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Can John Calipari still recruit the “best of the best”

Tyler Herro, left, with coach John Calipari and former UK teammates PJ Washington and Keldon Johnson in Brooklyn for last year’s NBA Draft.

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

There seems to be a lot of discussion recently about Kentucky Mens Basketball’s lack of top notch talent on this year’s Wildcats. Let’s talk about the reality of the situation as it relates to UK’s current basketball roster.

For years John Calipari has recruited some of the best high school basketball players in the country. Most went on to become one-and-dones and have had successful careers in the NBA. Guys like John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns, among others, stayed at UK for one year before moving on to the greener pastures of the NBA. During that eight year time period prior to 2017 Kentucky won one National Championship, had one runner-up and also appeared in four Final Fours and six Elite Eights. The complaint heard most often across the Commonwealth after “they haven’t won enough championships” seemed to be “they are all one-and-dones, they don’t care about the University.”

Then in about 2017 John Calipari, either through a strategy change or a change in circumstances, began to recruit more players that fell outside the High School Recruiting Consensus Top 5. These players were still in the Top 50 of Who’s Who in high school basketball but were not players that could automatically move to the NBA after one year. These guys, like PJ Washington who is currently in the NBA and players like Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley who are striving to get there, are staying longer to gain more experience and develop their skills to improve their chances of sticking when they do attempt to make an NBA roster.

Some of UK’s more recent players, like Keldon Johnson and Jarred Vanderbilt, who left after one season at UK have had to spend some time in the NBA’s Developmental G League as they try to work their way into a full-time position on an NBA roster.

Some readers right now might be saying, “So what, what relevance does making an NBA roster have to do with whether UK wins or loses basketball games right now?”. And here is the relevance. The old days of John Calipari signing a class made up of guys mostly ranked in the Top 5 of high school players in my opinion won’t happen again. To say it another way, most likely the next generation of John Walls, Demarcus Cousins’s and Anthony Davis’s are not going to be walking through the door of the Joe Craft Center next season to begin practicing with the Kentucky Wildcats. Not next season, probably not ever again. Why? Because the landscape of college basketball has changed and is continuing to change.

Here are just a few of the changes that have occurred recently.

To start with, testimony by athletic shoe company executives in recent court cases has shown that players are now getting paid to play for certain universities. In other situations that impact college basketball recruiting, players are opting to play for schools where they can take the most shots and be “the star” of the team. And then there is this, in a completely different recruiting tactic certain universities have used the strategy of hiring relatives or former coaches of highly ranked high school players to encourage those players to sign with that school. One need look no further than James Wiseman at Memphis or Cade Cunningham at Oklahoma State to see examples of this recruiting tactic in action.

Last but not least, a few Top 5 players recently have opted to skip their obligatory one year of college basketball to play in a professional league overseas before entering their name in the NBA draft. Throw in the potential change by the NBA that would allow high school seniors to jump directly to the league and that will create a perfect opportunity for players to forego a year of playing at the college level at schools like Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, among others.

So what does this change in the college recruiting landscape and in UK Basketball recruiting strategy in particular mean to Big Blue Fans? It most likely means they won’t get to complain anymore about guys not staying more than a year at UK. It also most likely means that the onus will be on John Calipari to do more with less, meaning he will have to do a better job of developing players that come into the program with lesser skill or lesser experience into championship caliber players.

It means that fans will get to see players play longer for UK but it also means that they will probably also have to watch them struggle as freshmen and maybe even as sophomores or juniors as they work to get bigger, stronger and faster and learn how to compete at an elite level. It means that Kentucky fans probably won’t get to watch UK dominate teams in their pre-conference games like they tended to do prior to 2017.

All of those “get to’s” for Wildcat fans will most likely also cause fan frustration in November through January as the UK coaching staff tries to work out the kinks of molding two and three year players together with a new crop of freshmen each year into a team that works smoothly together and can compete against other more experienced teams.

So really what this article is trying to say is, be prepared to be frustrated, annoyed, down right angry and maybe even a little apathetic as John Calipari figures out how he is going to get his team to play well enough each March to make another Final Four run or possibly even win a championship.

Other coaches across the country are getting better at recruiting and developing players, other schools are building better training facilities and playing facilities and players are opting to go to schools with less pressure. Throw in the likely possibility of “pay for play” for players that are good enough to make money from their likeness and it’s not difficult to imagine that the landscape of college basketball will remain in turmoil for the foreseeable future as all these changes are integrated into the current system.

When all the dust settles it seems that most likely UK will be impacted negatively by the requirement for John Calipari to do a better job of developing players in how to play the college game well but will be positively impacted by the “pay for play” rules that the NCAA is in the process of developing.

That means that Kentucky fans can probably look forward to a continuation of what they are seeing today; UK teams that struggle to compete against other more experienced but slightly less talented teams in the early part of the season and future NCAA Tournament fields that will be as balanced as they have ever been in the history of the tournament.

Like it or not, the days of ever seeing a team like the 2012 Anthony Davis team or even the 2015 Karl Anthony-Towns team assembled at UK again aren’t very likely to happen anytime soon.  But as John  Calipari likes to say, “When it comes to recruiting, Kentucky will always eat first.”  Let’s hope he is right.

2 comments

  1. Can John Calipari still recruit the “best of the best” ?

    1) He certainly has done so in the past
    2) He has not done so in recent cycles
    3) He can do so again

    The real question is will he, not can he.

    From my seat, I think Calipari has invested heavily in the 2020 class that will arrive here next summer. I think that incoming group could be the “best of the best” as the Big Blue Nation came to expect it after the recruiting classes in his first few years here. We will all know the answer to that little riddle by next Turkey day.

  2. I’m extremely pleased with the 2020 group that Cal signed in the early signing period…I can hardly believe the overall length of these guys-wow!

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