson

What he did: At UK, Johnson had a more effective freshman season (56.9 percent field-goal shooting) in 2013-14 than sophomore year (50.6 percent) in 2014-15. Yet, the 7-foot center was among seven Wildcats who left early for the 2015 NBA Draft.

It was the second round (pick No. 48) before he heard his name called by Oklahoma City. Johnson spent this past season playing effectively (12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds) for the D-League’s Oklahoma City Blue.

The alternative scenario: Johnson should have come back to Kentucky for his junior year. The 2015-16 Wildcats turned out not to have a consistent back-to-the-basket scorer. Had Johnson stayed at UK, he would have gotten a chance to be a featured player. He then would likely have been a first-rounder in a 2016 NBA Draft that was not nearly as deep with talent as 2015.

1. Marquis Teague

What he did: After quarterbacking Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA championship team as a true freshman point guard (10 points, 4.8 assists), Teague went one-and-done. He sneaked into the back of the 2012 draft’s first round, going 29th to the Chicago Bulls.

Since then, Teague has played only 40 games in the NBA since and spent 2015-16 in the D-League (15.7 points, 5.9 assists for the Oklahoma City Blue).

The alternative scenario: Had Teague returned to Kentucky for 2012-13, he would have had the chance to show far more of what he could do on a UK team that craved leadership at the point. That would have set Teague up to enter the 2013 NBA Draft in a far stronger position.