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From Atop the College Basketball World to the Middle of Nowhere

Not every former Kentucky player skyrockets to NBA superstardom. While their former teammates start All-Star Games and take over playoff matchups, some former John Calipari products are clawing out careers in the G League and overseas.

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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 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.

Marquis Teague’s elbows are in, his hands are set, and his form is perfect. The follow-through is effortless. But there’s no ball in his hands; he’s shooting empty air up at the Southern California sky. Teague has been done with practice for about an hour now, but he’s still pantomiming his shooting motion like he’s a kid in his driveway as he walks down the street and away from the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. He has earbuds in, a backpack slung over his shoulder, and he’s wearing a gray warm-up suit with the hood draped over his head and a Memphis Hustle logo emblazoned on the left breast. Today, the Hustle, one of 26 G League teams, are in town to play the South Bay Lakers.

The former University of Kentucky point guard is six years removed from hoisting the national championship trophy alongside Anthony Davis. It feels like an eternity ago to a player who has since played for two NBA teams, four G League teams, a team in Israel, and one in Russia.

“I never felt like I need or wanted to be in the G League, or felt like I was supposed to be here. I always was like, ‘I’m going to work my way through this,’” he says. “I went to Europe because I got to the point where I was like, ‘I can’t take it no more. I’m getting tired of this. They’re not calling me up.’ So I went there and I realized that’s not for me. I’m an NBA player.”

Teague, the younger brother of NBA veteran Jeff Teague, entered the draft after his freshman season with the Wildcats, along with Davis and four other teammates. The then-19-year-old was selected 29th overall by the Chicago Bulls, but the culture shock set in when his pro career began. More often than not, the point guard’s efforts to crack a rotation featuring Derrick Rose, Nate Robinson, and Kirk Hinrich felt futile.

“It was night and day because with Coach Cal, I was the starting point guard with a lot of attention, the top guy. I was always used to things going my way,” he says. “Going to the Bulls, you’re the last man on the roster. I was so young, [19] coming in, that it messed with me mentally.”

Since John Calipari took over the program in 2009, playing at Kentucky has been as close to a guarantee of making it to the NBA as there is. For players like Davis, John Wall, and DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky was a launchpad for long NBA careers. For other former top prospects, life outside of Rupp Arena still marks the high point of their basketball careers. Some now play in Europe, others in Asia, and many more in the G League. One even tried out for the NFL. For former Wildcats on the fringes of the NBA, life after Kentucky has been far from what they expected it would be.

SEC Basketball Tournament - Mississippi St. v Kentucky
Daniel Orton, Patrick Patterson, and Josh Harrellson celebrate after beating Mississippi State to win the SEC tournament in 2010
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Daniel Orton dreams of one day spending summers in Maine and winters in Orlando; he fell in love with the former in the summer of 2015, while clearing up a speeding ticket, and considers the latter a special place because it’s where he began his nomadic career. He longs to talk to family and friends without dealing with a 10-hour difference, to be able to be there for birthdays, weddings, and funerals. When Rasual Butler died in a car accident in January, Orton — who grew close to Butler when they played for the Tulsa 66ers in 2013 — couldn’t make it back for the funeral services or the get-together former teammates held in his memory. Orton was in the middle of switching from a team in Japan to one in Lebanon. “It’s things like that that hurt you,” he says.

Orton craves stability, too. No more hotels in cities he’s never been to. No more new teammates to get used to. Even though his NBA dream has all but ended, the center still can’t quit the game. In the almost eight years since he left Kentucky, the former five-star recruit has played for 17 different teams, traveling to Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean for a roster spot. He’s played for a G League team that no longer exists and international leagues that are tiers below the country’s premier league. He’s been fined for altercations, brawls, and calling out Manny Pacquiao for playing in the same league as him in the Philippines.

“If it wasn’t for basketball, I would have never left the United States,” he says by phone from Lebanon. “Playing basketball abroad, you kind of feel like you don’t have a life. I mean, you don’t have a life. This is my life, essentially. It consumes everything.”

Orton, now 27 years old, was the youngest player on the Orlando Magic roster his rookie season. Unlike at Kentucky, teammates no longer wanted to hang out or get dinner after practice. They had families to see and business to take care of. “Most of the stuff I’d say, they laughed at,” Orton says. “So you’re just on your own a lot. Universal and Disney got old fast.”

