Ever since John Calipari took over the program in 2009, the mentality that he has had, and one that has worked almost the entire time, is this is a players first program. He only emphasized that more calling the 2010 NBA Draft the greatest night in UK history, much to the chagrin of most UK fans. But you can’t deny that mentality and characterization of the program he built has led to the absurd amount of talent that has come through Lexington in 10 years. But it has also led to a bunch of offseasons where some fans, whether it be a majority or minority, become frustrated because guys exit the program after 1 year without being surefire NBA talents. Daniel Orton, Marquis Teague, Archie Goodwin, Kevin Knox, Shai Alexander all come to mind. Knox and Alexander have had solid rookie years so their decisions may have been the right ones while Teague flamed out of the league and Goodwin is laboring in the G-League right now. Orton wasn’t ready but also didn’t seem to click real well with Calipari so that might be a special circumstance.
Nonetheless, two more prospects will be in this interesting grey area this offseason, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro. I am not even going to entertain the idea of Ashton Hagans leaving and if he does fans have a legitimate right to be very frustrated. But Johnson and Herro both show up consistently in 1st round mock drafts. We have seen the flashes from both guys that show why NBA teams might be interested. But we’ve also seen them play like 18 and 19 year old freshman. Wild swings in productivity. Poor decision making. Absolute no-shows in some games.
For me, Johnson is the most interesting case because while Herro has a skill that translates to the current NBA in his jump shot, having watched Keldon for 38 games this year I don’t see what skill he currently has that makes him stick in the league. Does he have a great jump shot? No. Is he a great defender? No. Can he get to the rim at will? Against less talented opponents, absolutely, but everybody is talented in the NBA. Is he a super athlete? He is more athletic than most at the college level but I wouldn’t call him an ultra-athlete at this point. Great decision maker? His assist to turnover ratio was 1:1 this year. Keldon is the type of guy who does a lot of things fine but nothing great. AT. THIS. POINT.
Which is why many fans would clamor for 1 more year at Kentucky for him. Not only does it make the team significantly better but it gives Keldon the chance to improve his game that much more. Maybe his jump shot becomes deadly or he becomes a lock down defender. Maybe he gets a little stronger and his ability to finish at the rim improves. Whatever the case may be, the case of PJ Washington should be an excellent example for Keldon. PJ was absolutely not ready to enter the NBA last season. He got in great shape, improved his game tremendously, and now is headed for the lottery.
But this is where John Calipari comes in. If Keldon Johnson is a sure fire 1st round NBA Draft pick, then traditionally Calipari would push them more towards leaving. We all know the story by now of Dajuan Wagner getting his money in the NBA and then getting sick and it pushing Calipari to get his players paid in case of injury, etc. But I would argue PJ Washington came back, GOT INJURED, and could still be a lottery pick. And of course, the worst case happens and Keldon tears up a knee, it hurts his draft stock. But the risk of that happening compared to the much higher possibility Keldon leaves now, goes into the G-League and flames out of the league tells me it is worth coming back.
Starting with the SEC Tournament and taking out Abilene Christian since that was a glorified high school team, Keldon scored 4, 15, 9, 7, 14 in the last 5 games of the season. He shot 19-52 from the field. He shot 3-13 from the three point line. He only had 8 assists in those 5 games compared to 7 turnovers. And we saw him struggle defensively in several of those games. And again, that was at the END of the season. Despite him coming into the season as the best prospect in the class, I would say from an NBA perspective Keldon would be considered “raw”.
At the end of the day, Keldon seems like an AWESOME kid and whatever he decides, this fanbase will be fans of his for life. But it seems shortsighted to me to say Keldon should take a guaranteed 4-5 million dollars now in a 2-year NBA contract when he could make 5.5 million or more from the lottery next year and have a game better suited for the NBA that would keep him in the league longer. John Calipari will likely play a role in this decision. He has to be able to see that Keldon’s game is not ready for the league right now, no matter if he would get drafted or not. I would think as an influence in this decision it is his responsibility to suggest coming back. That’s not been his normal message but I think Keldon is far more PJ Washington than he is Archie Goodwin. Keldon has a golden opportunity to make himself a legend here at UK, make his NBA draft stock better, and make more money over the long run if he comes back for Year 2.