From the time he first set foot on campus, John Calipari has been arguably the most dominant recruiter in college basketball. It’s a reputation he’s had since his time at Massachusetts, and later, Memphis.
Raking in top-five talent hasn’t just become possible under Coach Cal, it has become the norm. Kentucky has managed the No. 1 or No. 2 overall recruiting class in the nation in every season since 2009, securing a top-two overall prospect in five of those years.
The massive recruiting victories have been fun to see over the years. That being said, where Calipari has been most impressive has been his ability to find diamonds in the rough a little bit further down the board.
In his first year at Kentucky, Coach Cal signed Eric Bledsoe, a four-star point guard from Birmingham, Alabama. Listed as 247 Sports’ No. 68 player in the class of 2009, Bledsoe only held offers from Memphis, Florida, Cincinnati, and Alabama. The minute Kentucky came calling, he joined the top recruiting class in the nation led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
His lone season at Kentucky, he averaged 11.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per contest. After declaring for the NBA Draft, he was taken with the No. 18 overall pick, where he has slowly worked his way up the totem pole to stardom. After averaging just no more than eight points per contest in his first three seasons, Bledsoe has averaged over 17 points per game over the last five seasons and accumulated a total of $62,104,069 career salary.
In 2012, four-star center Willie Cauley-Stein signed with Kentucky over Alabama, Florida, and Kansas State, his only other offers. Listed as the No. 43 overall prospect, the 6-foot-11 center out of Olathe, Kansas accumulated 843 career points, 655 rebounds, and 233 blocks at Kentucky. His junior year, Cauley-Stein worked his way to consensus first-team All-American honors and the No. 6 overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft. By the end of his college career, WCS was known as the most elite defender in college basketball with the ability to defend all five positions on the floor. Oh, and he had some pretty ridiculous dunks, too.
In 2014, John Calipari pulled in both Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, two widely underrated players in the class. Though many services finally gave him a five-star bump, Booker finished as a four-star prospect and No. 29 overall according to Rivals.com. When he first started receiving interest from the Cats, Booker was ranked down in the mid-40s as a consensus four-star prospect, known for solid shooting ability and below-average defensive skills. Almost immediately, Booker was the perfect shooting spark off the bench, and he worked his way into draft lottery position in just one season.
As for Ulis, he finished as ESPN’s No. 25 recruit in the class of 2014, though he was ranked anywhere from the late-30s to the early 50s for the majority of his junior and senior campaigns. At 5-foot-9, 145-pounds, analysts believed there were major doubts that Ulis could compete against elite division-one talent due to his size. As a sophomore, Ulis not only became the best point guard in college basketball, but arguably the best at the position in Kentucky basketball history.
Already considered one of the top scorers in the league, Booker is now climbing toward greatness in the NBA. He already has a 70-point game, sits behind just LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard for the most points in NBA history for a teenager, the third-youngest player to score 4,000 career points, etc. When his contract expires next offseason, Booker is going to be a very, very rich man.
Ulis has had his ups and downs, but he has carved his role as a solid point guard for the Suns, starting in over half of the team’s games this year. He averaged nearly eight points and over four assists in just 23 minutes per contest last season, including a very impressive run to end the year. He also has two years left on his contract, meaning he still has a lot of time to take another step up in the league, similar to Eric Bledsoe in his early days as a professional.
This past season, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came in as a consensus four-star expected to be nothing more than a solid role player off the bench. Listed as ESPN’s No. 35 prospect in the nation, Florida, Syracuse, Texas, and UNLV were his only other offers out of high school. Most anticipated at least two or three years of him at UK. As the year progressed, however, SGA developed into Kentucky’s most consistent scoring weapon and one of the top point guards in college basketball. He’s expected to be a lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft with the potential to be an instant-impact player in the league.
Jemarl Baker sat out his freshman year with an injury, but current and former Wildcats say he was easily the best shooter on the team last year and could be a major weapon from the perimeter for the Cats this season. Some compared him to Ray Allen out of high school.
Similar to Gilgeous-Alexander, Baker was a consensus four-star prospect, with 247 Sports ranking him as low as No. 73 overall. No one knows how good he will end up being, but early reports are impressive.
Almost a year ago to the day, Kentucky reached out to Keldon Johnson, the No. 33 player in the class of 2018, who as a junior averaged 21.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.4 steals per contest. Now, Johnson is a consensus five-star prospect, with his highest rating coming from ESPN as the No. 7 recruit in the class. Those that have seen him play in person believe he will almost certainly be Kentucky’s best player next season. The media has finally given him the respect he deserves, but Calipari was on him well before he was considered elite.
Tyler Herro, 247 Sports’ 35th best recruit in 2018, is considered one of the smoothest scorers in the nation with immediate-impact ability next season at Kentucky. Zion Williamson told KSR at the Jordan Brand Classic that he was the most underrated recruit in the nation. After seeing him in person against some of the best competition in America, there’s little doubt in my mind Herro elite potential, especially on offense. He’s garnered Devin Booker comparisons, and I don’t necessarily think that’s unfair.
DJ Jeffries is currently listed as the No. 53 overall prospect in the class of 2019, though those that have seen him play say he will be shooting up the rankings, as well.
He’s had his misses, but more often than not, Coach Cal has converted on the lower-tier talent.
Duke has had four-star prospects over the years in Quinn Cook, the Plumlee brothers, and Amile Jefferson, among others, but none developed into sure-fire NBA talent. Even with the elite guys(*cough* Jahil Okafor *cough*), Duke’s NBA prospects have been massively underwhelming. Aside from Kyrie Irving (who played a whopping 11 games at Duke), Jayson Tatum (exceeded expectations), and Brandon Ingram (potential, still a work in progress) Coach K has underwhelmed when it comes to putting his guys in position to thrive in the NBA.
North Carolina has been solid at developing lower-ranked talent (Luke Maye), but that’s mainly because Roy Williams rarely pulls in elite prospects (Tony Bradley was UNC’s first one-and-done in nearly a decade). Kansas has had a few lower-tier hits that thrived at the college level (Devonte Graham, Frank Mason, Udoka Azubuike, etc.) and a few more studs that have been sure-fire pros (Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid), but it still falls short to Kentucky’s track record. Are there any other schools that combine the underrated gems and elite like Coach Cal and Kentucky? I can’t think of any.
Calipari is known for the elite five-stars and NBA-ready prospects. His critics say he only has to roll the balls out in practice because the players are so good and don’t need coaching (something we have proven wrong time and time again).
Where he doesn’t get enough credit, however, is finding and developing lesser-known talent into excellent college and NBA players.