After bouncing between the NBA and the G League, Orton followed the money to China in 2014. The transition overseas was even harsher. “In China, they don’t give two shits about Americans,” he says. Orton, who grew up in Oklahoma City, didn’t know Mandarin or Chinese culture, and he was struck by the speed they played there. He says he soon realized two things: His team, the Sichuan Blue Whales, had only acquired him to shoot and shoot often; and that some players were signed just to go after the “imports.” That, he says, is how he ended up in brawls. Later that season, Orton was set to sign with another team, Shanxi Zhongyu, but was replaced by another American, Jeremy Tyler, before Orton had a chance to play. “At first it was frustrating because you just try your hardest and it’s like, damn, they don’t want me,” he says.

Orton has played for so many overseas teams since, he considers himself a veteran of the international circuit and has seen it all, including the lowest levels of negotiations. In 2017, he thought he had been offered a dream deal by a team in Lebanon, Mayrouba Club. He says he was told he would stay at a five-star hotel and be provided travel to nearby practices and games. When Orton arrived, he found a run-down hotel, that practices were held almost two hours away, and an unresponsive management. There was no internet, so he couldn’t talk to anyone he knew. “You feel isolated,” he says. Orton lasted three weeks before leaving. The club refused to pay him, and he says they released false information about him that kept other teams from signing him. For months, Orton couldn’t find another job. He says he’s still embroiled in a lawsuit with the team. “You have to go through a lot of bullshit with teams in certain leagues,” he says. “It’s tough, finding the motivation.”

Orton is now back in Lebanon, playing for Champville SC for the second time. As long as there are teams that want him, he’s hell-bent on following the thread of his career to the very end. Asked how he’s able to keep pressing on, he pauses and sighs. “At the end of the day, this is my job, this is what I have to do,” he says. “This is what I chose to do, so you can’t be too upset about it. You can’t complain too much, you’ve just gotta go. If I wanted to do something else, I’d quit. It’s just … this is what I want to do.”

2017 Las Vegas Summer League - Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers
Archie Goodwin fights to keep control of the ball against a Lakers defender during a 2017 summer league game
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Archie Goodwin doesn’t think he’s gotten a fair shot. He’s still waiting for someone to call him up from the G League’s Northern Arizona Suns, put a ball in his hands, and let him shine. After all, he’s still only 23 years old. And in case you don’t know his stats from the last time he was in the NBA, he can rattle them off for you like he’s reciting lines from a script.

“I was [third] on the team in player efficiency rating in Brooklyn. I shot 55 [percent] from the field. My per-36 numbers were really good. Almost at, like, 19 points a game with like six rebounds and like five assists per 36,” he says at a breakneck pace about his 12-game stint with the Nets last season. “For whatever reason, it didn’t work out. I feel like I’m talented enough to play with anybody.”

Goodwin is vegan now; no more hamburgers or hot dogs in his diet. He’s working out more, staying on a regular sleep schedule, and icing after practice. He remembers a time when he could coast off talent alone, but five years bouncing between the NBA and the G League have taught him the importance of prep work.

Goodwin led the Wildcats in scoring during the 2012–13 season with 14.1 points per game. He left college after one year, and was drafted 29th overall by the Phoenix Suns. But he says he began to focus too much on other point guards — the ones around the league, and the ones ahead of him on the depth chart. He thought he had found something in his third season playing alongside then-rookie Devin Booker. But he was expendable once Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight returned from injury. “It was just like, OK, even if I play well, no matter what I do, I can’t win,” he says.

That’s how Aaron Harrison feels, too. “It’s tough because I feel like I’m better than some guys that get different opportunities than me,” he says after a practice with the Reno Bighorns. Unlike the past two seasons, when Harrison would alternate between the NBA and the G League, he’s spent the entire 2017–18 season with Reno. His current predicament is a stark contrast from the one he experienced in college. Harrison hit clutch shots in bunches in two seasons at Kentucky, including a game-winner that lifted the Wildcats into the 2014 Final Four. “It’s still the highlight of my basketball career,” he says, almost reluctantly.

When Aaron, now 23, committed to Kentucky along with his twin brother Andrew, part of the allure was the brotherhood Calipari created. Everyone, even the elite prep players relegated to backup roles, was striving toward winning a national title. He says it felt similar to the playing environment he had grown up in, in southeast Texas. When he got to the NBA in 2015 as an undrafted free agent with the Charlotte Hornets, he felt a pivot toward individual accomplishments. Winning was still the goal, but for the first time he had to also prioritize earning his spot. “I didn’t get that sense of ‘I have to be at the best [to help] myself’ until I was a little older, probably the middle of my second year,” he says. “I never thought of basketball like that until I became a professional.”

