UK Recruiting

Ten Years of Coach Cal: Ranking his most impactful recruits

Major UK recruit grew up watching John Wall and the Cats

Five-star basketball recruit Jalen Johnson says Kentucky was his dream school growing up, starting with John Wall, the star player on John Calipari's first team in Lexington.
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Five-star basketball recruit Jalen Johnson says Kentucky was his dream school growing up, starting with John Wall, the star player on John Calipari's first team in Lexington.

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Ten Years of Coach Cal

John Calipari’s first 10 years as head coach at the University of Kentucky were jam packed with memories. As Coach Cal embarks on his second decade under a newly signed “lifetime contract,” the Herald-Leader Sports staff voted on and ranked the biggest moments, best players, toughest losses, top recruits and more from the past 10 years and created this 12-part series.

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Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of 12 stories ranking the most memorable moments, teams and players of John Calipari’s 10 years as University of Kentucky head coach. Rankings for this story were compiled by UK basketball recruiting writer Ben Roberts. Watch for a new story every day between today and July 27.

A little more than 10 years ago, John Calipari brought his reputation as one of college basketball’s best recruiters with him to Kentucky.

The combination of Calipari’s prowess on the trail and UK’s blue-blood status was destined to be a winning one with top high school prospects. Everyone knew then that Coach Cal would get some players. He somehow managed to exceed those lofty expectations.

Kentucky ended up with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in each of Calipari’s first five cycles as head coach, and the Wildcats have added a few more since, finishing no lower than second nationally in the Rivals.com or 247Sports team rankings during his tenure.

The players on this list — the most “impactful” recruits of the Calipari era — aren’t necessarily the best UK players in his tenure and might not have been the highest-ranked or most-buzzed-about prospects at the time of their commitment, but they all had a huge effect, in different ways, on Kentucky’s program over the past 10 years, and many will continue to impact the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts in the future.

1. John Wall (class of 2009) — He didn’t win a national title — or even make it to the Final Four — but Wall was the personification of Calipari’s transition from Memphis to Kentucky, the face of the team that brought UK back to the forefront of college basketball, and a player whose presence is still strongly felt on the recruiting trail a decade later.

Calipari’s hire and early recruiting success signaled the new era of Kentucky basketball, but it was Wall — first with his dance at Big Blue Madness and then with his thrilling play on the court — that showed UK fans their beloved Wildcats were really, truly going to be fun again. And he was the first Wildcat in Calipari’s long line of elite point guard recruits, a lineage that started at Memphis and has continued here, with the new guys almost always mentioning Wall’s success.

The five-star recruits of today were in grade school when Wall played for the Wildcats, but many were watching, and many continue to speak his name when talking about their earliest interest in Kentucky’s program.

2. Anthony Davis (class of 2011) — Two former UK players come up more often than any others when talking to the current high school recruits. One is Wall. The other is Davis, who has been Calipari’s most impactful player on the court during his tenure as well as the best former Wildcat in the NBA over the past several years. Davis’ recent move to the Los Angeles Lakers — alongside LeBron James, a darling of high school recruits — should only increase his popularity and continue to endear him to the players Calipari is trying to bring to Lexington.

3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (class of 2011) — One of the top recruits nationally in the 2011 class, Kidd-Gilchrist was actually the first player from that group to commit to Kentucky, getting the ball rolling on a UK class that would ultimately also include Davis, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer. That quartet, of course, won a national title. MKG was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, and — though his pro career hasn’t gone as well as some others on this list — his grit and we-before-me approach is still used as a shining example in Calipari’s pitch to similarly minded prospects.

4. DeMarcus Cousins (class of 2009) — Jon Hood and Daniel Orton were highly ranked commitments from the previous coaching staff that stuck with Calipari’s initial UK class, but it was Cousins who started the parade of five-star prospects to Lexington, flipping his allegiance from Memphis a few days after Cal did the same. The always entertaining “Boogie” instantly became a fan favorite alongside Wall, and he’s another that is still mentioned by current recruits — especially post players — that Calipari is pursuing.

5. Brandon Knight (class of 2010) — The Florida point guard was the biggest name in Calipari’s second wave of super recruits, cementing Cal’s early status as a recruiting force. In the few weeks that followed Knight’s commitment — which came on the same day that Kidd-Gilchrist announced for the Cats — UK landed pledges from Teague, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. On the court, Knight was the best player on the team that snapped UK’s 13-year Final Four drought.

6. Karl-Anthony Towns (class of 2014) — Calipari’s pursuit of Towns started with his stint coaching the Dominican Republic national team, and it culminated in a commitment from an intriguing star that any program in the country would’ve loved to land. The most promising player on the 38-1 team, KAT isn’t at the prestige level of Wall or Davis — the other two No. 1 overall NBA Draft picks on this list — quite yet, but there’s still time. A few years from now, he could very well be one of the players that all the young recruits are emulating.

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Former UK players Karl-Anthony Towns, center, and Devin Booker, right, reunited for an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" in 2015. James Crisp AP file

7. Julius Randle (class of 2013) — Randle’s commitment to Kentucky came the day after Robert Morris stunned the Cats in the first round of the NIT, one of the lowest points of the Calipari era. The top-five recruit injected some immediate optimism into the fan base and fueled some of that ill-fated — but fun at the time — 40-0 talk. Randle also holds the distinction of the only player to crash our Next Cats recruiting blog, which was down for several minutes as a result of user overload due to his commitment.

8. The Harrison twins (class of 2013) — Maybe Aaron and Andrew didn’t live up to their insane recruiting hype — the rare two-for-one deal on top-10 prospects! — but the Harrisons ended up playing major roles on two Final Four teams, and Aaron provided a few of the most memorable shots in program history during that magical run through the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

9. Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis (class of 2013) — There was plenty of winning — on the court and off — during the first few years of the Calipari era, but there was also plenty of handwringing among certain segments of the fanbase that the new UK coach had sold out the tradition of Kentucky basketball for a revolving door of one-and-done recruits.

Enter Willis and Hawkins, two local boys who brought some state pride back to the program.

In Willis’ case, Calipari beat out Louisville for a player Rick Pitino highly coveted. In Hawkins’ case, the Cats got a gritty gamer from the 11th Region who grew up rooting for the Cats and had just led his team to a Sweet Sixteen title. It doesn’t get much more Kentucky than that.

Their commitments pleased the fans, the duo made meaningful contributions in their UK careers, and they also showed in-state stars of the future that Calipari might just be paying attention to what goes on inside the borders. Incoming freshman Dontaie Allen continues their legacy this season.

10. Devin Booker (class of 2014) — At the time, Booker was seen as a nice addition to the 2014 class. He proved to be much more than that. Booker is now one of the program’s top stars in the NBA, and his selflessness in his one season at Kentucky — coming off the bench for the good of the team — epitomizes Calipari’s pitch on the recruiting trail. Booker’s case is still one that recruits and their parents cite as synonymous with the short-term-sacrifice-equals-long-term-success that Calipari is selling, and he’s likely to be a favorite of future recruits due to his burgeoning stardom in the NBA.

About this series

A vote by the Herald-Leader Sports staff has generated lists of the biggest shots, the top individual performances and the best players of the Calipari era, along with the toughest losses and the biggest disappointments. We also ranked each of Calipari’s 10 teams, re-visited some of his biggest recruiting hits and misses and recalled the most indelible Cal memories of the past decade.

We hope you’ll have as much fun tapping into your Big Blue memories as we did compiling these lists as you read them in the coming days on Kentucky.com and in the Herald-Leader.

Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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