By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
I was reading an excellent article recently by Larry Vaught about the amount of basketball talent that John Calipari recruits each year could potentially be delaying the development of players at UK and it caused me to really consider that possibility.
Several draft analysts stated that players at UK don’t always get to showcase all their skills playing for a perennially loaded team like the Wildcats. One of the examples given was Karl Anthony-Towns as a “stretch 3” in the NBA versus his role as an inside player at UK. He wasn’t allowed to showcase his ability as an outside shooter in the role he played at UK.
If you recall that team played a platoon system and ended the season with a record of 38-1 and a Final Four appearance.
On that super talented team it is true that Karl Anthony-Towns was not called upon to shoot from the outside but there are a couple of other points to consider when evaluating if John Calipari’s system or the plethora of talent that UK annually puts on the hardwood were to blame for Karl’s limited role in the offense.
One counterpoint would be that as a future NBA player one must learn to play the role one is given on a potentially very talented team. Every NBA team is super talented and the name of the game in a “pay for play” league like the NBA is winning enough games to make the playoffs and then working hard to win each successive round of the playoffs to continue moving forward.
Kentucky Basketball does prepare players to understand that they may not always have the ball in their hands on offense and they need to learn other aspects of the game like defense and rebounding to help their team win.
At UK players are expected to be the “best version of themselves that they can be” to borrow a phrase from Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari. That means improving yourself mentally and physically, that means extra film study and that means extra gym time – on your own – in order to be the best version of you that you can be.
Some guys in their freshman year are not ready for that. If they aren’t that means they may leave UK as an underdeveloped player that has a lot of potential. Not to mention any names but several players come to mind as examples of guys that as an 18 or 19-year old kid were not ready for the responsibility that is required to become a top notch NBA player.
That leads to the second counterpoint. In some cases guys do put in the extra work, the physical and mental training and film study but unfortunately their bodies have not matured enough to put them in a position to excel in all phases of the game as a player in his early to mid-twenties would be. An good example might be Patrick Patterson. His game continued to grow each season so that when he left UK after a three-year career he entered the NBA as a seasoned 21-year old that could play multiple positions and play inside or out if needed.
That isn’t always the case for some guys entering the draft as an inexperienced, physically underdeveloped 19-year old. It takes time in the league – with basketball as the only focus – to develop additional skills and physical maturity.
Guys like Devin Booker are proving that with added time and physical strength additional parts of their game become more evident but only after some seasoning and daily work.
Here’s what Ryan McDonough, Phoenix Suns General Manager had to say about Booker after his second season as an NBA player. “What strikes a lot of people about Devin is all the other stuff he can do — he’s really developed his ball handling, his pick and roll game, he thinks the game at a high level. But I’ll be honest, we had no idea he’d be able to do this much, this quickly. Devin has done unbelievably well not just on the court but representing the franchise in the community as well. He was a bright spot for us in a difficult year.”
Keep in mind that Booker entered the League as an 18-year old kid with one year of college basketball experience. Now – like Patrick Patterson did as a 21-year old – Booker is displaying many other facets of his game that had not developed yet during his one year at Kentucky.
Overall it’s easy to point at Coach Calipari’s system or UK’s generally super talented rosters as the reason that some guys don’t show all aspects of their basketball game while attending UK but it could also be that they just haven’t had the time to develop physically and mentally as a player.
An oak tree doesn’t grow overnight and generally great basketball players are only created by enhancing their skill through continued work and experience. And when you are historically rolling guys through in a “one-and-done” system neither of those have much of a chance to take hold.
So the next time someone — whether NBA analyst, college basketball commentator or former college coach — says that guys don’t develop well at UK because they have too many talented players think about a basketball season that runs from about October to say early April — if you can advance all the way to the Final Four — and ask yourself, “is it reasonable to expect 17 and 18-year old players to show all aspects of their game over the course of a six month season?” Probably not.
It doesn’t happen at UK and it doesn’t happen at any other school. And most likely won’t ever happen as long as players continue to enter the NBA as 18 year olds with one season of college experience.