John Calipari hasn’t held an official position in the NBA since the turn of the century, but his fingerprints are all over the league as we know it. Coach Cal has only one NCAA title to his name, but in just nine seasons in Lexington, he’s turned the University of Kentucky into an assembly line for professional players—both in the NBA and in leagues across the globe. This week, we’re exploring Kentucky’s and Calipari’s impact on the basketball world, and whether or not his one-and-done blueprint has staying power at both the college and pro levels. Welcome to the Kentucky Basketball Association.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has a website. On that site, there’s a page titled “NBA Players Coached.” And on that page, there’s a list of Calipari’s accomplishments: He’s coached 42 players in his career that have been drafted, including four no. 1 overall picks, and 31 of those draftees have come since he was hired at Kentucky in 2009. Listed right below is the following quote from Calipari: “The Kentucky Effect is there and it’s real. Senator Mitch McConnell has said to me, ‘You’re creating more millionaires than a Wall Street firm,’ and I went, ‘Wow, we are.’”
Calipari won’t hesitate to tell you that his players are collectively worth over a billion dollars. Thirty-four of his Kentucky players have played in the NBA, including four All-Stars, and a few more play professionally overseas. It’s truly an astounding accomplishment.
Calipari popularized the one-and-done method—recruiting high school prospects with an eye toward preparing them for the NBA draft after their freshman seasons of college. This blueprint has been copied by coaches across the country, with even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski getting in on the action lately. But despite Calipari’s reputation for being a master at preparing players for the NBA, his on-court tactics don’t exactly resemble the NBA playbooks. Given the conversation and debate about amateur athletics, and the role the NBA can serve in youth basketball, perhaps there’s a better way to prepare players for the pros.
College scouting is littered with what we’ll call “context problems”—i.e., situations that make it more difficult to get a sense of how a prospect will adapt to the NBA. Some players share the floor with two traditional big men, so there’s never any space for them to attack the basket. (That was the case for Jaylen Brown as a freshman at California.) Some only feast on weaker opponents, which makes them look better than they actually are. (This was the concern with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing in a low-level Greek league. Oops!) Some players benefit from being given the freedom to do things they never will in the NBA. (That’s the fear with Oklahoma point guard Trae Young.) And then there’s Kentucky, where the rosters are often so loaded with pro prospects that some individuals aren’t able to show off everything they can do.
An NBA executive described Kentucky as a “scouting blind spot,” since Wildcats players often don’t play the type of role or position that they will fill in the NBA. It can be difficult to get a sense of how a prospect will adapt. As a result, it’s even more critical than usual to see a Calipari player in high school, in practice, and in other competitions to understand the full scope of their ability.
Take Devin Booker, who had always run pick-and-roll in high school, and is a primary ball handler as a rising star on the Suns. But during his lone college season at Kentucky in 2014-15, he logged only 11 pick-and-roll possessions, according to Synergy tracking data. “We knew he could shoot. We knew he had great positional size and toughness and intelligence, a great feel for the game, but you really only saw him in that sixth-man role, a spot-up shooting role,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told me in January 2017. Booker said at that time that during his pre-draft workout with the Suns, they tried making him uncomfortable with drills that McDonough later said were “designed to make them fail.” The goal was to see things from Booker that they couldn’t on his college game tape. A player might dribble the ball up the court using just his left hand, or try to break out of a trap against two defenders in the backcourt. Booker excelled in the drills, and has obviously been able to show off those skills in the NBA.
In Calipari’s defense, using Booker the way he did worked. The 2014–15 Wildcats went 38-1, and seven of their players got drafted. Booker fell to no. 13 in the 2015 draft, with three of his teammates going ahead of him: Karl-Anthony Towns (no. 1), Willie Cauley-Stein (no. 6), and Trey Lyles (no. 12). Two other players (Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson) got picked in the second round, and point guard Tyler Ulis was selected by the Suns the following year. Both Aaron Harrison and Alex Poythress were signed as undrafted free agents. Dominique Hawkins plays overseas, and Derek Willis is in the G League.
“We all sacrificed a lot at Kentucky because we weren’t playing many minutes and we had a lot of players trying to win,” Booker said in 2017. “[It] worked out well for us.” Eleven of those players got paid. Mission accomplished.
No matter the competition, players need to sacrifice as individuals for the good of the team. That’s what winning is all about, and Kentucky has done a lot of that. But then there’s Towns, who shot only eight times from beyond the arc (and hit two of them), and had 20 midrange jumpers (he hit six) in his time at Kentucky. Everyone knew Towns could shoot. He hit 127 3-pointers over three seasons at St. Joseph High School in New Jersey. He unloaded 22 3s over four games playing for the Dominican Republic U-17 team in 2011. He shot the lights out in high school All-Star competitions, like the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand games. And he’s always been a knockdown free throw shooter. But as Booker joked: “If you just go off college, you’d think Karl Towns was a post-up player.”
