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John Calipari: the most underrated talent evaluator in the nation


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.

Article written by Jack Pilgrim

Follow me on Twitter: @JackPilgrimKSR

30 responses to “John Calipari: the most underrated talent evaluator in the nation”

  1. Catsfan1715

    You gotta love facts. Thank you, sir.

    1. gobble gobble

      Good observation, Jack. It must of taken you much thought to come up with this conclusion. Genius!

  2. herm89

    I really don’t think anyone is doubting Cal’s ability to evaluate talent.

    1. Parker_UKFanNC

      You should read the comments after some of our losses.

  3. bigbluebanana

    Have you read the comments section here herm89? I’d argue too many people question his ability.

    1. Luether

      Many fans question Cal’s coaching ability – not to be confused with his recruiting ability…

    2. bigbluebanana

      I see your point Luether, but disagree. I’ve seen hundreds of comments on here alone about Cal losing his touch, or how he can’t get the big ones anymore, or about how kzsewshjrhgh owns him now in recruiting…hundreds

  4. callitlikeiseeit

    OK, now we list all the guys who would have been top 20 or so picks coming out of High School that played for Cal and ended up not being in the NBA or not being close to what they were had they gone to the draft after High School. Briscoe, Andrew, Aaron, POY, Richards, Vando {don’t tell me he was hurt as Porter missed all year and will still go lottery and the Robinson kid did not even play and will get drafted}, Hami, Archie, SKJ, Young, Gabriel. I’ll stop as you get the point.

    1. Greatcatfan

      Except the NBA doesn’t allow that and had they went anywhere else they may have done even worse so that stat line is irrelevant to anyone but a troll or a fair weather fan.

    2. Greatcatfan

      And again the article clearly covered how everyone has done the same thing on the negative side even your god Couch Kbagfullocash, Cal has just been more successful on the positive side.

    3. Greatcatfan

      Coach

    4. bigbluebanana

      I like couch better!

  5. michaelb

    Jack this post is freakin awesome – this is great stuff for fans to sink their teeth into during the slow part of offseason . I Applause & hope to see more gems like this

  6. michaelb

    Anybody else notice jemarl shoots knuckle balls just like Jodie Meeks … how in the world do you do that ?! Lol. Jb has just perfect shooting form – I see why he garnered that ray Allen comparison .

  7. terwilliger

    To be fair, I think some of the negative comments about recruiting that occur after losses often have more to do with the makeup of the team itself rather than the amount of talent present on the team. UK has been insanely talented almost every season Cal has been here… but not all of those teams have been well balanced in terms of having a good mix of shooters/rebounders/ball handlers/defenders. Sometimes it just feels like a bunch of athletes with limited fundamental basketball skills. I’m not complaining… I’m happy with the job Cal has done. I’m just playing devils advocate because I do think that is a legitimate beef that some fans have with Cal’s approach. For the record, he seems to be adjusting.

  8. nicky

    Ok there’s 5…not counting Baker just yet…now how many whiffs have there been?

    I’ll name 3 and then everybody else can chime in….Harrow, Dodson, Poole….I can think of about 4-5 more but let’s see what y’all come up with

    1. michaelb

      I thought Dodson was one of bcg’s guys ? I guess not

  9. Catsfan1715

    Bet I can name more “whiffs” from Coach k, self, Roy … anyone else on the same recruiting level I’m missing ?

  10. michaelb

    I think Cal is too competitive at heart to retire. He lives & breathes to prove people wrong & prove he’s the best at what he does. Cal is gonna die on the court lol. This is a just for fun thought : what if he’s putting all these guys in the pros to take the leap to the NBA himself in 2020 , Then starts to assemble an all star squad of ky wildcats (just like we’ve all done on NBA 2k) This would send me into a frenzy, I might die

  11. snarkster

    WCS’ sickest dunk was one where he drove from the sideline at Auburn in 2015, but can’t find a clip of it online anymore.

  12. TBW3011

    Jack, a serious word of advice. You are a talented writer. Quit reaching and trying so hard. Less hyperbole.

    1. dgtuk

      TBW you are spot on. Decent writer but far too often over reaches with the headline, etc. In doing so hurts his credibility.

    2. Rod Crandler

      Maybe you guys should request a refund of your KSR subscription fee.

    3. michaelb

      Yea, why read or comment on stuff ya don’t like ? If I see something I don’t care for I just kinda forget about lol

  13. bigblue2284

    So basically Cal goes after the top rated guys and if he misses goes for second options? Sometimes they end up being good? I’d say he recruits as good as every other coach at a top university. Recruiting is fitting pieces together that work, I’m not sure Cal doe that the best, many coaches do more with less.

  14. CatManDo

    I hate it when writers such as Clay Travis say Kentucky has the best roster almost every year and still has only one title in the Cal era.
    Having the best freshman class does not mean you have the best roster. It might mean you have more potential pros on your team but that doesn’t automatically mean you have the best college team, especially if you basically don’t have a junior or senior class. Imagine 3rd year WCS playing against 1st year WCS. Jordan averaged under 14 points per game his freshman year and was Player of the Year his junior year.
    I realize this is how we recruit so we have to deal with it.

    1. bigblue2284

      I think we need to separate out best class vs recruiting. Cal get’s the top 1 or 2 class yearly, that doesn’t make him the best overall recruiter. More accurate would be to say he is the best at collecting talent, there is more to recruiting than that.

    2. CatManDo

      bb2284 agree.
      Plus most player rankings are based on what they can do at the pro level and for their potential.A guy like Hami is going to grade higher than Ulis in high school because of athleticism, measurables, etc. that are highly coveted in the NBA. But I bet if analysts would have been asked who would be the better college player many would have said Ulis.

  15. bigbluehank

    Quite a reach here. Cal has found a few less-heralded players that were able to come in and contribute. But outside of the blue-blood programs, don’t coaches rely almost solely on these types of players to fill out their teams? These coaches are often great evaluators of talent, or else they aren’t employed very long.
    As mentioned in other posts, the article’s hyperbole is absurd. Bledsoe has “worked his way to stardom”? Ulis the “best point guard in UK history”?
    Like any good UK fan, I despise Duke. But I don’t understand why people so often discuss the disparity in NBA talent/draft picks between Cal and K. For the most part, I couldn’t care less about UK players in the NBA; I’m more interested in what they accomplish while on campus. It’s disappointing that NBA pedigree has become the measure of success for college programs.