Tomorrow night, seven Kentucky players will wait to hear Adam Silver call their name and punch their ticket to basketball’s most elite club. The wait will be longer for some than others, but if all seven go, the feeling of relief, accomplishment, and pride will be universal.
As Kentucky fans, we feel like we know these players better than anyone, but on the eve of the biggest night of their lives, I thought it would be good to go back and look at the blood, sweat, and tears that got them here.
In fourth grade, Karl’s dad told his son he wasn’t able to afford Christmas presents. To make up for it, a few months later, Karl Sr. withdrew most of his savings and built Karl a basketball court in the backyard, digging the holes, spreading the gravel, and painting the lines himself.
“I leveled it as best I could,” Karl Sr. told Bleacher Report’s Jason King. “It wasn’t beautiful, but it was enough for him to practice on.”
For months, they couldn’t afford a real basket, so they practiced on one from Fisher-Price.
It’s pretty much a given that Karl will be drafted first by the Minnesota Timberwolves, becoming the third number one pick in the John Calipari Era at Kentucky alongside John Wall and Anthony Davis. It’s a crime we only got one year with a kid like Karl; however, in that year, he had a monster impact, becoming UK’s go-to guy in the post and possibly the best ambassador the program’s ever had.
Willie and his older brother Bryce moved in with their grandparents when Willie was four. Willie’s mother was working full time and his father was no longer in the picture, and by the time his mom got back on her feet, the boys were settled in their new life in Spearville, Kansas, population 813.
When Willie was in high school, he struggled to keep up with his academics while traveling with the MoKan Elite AAU team. His grandparents agreed to send him to live with the family of one of his AAU teammates in Olathe, nearly five hours from Spearville. Willie’s grandmother Norma Stein told Jason King she “bawled for a month straight” after Willie left, but she and her husband knew it was the right call.
Norma’s sacrifice paid off. Willie is projected to go anywhere from 4th to 11th in the Draft and, during his three years at Kentucky, became a fan favorite. After arriving on campus as a project, Willie developed that raw talent over time, and by his junior season, was one of the most explosive, dynamic, and versatile players in college basketball. Definitely the most entertaining.
Devin’s father, Melvin, was a legend at Missouri, racking up All-American honors and spending most of Devin’s early childhood playing pro ball overseas. In their rare time together, Melvin noticed what a good basketball player his son was becoming, and once his career was over, he convinced Devin to move from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Melvin’s hometown of Moss Point, Mississippi so he could help him develop his game.
Devin did, and the two drove 200 miles each weekend during the offseason so Devin could play for the Alabama Challenge, the best AAU team in the area. After missing most of his son’s life, Melvin was determined to make it up to Devin by turning him into an NBA prospect.
Thanks to the “Year of the Shooter” in the NBA, Devin is now projected by many to go in the top ten of the Draft. That’s crazy considering he was probably the least talked-about commitment in UK’s 2014 recruiting class. Booker made a name for himself as a shooter during the season, and if he goes in the top ten, no one will question his decision to leave after one year.
By now, you know that Trey’s dad, Tom, had a career as an R&B singer, but he also played pro ball in Canada. Trey was born in Saskatoon and after a few years, the family moved to Indianapolis, where 10-year-old Trey and his dad would go to the gym every day at 6 a.m. His dad told The Star Phoenix that Trey would look forward to their workouts so much he would wake him up every day at 5 a.m. Lyles Sr. would put a weight vest on Trey and make him go through drills, including jumping rope with a five-pound rope.
“His workouts were brutal, they were gruesome,” Tom said. “But I wanted him to understand that if you’re going to do this, in order for you to be the best, you have to understand how to work, and every moment on this court has to be productive.”
NBA teams love Trey’s unique size and versatility, making him a projected lottery pick. Although an injury delayed his debut with Kentucky, he quickly became the team’s x-factor, capable of driving the lane and shooting a mid-range jumper, moves so smooth they put his dad’s old tunes to shame.
Dakari grew up in Brooklyn in a house with his mother, Makini; younger brother, Kamani; grandmother; and uncle. His father, Thomas Johnson, a 6’10” center for St. Francis College, was not in the picture. Makini, a former basketball player herself, ably handled the duties of both parents while Dakari’s uncle filled in as a father figure. Dakari’s neighborhood was rough and riddled with gangs, and one day, a ten-year-old Dakari was chased by teenagers, who threw glass bottles at him.
Makini knew it was time for a change. She moved her boys to Lexington, Kentucky, where Dakari attended Sayre, but after Makini lost her job and struggled to make ends meet, they had to move to Newark, New Jersey to live with her sister. There, Dakari attended St. Patrick High School, where he played with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who became a surrogate big brother. Once MKG left for Kentucky, Makini was able to move the family to Florida so Dakari could attend the prestigious Montverde Academy, where he flourished and eventually started on the path back to Lexington.
Many of us questioned Dakari’s decision to declare for the Draft, but his stock has been on the rise ever since. Seven footers with good hands are a hot commodity in the league, and FiveThirtyEight.com calculated that Dakari has the lowest chance of being a bust in the pros of any top prospect. Don’t buy it? Look at Nazr Mohammed.
THE HARRISON TWINS
The Twins grew up in the suburbs of Houston, where their father, Aaron Sr., owned a car lot. The two played against each other in their driveway every day and in the summers, washed cars at their dad’s lot. Aaron Sr., a former military man, was notoriously tough on his boys, instilling hard work and dedication both on the court and off.
A childhood of intense driveway battles gave the Twins the reputation as the most competitive players on the AAU circuit and some people misinterpreted that drive as bad attitudes. While they were better off financially that most of their fellow prospects, the Twins battled that bad rap throughout high school and college despite being two of the most polite, grounded, and respectful kids I’ve met.
Andrew is projected to go in the second round, but the jury’s still out on Aaron. Even if Aaron’s name isn’t called, he’ll join a practice squad this summer, maybe even for the same team as his brother. The Twins went through their ups and downs at Kentucky while under immense (and mostly unfair) scrutiny, but on a team full of stars, there was no one I trusted more with the ball. Especially when the chips were stacked against them.
Enjoy this, guys. You’ve earned it.