Aaron Harrison lasted 26 games in Charlotte before being waived in January 2017. Andrew, meanwhile, has started 42 games for the Memphis Grizzlies this season. The two still watch each other’s games on League Pass or YouTube, and give each other pointers. They also work out together in Houston over the summer. “He’s in the NBA and I’m trying to get back to the NBA,” Aaron says. “Obviously, I’m not where I want to be.”

Both Harrison and Goodwin seem to accept that their paths haven’t been as simple as they maybe once thought they would be, but they haven’t been deterred. Even as their college teammates start big NBA games and make All-Star teams, their struggles have only recalibrated their expectations — and, in some ways, emboldened their pursuits.

“I could give a damn what anybody’s doing,” Goodwin says. “I’m just focusing on me.”

Kyle Wiltjer plays for Olympiacos Piraeus during a EuroLeague game last year
EB via Getty Images

Not every player is as fortunate as Kyle Wiltjer, and he knows it.

On the day of his first preseason game this season with the Raptors’ G League affiliate, Wiltjer got a call from his agent. Olympiacos, the renowned EuroLeague club, was offering him a deal far more lucrative than his G League salary. The decision to leave for Greece was made before game time. Now, nearly five months into the contract, Wiltjer says it was the perfect decision. “I’m lucky to be in a situation where everything is basically how I need it,” he says by phone from Athens. “It’s very Americanized where I live. A lot of people speak English here.”

Wiltjer and his fiancée have fallen into an almost college-like routine in Greece: breakfast in the morning followed by a stroll at a nearby park to kill time before practice in the afternoon. After practice, it’s Netflix time. “I’ve got my Apple TV and my projector out here, which is a lifesaver,” Wiltjer says. “I watch a ton of movies and TV shows.” Some weekends, the two drive along the scenic coast.

Still, as good as Greece may be, it’s no Lexington. “It was the best two years of my life,” says Wiltjer, who spent two years at UK before transferring to Gonzaga. “We knew we were so good, and we knew we could beat anyone. Yet even still, Anthony [Davis], Mike [Kidd-Gilchrist], and Marquis Teague, we would go into the gym at night all together because we didn’t know better, and we would practice. It’s cool looking back like, ‘Damn, we really did take care of business.’”

“The spotlight was as close to professional spotlight as it could get at Kentucky,” says Terrence Jones. Jones was a sophomore on the 2012 championship team. After five seasons in the NBA, the 26-year-old has split time this season between China and the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors. “Throughout my career I’ve had so much success,” he says. “I appreciate the G League and the opportunity, but I don’t feel like I belong here.”

It’s not just the platform that guys like Wiltjer and Jones miss. The lifestyle was better, too. “We used to take flights from Knoxville to Lexington, and that was like a 20-minute ride,” says Derek Willis, who went undrafted last year and now plays for the Grand Rapids Drive. “Now, we’re driving a bus to anywhere that’s six hours or less away.”

Willis was a rare four-year, three-star player under Calipari. He started getting serious minutes only later in his career, but up until then he had a front-row seat to the talented classes that cycled through. The only downside was that the relationships felt like one-and-dones, too. “I would get close to guys one year, then the next year they’d be gone,” says Willis, who added that he has kept in touch with Karl-Anthony Towns.

But the short stays haven’t diminished former players’ affection for their alma mater. Mention their former head coach or the word “Kentucky,” and they’ll gladly transport themselves back to that time.

“We were kids playing together, highly touted kids at one of the biggest basketball schools in the country with the best fan base,” Harrison says. “Do I miss it? Yeah, of course. I miss the whole team-oriented ‘Yourself is good but the team is more important’ thing. I just miss being a kid in general.”

Teague says he’s always made a point to chat up former Kentucky players whenever he runs into one, whether it be at an NBA game, a G League game, or maybe a run in the summer. Even if he doesn’t already know them, they already have something in common: Calipari stories. “Cal is kind of crazy. He just yells,” Teague says with a laugh. “We all got our stories getting chewed out and getting yelled at.”

With the Hustle, Teague is allowed to play his game. “Flat out,” he says. It’s a far cry from his time in the NBA, and later in Russia, where he says there was little freedom and even less feedback from the coaching staff. But even as he settles into a sweet spot on the court, he, like many other of the former Kentucky players whose success peaked in Lexington, misses the past.

“It was the best time of my life,” Orton says. “When you really look back, it’s like, damn. That was something really special there.”

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