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John Calipari’s Kentucky Teams Are Loaded — and It’s a Scouting Nightmare

Every year, the Wildcats get a new set of McDonald’s All Americans, which means not every star gets to shine

Getty Images
Getty Images

Ever since John Calipari took over in Lexington in 2009, the Kentucky Wildcats have essentially been the 31st NBA team. No coach in the country has done a better job of using the one-and-done rule to load up with talent in that seven-year span. Calipari recruits almost an entirely new roster of McDonald’s All Americans every season, a huge percentage of whom wind up in the NBA. He has had 28 players drafted into the NBA in his seven seasons at Kentucky, including three no. 1 overall picks and 14 players taken in the lottery. An NBA team composed solely of players Calipari coached at Kentucky — from John Wall to DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns — would have a good chance of beating the rest of the league.

Scouting NCAA teams with as many future pro players as the ones Calipari usually coaches presents a unique challenge for NBA front offices. Judging a player’s skill set at Kentucky can prove difficult because players are asked to become specialists in order to accommodate as much of the talent as possible. The vast majority of prospects have to adjust to much smaller roles when they make the jump from the NCAA to the NBA, going from being the stars in college to role players at the next level. For Calipari’s players, it’s often the opposite. No one had any idea how good Eric Bledsoe was at Kentucky because he spent his only season in college spotting up off the attention Wall and Cousins commanded. Wall and Cousins are now in their seventh seasons in the NBA; neither has played on a team with as much talent as the one they were on in Kentucky.

The ultimate example of just how much talent can be hidden on a Calipari team can be seen in the 2014–15 Wildcats squad, which finished the season 38–1 and boasted seven future NBA draft picks. Karl-Anthony Towns was taken at no. 1 overall and Willie Cauley-Stein went at no. 6, but Trey Lyles (no. 12) and Devin Booker (no. 13) slipped to the end of the lottery. Due to the sheer number of blue-chip recruits in the frontcourt that season, Lyles was forced to play out of position as a small forward instead of as a power forward, while Booker was used primarily as a spot-up shooter off the bench. In just over a season of professional basketball, both have already outperformed their draft position. Booker has shown a much more diversified offensive game for the Suns than he ever did at Kentucky, and he looks like one of the biggest draft steals in recent history.

Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe and center Isaac Humphries are two returning players with draft potential, but, like every year, Calipari has reloaded the team with another stellar recruiting class stocked with McDonald’s All Americans.

The college basketball season is only a week old, and it’s still way too early to jump to conclusions about any of the highly touted freshmen across the country, but there are some interesting similarities in Kentucky’s team construction that could prevent some of its young talents from showing the full extent of their games. Duke is probably the most talented team in the country, but Kentucky isn’t too far behind the Blue Devils, and evaluating all of the Wildcats prospects is going to keep NBA scouts up at night all season. Identifying roles on each team and the way these players interact with others on the floor will be just as important as the statistics they put up.

The first major issue, which has been a problem at Kentucky since Calipari has been there, is the lack of 3-point shooting. Calipari loves to recruit athletes and overwhelm opposing teams with their collective physical superiority, but he doesn’t always round out his roster with enough shooting to prevent teams from packing the paint against them in the half court. It usually isn’t enough to keep his teams from winning games, but it can make it more difficult to properly evaluate his players. A congested paint means fewer driving lanes for guards and fewer opportunities to post up and roll to the rim for big men, and it can artificially depress their statistics.

Through the first three games of the season — blowouts of Stephen F. Austin, Canisius, and Michigan State — Kentucky is shooting 29.1 percent from 3. Maybe even more important than the percentages is the distribution of attempts. Kentucky is depending on perimeter shooting primarily from freshman Malik Monk, who made seven 3s against Michigan State. Freshman De’Aaron Fox, Monk’s backcourt mate, is 0-for-7, while sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, the starting small forward, is 6-for-43 in his college career.

