The Four Who Fled Too Soon

Dakari Johnson (2013-2015).

Dakari Johnson (2013-2015).

John Calipari has the uncanny ability to stir the pot – during the season, or immediately after, or even in the summer doldrums when few people outside of Big Blue Nation are talking college basketball.

So he made the off-hand comment last week about “four kids [who] absolutely should not have left [for the NBA],” and the buzz was on.

While Cal dropped his pebble into the water and thereupon remained mum, Wildcat fans immediately chimed into the blogosphere with names like Daniel Orton, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, DeAndre Liggins, James Young, Archie Goodwin, Dakari Johnson and one or both Harrisons.

If you’re a regular visitor to this space, you’ll know I’ve weighed in before on this subject, from Daniel Orton in 2010 (shouldn’t have gone!) to Skal Labissiere this spring (shouldn’t go!). But limit it to just four names? Ah, that Cal, always the intriguer.

Daniel Orton (2009-2010).

Daniel Orton (2009-2010).

And it made me wonder, from the vantage point of Big Blue Nation, should we be talking about players who might have hurt their careers long-term or players who hurt Kentucky’s championship prospects?

Certainly, in terms of Kentucky’s team successes, the first Calipari loss was Jodie Meeks, who took his 23.7 scoring average to the pros, announcing on April 7, 2009, that he was entering the draft just as Cal was arriving on campus.

Few Kentucky fans didn’t think of Meeks, almost exactly a year later, as the 35-2 Wildcats couldn’t hit a three in the 73-66 Elite Eight loss to West Virginia. But Meeks’ decision couldn’t be faulted. He has been a double-figure scorer in a seven-year NBA career with the Bucks, 76ers, Lakers and Pistons, when not hobbled by injury.

And not to get too mercenary about it, but he has earned more than $11 million in the pros, $6 million this year alone. So how could staying in Lexington another year have benefited him? (Save, as I said, for perhaps bringing more coveted hardware to Kentucky’s trophy case.)

Marquis Teague (2011-2012).

Marquis Teague (2011-2012).

The first real case of misjudgment, as far as I’m concerned, was Daniel Orton. After backing up DeMarcus Cousins in 2009-10 and showing some real promise, he was expected to have the center position to himself the following year.

Instead, he bolted and was part of UK’s incredible five first-round picks, chosen by Orlando with the 29th selection. He spent more time in the D-League. He has logged a total of 542 NBA minutes. And yes, he’s earned nearly $3 million, but it could have been so much more.

I’ve always thought Marquis Teague shouldn’t have gone. I think he was carried away by the wholesale departure of the rest of his NCAA championship teammates and also by his brother Jeff’s pro success. And he was a first-round pick – by the Bulls. But his career has gone nowhere, another serial D-League bus-rider who, if he had stayed at Kentucky, might have (A) stabilized the UK team the following year and (B) improved his game and his overall profile in a sophomore season. Such as – well, has anyone ever heard of Tyler Ulis?

James Young (2013-2014).

James Young (2013-2014).

Yes, another $3 million earner – which is sort of peanuts when one considers the $11.7 million earned by his immediate predecessor, Brandon Knight, or the $38.8 million earned by his immediate predecessor-plus-one, John Wall.

Then there’s James Young, a ton of unrealized talent, who was the 17th pick in the 2014 draft class by the Celtics and has seen his playing time drop from 11 minutes per game last year to seven this year, all while calling Portland, Maine home much more frequently than Boston. (The Red Claws!)

His contract will pay him $6.4 million over the next three years. But is it guaranteed? With so many free agents and college players coming along, it’s difficult to think NBA teams are just throwing their money around at guys – even first-round picks – who have played a total of 530 pro minutes.

Finally, there’s Dakari Johnson. Unlike the others mentioned, the affable big man actually returned to Kentucky for his sophomore season – and still fled too early. He still had a significant upside to his game. He was a second-round pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder, but has spent the entire year with the Oklahoma City Blue.

Maybe the whole world is still open to him. Maybe he’s getting a fancy D-League salary. But he could have been a huge missing piece of the 2015-16 team. Which again begs the question:

Did they leave too soon for them? Or for us? VT

Photos by VICTORIA GRAFF