Want Freshmen at UK? You’ll Get ’Em!

Coach John Calipari. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

Coach John Calipari. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

As if we needed confirmation of John Calipari’s determination to move his youngsters on into the NBA, the ESPN documentary “One and Not Done” proved it.

Starting with Marcus Camby at UMass and then Dajuan Wagner at Memphis, if they thought about returning, he refused to take “yes” for an answer. He told John Wall to go and take everyone else with him. He told DeMarcus Cousins that there was no reason for him to stay in college in 2010, and Jamal Murray the same thing six years later.

We need not guess how he counseled Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Isaiah Briscoe and even Isaac Humphries this year. Apparently, he wasn’t emphatic enough with Bam Adebayo. Not yet, anyway.

Well, the culmination of Cal’s ministrations is about to visit Kentucky basketball with a vengeance!

Kyle Tucker, the former Kentucky beat reporter for The Courier-Journal now writing for the web site SEC Country, took a look at a possible Wildcats’ 2017-18 lineup.

According to Tucker’s long view, Kentucky will start five freshmen, with three more freshmen off the bench. Whereas there was always a returning key veteran to balance the youngsters – a Terrence Jones or Willie Cauley-Stein or Tyler Ulis – there’s pretty much nobody on the 2017-18 team.

And it’s scary.

Understand, first, that Tucker’s projection is based on a few things that might not happen:

He expects Hamidou Diallo to stay in school and not go into the NBA draft. Diallo has been particularly sphinx-like about the whole thing.

He postulates that Mohamed Bamba, a 6-foot-11 beast out of New York, and Kevin Knox, a 6-foot-8 small forward from Tampa, will join up. Currently, neither one has committed.

He doesn’t include Adebayo in the calculation, but he thinks both Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones will return. This is not much veteran seasoning. Gabriel was an unproductive starter much of the year, then taken out of the starting lineup down the stretch. Killeya-Jones pretty much disappeared from the Cat’s plans during the season.

If all falls into place, this would be Tucker’s vision of the starting group: Nick Richards (6-foot-11), a 5-star freshman out of Manhasset, New York, at center; Bamba (6-foot-11) at strong forward; P.J. Washington (6-foot-8) a 5-star freshman out of Dallas, at small forward; Quade Green (6-foot-1), a 5-star freshman out of Philadelphia, would be the point guard; and Diallo (6-foot-5) would start at shooting guard.

The second team would be: Killeya-Jones at center; Gabriel at strong forward; Jarred Vanderbilt (6-foot-8), a 5-star freshman from Texas, at small forward; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (6-foot-5), a 4-star freshman from Tennessee, at point guard; and one of two freshmen – 6-foot-5 Mark Smith (from Illinois) or 6-foot-2 Californian Jemarl Baker, who decommitted from Cal after Coach Cuonzo Martin left for Missouri – at shooting guard.

If you’ve been counting, that’s a lot of stars – and a lot of freshmen! Eight of the top 10. (Note: Not every one of these players has yet signed on.)

On paper, it’s the strongest of all Calipari’s recruiting classes.

If only NCAA championships were won on paper.

It’s also the most freshman-heavy of all Cal’s teams. We’ve learned that it’s impossible to calculate how well Cal’s freshmen will immediately translate their skills to the college game.

Some show up college-ready. John Wall, Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, took virtually no seasoning to make them good to go.

But some..? Even Monk, Fox and Adebayo had to be handled, had to have some of their bad habits removed. DeMarcus Cousins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Karl-Anthony Towns had to be brought along. Jamal Murray had to tone down his shot selection. Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker had to be used strategically.

And then there’s the “Skal Labissiere syndrome.” Looks great. Measures up – height, wingspan, reach, vertical leap. High school numbers were good. Reviews are raves. Nothing’s missing.

Until the ball is in the air.

Killeya-Jones was just that freshman a year ago. He had all the stars, all the numbers, all the physical requirements. But when it came time to play, something was indeed missing.

He was too young. His game was too immature, too unpolished. He wasn’t strong enough. He wasn’t skilled enough.

That’s not his fault. He WAS young. The fault was ours, in our expectations and easy assumptions, our gullibility, our wanting too much for him to be Anthony Davis. The fault was ESPN’s and scout.com’s. The fault was the University of Kentucky’s publicity machine. The fault was Calipari’s.

Never blame any one of these freshmen for not being older or more experienced or better than he is. VT