Brad Calipari, as you might have guessed, is John’s son, and he’s not part of Kentucky’s regular rotation at the moment, nor is Mychal Mulder. That leaves six players who have attempted 3s this season, three of whom — Fox, Briscoe, and senior reserve Dominique Hawkins (a career 21.7 percent shooter from 3) — opposing teams don’t respect as shooters. Monk is carrying a massive load on his shoulders in terms of spacing the floor, with only two players in the frontcourt, freshman Wenyen Gabriel and senior Derek Willis, picking up any of the slack.

Monk certainly looks the part of an elite shooter, although we will need a while before any conclusions can be made about his consistency, but he may not have the chance to showcase any other parts of his game. If Briscoe and Fox don’t show the ability to stretch the floor, opposing teams will sag off them and force the ball into their hands. Monk is a breathtaking athlete, but he’s still going to have a difficult time getting to the rim in the half court without any shooting around him, and he may not get many opportunities in the half court to be a distributor or a slasher. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds with an average wingspan of 6-foot-4, Monk is undersized for the shooting guard position in the NBA, so front offices will want to know whether he can serve as a secondary playmaker. He’ll get more opportunities to score than Booker did as a freshman at Kentucky, but he might have a similar issue in terms of being pigeon-holed as a shooting specialist.

The lack of shooting on the perimeter means Calipari is almost forced to give big minutes to Willis, who is easily the least-touted member of Kentucky’s frontcourt rotation. Willis, the rare four-year player under Calipari, is a career 41.4 percent 3-point shooter, and they need him to open up the floor for his more talented teammates. He is currently averaging 21 minutes a game, which is 21 minutes that Wenyen Gabriel, Bam Adebayo, Sacha Killeya-Jones, and Isaac Humphries aren’t getting. Those four are essentially competing for one spot on the floor for a huge chunk of the game. There are too many talented big men at Kentucky, and there aren’t enough minutes to go around for all of them.

One solution for the frontcourt logjam that Calipari has already tried is playing supersized lineups with three big men on the floor at the same time. That’s what he did in 2014, when he was trying to find minutes for Towns, Cauley-Stein, Lyles, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee. There’s no way for the vast majority of NCAA teams to match up with three NBA prospects who are at least 6-foot-9 at the same time, but it also makes projecting those players at the next level much more difficult, especially since smaller lineups with only one big man on the floor are increasingly popular around the NBA. Lyles got the short end of the stick in 2014, playing most of the game at the 3, and his stats as a freshman were effectively useless when it came to evaluating him.

A common thread through both 2014 and 2016 is the dearth of wings between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-8 on the Kentucky roster. Both teams are made up primarily of guards and big men, but not many players who can connect the two groups of players in lineups that make sense. Take a look at the listed heights of the nine players in Kentucky’s rotation this season:

Through the first three games of the season, the two players in the Kentucky frontcourt sacrificing the most are Gabriel, who is playing a big percentage of his 19.7 minutes a game at small forward, and Killeya-Jones, who is averaging only 6.7 minutes a game as the fifth big man in the rotation. These are two freshmen who could have been featured players at almost any other program in the country; at Kentucky, they are fighting just to get on the floor. Their recruiting pedigrees (and their combinations of size, speed, and athleticism) mean both could still find themselves drafted in the first round come June, regardless of what they do as freshmen. But NBA teams would be taking huge gambles, especially if the two don’t win bigger roles in the rotation as the season goes on. They could end up being the next Trey Lyles, but could just as easily end up being the next Daniel Orton, a center who was drafted in the first round in 2010 despite averaging only 13.2 minutes a game as a backup to DeMarcus Cousins. Orton played for three NBA teams in three seasons before washing out of the league.

In next year’s draft, NBA scouts will be making projections on a number of players at Kentucky based on limited information from misleading samples. They are going to have to do their homework when it comes to evaluating them off the court, and they will need to spend a lot of time watching practices and getting a feel for what they can do in non-game situations. The risk is high, but the potential rewards are enormous. Two years ago, Lyles and Booker were hiding in plain sight in Lexington. Given the way the Kentucky roster is constructed, a smart team might be able to pull off a similar heist in 2017.