John Calipari fits rules around him like a belt. Wherever the market is for top players, Calipari owns it. But Reid Travis and Nate Sestina just don’t ring like “John Wall.”
Following Wall in 2009, Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel also took the top spot in 2011 and 2012 – three of Calipari’s first four classes at UK. Coach Cal, known for his recruiting panache, hasn’t signed a single top-ranked player since, and I don’t think he ever will, for that matter.
Before prognosticating on the future, I want to look at the missed opportunity for some of the top-ranked guys in the Calipari era, and particularly the past three years. Two years ago, Duke paid off the dealer for a recruiting royal flush, a sweep of the best three recruits in the class, all three major Kentucky targets: RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson. For months in 2018 we heard Kentucky was the co-leader for Zion next to Clemson before he opted for Duke in one of the more shocking commitments I can remember.
Luckily, though, Williamson’s parents spent their dirty money like the dually-paid-off therapist in Ozark and Kentucky fans can take solace that other side cheated and lost anyway. Couldn’t be an ACC team. No way!
The next year Kentucky lost out on big man target and yet again the top dude in the class, James Wiseman, who, by all accounts, would be a Kentucky wildcat if Penny Hardaway hadn’t overthrown Tubby Smith. But like Coach K, Penny padded pockets and, unlike K, actually faced consequence. After discovering that Penny “financed” purchase of a new house for the Wiseman family, the NCAA decided to do what it didn’t the year before…and disqualify the nation’s best freshman.
Of course, there is the current class and Cade Cunningham, who “was as close as you could possibly get” to coming to Kentucky last fall.¹
Alas, his family situation held him hostage in Joe Exotic territory. What’s that? Yes, his brother, Cannen, the former associate director of video operations for Tulane was hired as an actual assistant coach by Oklahoma State. That’s an oddly gigantic promotion. Even Cade essentially said his brother was the only reason he went to OSU.
Look at this quote: “To be honest, I was this close to picking a different school, but blood is always thicker than water.” What a slap in the face. How much closer to I’m-only-here-cuz-I-have-to could he get? That basically says: yeah I love everything about the other school (it’s UK) but, ya know…family I guess.
So, there’s a point to be made here:
Dealing with top recruits is impossible. Abhorrent nepotism and new houses are the only way to sign the best basketball players, at least since 2018. And hell, Duke and Nike handed the Marvin Bagley family a whole AAU team (and have you seen the Bagleys house once Marvin committed?). The year before that? Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, the top two recruits, both committed to Duke. You really want me to believe there weren’t outside forces involved in those recruitments either? Yet there are still people who believe Cal is the dirtier coach.²
Either you hire Tulane’s associate video operations guy in nepotic vain or you pay. Let’s just look at the recruits who have been ranked first by one or more service since 2016:
Ben Simmons (LSU): Godfather was an assistant coach.
Harry Giles (Duke): A year before the Bagley-Barrett-Williamson train? Please.
Josh Jackson (Kansas): Paid by Addidas.
Marvin Bagley (Duke): Report: Marvin Bagley’s family reaped significant financial gains while fostering Nike ties
Michael Porter Jr. (Missouri): Michael Porter Sr. was hired by Mizzou in March of 2017
RJ Barrett (Duke): The higher-ranked classmate of mansion-owner Zion…
James Wiseman (Memphis): Coach financed the purchase of a new house.
Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma St.): His brother hired a year before he commits.
Jalen Green (G-League): Legally took money…in the G-League.
Aside from Giles and Barrett, every player on that list either took bribe money, took legit money and skipped college or committed to whoever decided to hire one of their family members. To secure a top-rated recruit you simply have to play dirty. This is every player since Ben Simmons to be ranked first by a recruiting service. And every single one has shady connections and cash on their card.
I haven’t even gotten to the number one reason why Kentucky will probably never sign the best high school player in the country again. The NBA.
The NBA is changing the one-and-done rule as soon as they possibly can. And they should. The rule sucks, it puts all parties in a more confusing/difficult situation and sets up college ball to be overrun by corruption, not that it wasn’t already. The funny thing is, the NBA tries to convince everyone that the issues created by the one-and-done era were the NCAA and college basketball’s fault. As if the NBA didn’t make the rule. As if they didn’t change it from the exact rule they desperately want back.
Now, they’ve proposed a G-League option³ for high school players who don’t want to deal with the agonies and lies and deceit of a year of free college education and housing. This isn’t even an NBA move, it’s an anti-college basketball move. They’re pilfering all of the top players and stashing them where, exactly? To play two All-Star games against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants? You offered every top recruit a ton of cash and little to no actual work, and most of them still declined that offer because, say what you will about college basketball, it’s a perfect intermediary step between high school and the pros. At the end of the day, it’s still college, and college hasn’t stopped being a cool experience.
For the NBA, instead of proposing an incoherent solution to the rule you created, why not just revoke it? They will, eventually. Current projections tab 2022 as the year the one-and-done rule will be abolished, which means, after that, it’s almost certain the number one player in each recruiting class will go immediately pro and be drafted in the top ten.
So, Calipari must either flip Cade Cunningham or sign whoever takes the top spot in 2021 to get one last first-ranked recruit. Slim chances all around. The recruiting world is about to change, and John Calipari may have signed the last of his calling card: the ultra superstar. Don’t worry, though, he’ll mold his own.
1- I was more skeptical. At the Kentucky/Arkansas football game, Lynn Bowden’s first start, I sat first row of the student with some friends and Cade and the basketball recruits/team stood in front of us the whole game. Let me say: Cade looked bored to death, as least-enthused as one could be. How? You’re front row for the most dynamic college football player in the country! Meanwhile, our guy Terrence Clarke (also on a visit) was boogying the whole time, all-in on the Big Blue. Cade went elsewhere and T-Clarke is on his way to Lexington after turning down a $500k G-League deal. About what I’d expect based off my observations.
2-Cal was hoisted on a pagan pedestal as the recruiting sleaze-lord for over half a decade. That crowd, the Pat Forde and co. brigade, still doesn’t catch enough slack. You called this guy a liar and cheater and the worst thing to happen to basketball (“Cal cheats” is, in fact, the real lie). Now, every single relevant program other than Kentucky is in murky water. Kansas is a clown show, Carolina danced their way around systemic academic fraud and Coach K is sitting atop a treasure chest of 100-grand bands and mansion key fobs tagged with the names “Williamson” and “Bagley.” Not mention Forde’s home, Louisville, and all that their basketball program entails.
3-The NBA/G-League is paying these guys over $500k in some cases, and there is no way they will get their money’s worth in one season. The NBA loves to act like college is some useless, hellish and corrupted medium for young basketball players. All the NBA did was throw money at them so they don’t go through college and either take dirty money or play for merely a scholarship–and those scholarships are quite handy for the guys who don’t pan out. Plus, the G-League and college basketball are two different planes when it comes to exposure. Heck, ten or so college regular-season games outdraw the best NBA regular-season game yearly, and the average NCAAT game boat races first and second-round playoff games. And who was the biggest story when the season was paused? Zion. Whose hype was built in college, at Duke.