Severe roster turnover has been the norm for head coach John Calipari during his tenure at Kentucky, but this is unprecedented territory even for him.
Only sophomore Keion Brooks will start next season with previous experience playing for Kentucky – and he didn’t even hit 500 total minutes. Eight players from the 2019-20 season will not come back, for various reasons. Calipari hasn’t experienced roster turnover this lop-sided since the mass exodus that followed the 2012 National Championship team (and we all know how the next season went).
Even with an impressive recruiting class coming in, headlined by two potential superstars, next season’s roster has holes, mainly with a lack of experience. Somewhat head-scratching decisions by players such as Kahlil Whitney (transferred midseason) and EJ Montgomery (declared for NBA Draft) have exacerbated the issue. The NBA’s beefed-up version of the G League is designed specifically for the potential superstar players Calipari goes after and it will absolutely have an effect on the program going forward.
Because of the G League’s latest move, the NCAA is now in a bad situation that could have immediate impacts and even worse longterm impacts. An established societal culture among the younger generation has translated to more player freedom over the last half-decade or so. More rules are being set (and will continue to be set) in place that will extend even more player freedom (i.e., the expected passing of an immediate transfer rule in the coming month).
Dealing with roster turnover is going to be one of Calipari’s most challenging tasks to overcome while he’s been in Lexington.
Over at The Courier-Journal, Jon Hale and others dug deep into the advanced statistics of just how unique Kentucky has been in terms of players flowing in and out of the program since 2009. The post is literally STOCKED with interesting and eye-opening numbers that put Kentucky on a completely different playing field than it’s competition. Here’s what they did.
“To gain a better understanding of how Calipari’s system [of high roster turnover] compares to the Wildcats’ top competitors,” Hale wrote. “The Courier Journal analyzed each signing class from 2009 to 2018 from each of the other 12 programs to either reach multiple Final Fours or win a national championship during Calipari’s tenure in Lexington: Butler, Connecticut, Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, North Carolina, Syracuse, Villanova, Virginia and Wisconsin.”
What they found was both impressive and a bit concerning.
I won’t spoil all of the work that the CJ put into their post (and there are a ton of tidbits), but here are two points that stuck out to me, in particular.
- “Of the 55 high school or junior college recruits signed by Calipari at UK between 2009 and 2018, only five (9.1%) completed their eligibility in Lexington. Two of the five Wildcats who did were junior college transfers with only two years of eligibility remaining when they signed with Kentucky. At least 36% of the signees at the other 12 programs exhausted their eligibility for that school or remain on the team’s 2020-21 roster.”
Just THREE players that have come to UK out of high school have stayed all four seasons. Louisville is the next closest school at 36.4 percent completing their eligibility, with Duke and Kansas not far behind. The nontraditional bluebloods such as Wisconsin and Butler are all the way up in the 60s.
- “Between 2010 and 2015, between 42 and 50 college underclassmen kept their names in the NBA draft. That number has increased in each of the next four years, all the way to 84 in 2019. With only 60 selections in the two-round draft each year, a growing number of college underclassmen are guaranteed to go undrafted.”
The picture that the CJ is trying to paint is that this is an issue that is not going away any time soon. It’s something that is continually getting worse with each passing season. At Kentucky, the issue is heightened even more compared to other programs. Over the past few seasons, it’s the departures of the Whitney’s and the Montgomery’s that force Calipari’s hand the most as he now has to dive deeper and deeper into the transfer portal.
No one knows for sure why all of these younger players are skipping a second or third year in college they that so clearly need. They could have outside noise interfering with their intentions or possibly fear the embarrassment of coming back for a third year when they originally came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit. Social media is surely a proponent of the latter. But there could be so many other factors behind the scenes.
If the G League continues to pump money into this newfound developmental program, and they build it up to the point where they are snagging 20-30 of the top high school prospects instead of just two or three, that’s when hunting one-and-dones might not be the best route for Calipari and his staff. In reality, there might not be any left to pluck from the high school ranks five years down the road.
Cal still produces NBA talent at a higher rate than any other college program (probably in history). The CJ notes that “of Calipari’s first 55 signees at Kentucky, 41 have entered the NBA draft as underclassmen, more than twice as many as the program with the second most early entrants on the list (Duke, at 20).”
Until the system stops working and Kentucky continues to miss out on Elite Eight and Final Four appearances, it’s hard to argue against it. But there have never been as many outside factors putting pressure on Calipari to find elite talent than there is right now.
It’s time to get creative.