You could argue that it was to Towns’s benefit to not shoot; like Anthony Davis before him, Towns was forced to focus on battling inside and on developing his post game. Shooting wasn’t exactly a weakness, so through that lens, maybe improving his post game offered a greater challenge with a greater reward. Same goes for Booker being used as a shooter (though we already knew he could do that), or Trey Lyles playing small forward, not power forward.
Calipari’s Kentucky teams are famous for their depth and infamous for forcing would-be star players into unusual or unfamiliar roles. In 2009-10, Eric Bledsoe, a so-so shooter, spotted up to space the floor for John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. In 2013-14, Julius Randle only sparingly initiated the offense despite his ballhandling prowess. In 2015-16, Jamal Murray received limited pick-and-roll repetitions. On this season’s squad, Kevin Knox runs through mazes of off-ball screens when, in the NBA, he’ll likely be used as a dynamic forward who runs and sets on-ball screens, and attacks mismatches.
Calipari trumpets Kentucky as an on-ramp to the NBA. But if the focus is indeed on development, is it really in Booker’s best interest to rarely run pick-and-roll or in Towns’s best interest to spend one season of his life not getting experience shooting 3s, attacking closeouts, facilitating on the perimeter, or screening and rolling?
College teams run far less pick-and-roll than NBA teams because of the nature of zone defenses, but it’s not as if they don’t do it at all. Miami and NC State ran more pick-and-roll than the average NBA team has this season. Kentucky routinely ranks near the bottom of the NCAA in pick-and-roll frequency; its 2014-15 squad ranked 289th of 351 teams, according to Synergy, and on average, the Wildcats rank 244th over Cal’s nine seasons in charge. Motion offenses have declined, and the utilization of ball screens has risen, but Calipari still runs an offense called the dribble-drive motion. It’s part of the Coach Cal brand; he made instructional DVDs for it in 2009 after going to the national title game in 2008 with a Memphis squad led by Derrick Rose.
The dribble-drive motion offense does what it says on the package. It’s about penetration. It provides freedom for players to attack, regardless of their position (and, as such, is less restrictive than, say, Tony Bennett’s approach at Virginia). Cal teams do some screening and cutting, just not at a high frequency. It’s not the most elegant playbook and it hardly resembles the pro game, but it has worked to great effect for him over two decades at two different colleges. And that success means players can accrue loads of value by playing high-intensity games in front of screaming fans on national TV. But why can’t you have it all?
Some of Calipari’s teams are so deep with bigs and lack pure shooters that a guy like Lyles gets pushed out of his ideal position, or he’s forced to play among three bigs. And as a result, opposing teams pack the paint. It’s the opposite in NBA basketball—teams space the floor with four, sometimes five shooters, which opens driving lanes for attackers. In a perfect world, Calipari would build loaded, balanced rosters and use players in NBA roles by running more pick-and-roll that blends seamlessly with motion offense. Instead, a guy like Lyles—who has been a bright spot for Denver after coming over from Utah in a trade last draft day—might take a couple of seasons to find his most comfortable position on the floor.
This isn’t just an issue facing Kentucky players; it’s a college basketball problem. NCAA teams can still play zone and have a big man sit in the paint. The shot clock is 30 seconds. The 3-point line is shorter. If the goal of college basketball was to prepare players for the pros, then college basketball would adapt NBA rules. But the goal is to make money. Even Calipari recently told GQ that he’s not a fan of the NCAA. “I don’t think they make decisions for the kids,” Calipari said. “They make decisions for bureaucracy and for their structure.”
Changes to that structure could be on the way. The FBI is investigating alleged corruption in college by coaches and agents, and the threat of arrests, sanctions, and penalties is looming. While the basketball world waits to see what happens, NBA commissioner Adam Silver hinted at his state-of-the-union address at All-Star Weekend that he met with the players’ union about potentially getting rid of the one-and-done rule. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst later reported that, in light of the scandals rocking NCAA basketball, the league is readying plans to get involved with players starting at the high school level, using camps and tournaments featuring professional coaches to help players develop their game, as well as to teach them nutrition and life skills. Meanwhile, the G League is expanding and the Australian National Basketball League announced it will pay high school graduates roughly $78,000 in the hopes of luring one-and-doners like the Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson. These plans are all in their infancy, but new paths to the pros are undoubtedly being paved.
Calipari’s one-and-done model, and his system, changed the basketball landscape. They made many of his players (and, let’s be honest, himself) very rich. But seeing it go extinct could be for the betterment of the NBA, and its players.