PJ Washington: A look back at the Kentucky forward’s 2018-19 season
While the NBA Draft commences Thursday night in Brooklyn, we examine the question of which sport currently has more influence over the other, the pro game over the college version, or vice-versa.
Never mind the NCAA Tournament or the Final Four or even the national championship game. This is the day of the year that all young basketball players have marked on their calendar. To them, it’s the closest thing to a hoops holiday.
All talented hoopsters want to make it to the NBA, after all. It’s their (albeit short) lifelong dream. It’s also the basis of John Calipari’s recruiting pitch. Come to Kentucky, and he’ll not just get you where you want to go, he’ll get you drafted where you want to be drafted. First round. Maybe as a lottery pick. Maybe even as the first pick overall. And quickly.
As such, there are more young players in the NBA, and there will be even more so now that the league is expected to lower the age requirement by the 2022 draft. In some quarters that has caused GMs to hire coaches with experience coaching young players.
In 2013, the Boston Celtics hired Brad Stevens away from Butler. In 2015, the Oklahoma City Thunder pried two-time NCAA champ Billy Donovan from Florida, while the Chicago Bulls plucked Fred Hoiberg from Iowa State. This past season, the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the college basketball world by convincing John Beilein to leave Michigan.
These days it’s more of a two-way street, however. Last year, Memphis hired hometown hero Penny Hardaway primarily for his pro basketball chops. This past off-season, a pair of SEC schools went the NBA experience route. Arkansas hired Eric Musselman, who had guided Nevada to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances after twice being an NBA head coach. And new Vanderbilt AD Malcolm Turner, the former G League commissioner, hired Jerry Stackhouse, a former G League head coach and NBA assistant.
“I can get any coach in the NBA on the phone,” said Stackhouse at his introductory press conference. “I can get pretty much any GM on the phone. So can Turner. At the same time, you’re gonna get one hell of an education when you come here. That’s the pitch. There’s not much more than that.”
For the elite prospects, NBA is all the pitch you need. Sure, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has won five national titles but his recent recruiting hauls have more to do with Kyrie Irving (No. 1 overall pick in 2011 draft), Brandon Ingram (No. 2 in 2016) and Jayson Tatum (No. 3 in 2017) than Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley. Bill Self has won but one NCAA title at tradition-rich Kansas, yet the Jayhawks are habitually near the top of the recruiting charts because of names like Andrew Wiggins (No. 1 in 2014) and Joel Embiid (No. 3 in 2014).
Then there’s Calipari with John Wall (No. 1 in 2010), Anthony Davis (No. 1 in 2012), Karl-Anthony Towns (No. 1 in 2015), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (No. 2 in 2012) and a boatload of others. Heading into Thursday, Cal has produced 26 first-round NBA Draft picks. Thirteen were selected among the first 10 picks, including at least one in each of his previous nine years.
That’s not to say the NBA-friendly approach always works. Avery Johnson coached the Dallas Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals. He lasted four seasons in Alabama, however, where he made just one NCAA Tournament. Ex-NBA head coach Jeff Bzdelik couldn’t make it work at Wake Forest. Isaiah Thomas won all of 26 games in three years at Florida International. An NBA head coach for 17 seasons, Mike Dunleavy Sr. was 24-69 in three seasons at Tulane.
And yet recruiting rules. And the NBA continues to have a greater influence over the game. We could see more college coaches following Beilein’s example. And we could see more college programs following the examples set by Memphis, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. If they succeed — on the court and in the draft.