With the NFL and college football both back and the MLB regular season winding down (already) there is a lot going on the world of sports right now. But in basketball, there is no bigger story than the NBA bubble. More specifically, there is no bigger story in basketball than the success of Kentucky players in the NBA bubble.
At this point, there really is no debate. As my colleague Jack Pilgrim pointed out the other night, there is no college basketball program has had anywhere near the success of Kentucky in the bubble. It seems like every night, a former Wildcat is tearing things up, setting some kind of record, making some play that leads Sportscenter the next day. It happened with Tyler Herro last night. And Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, Devin Booker and Jamal Murray before him.
Imagine watching the NBA Playoffs as a five-star recruit and not choosing Kentucky. Not a single school coming close to this.
— Jack Pilgrim (@JackPilgrimKSR) September 21, 2020
So with all these former Kentucky Wildcats balling out, I decided to ask myself, who has been the most impressive Wildcat in this bubble so far? Not just who has been the “best” player, because that’s almost certainly Anthony Davis. He is one of the best players in the world. But instead, who has been the best, relative to the expectations we had coming in.
And after thinking about it and tweeting about it, I decided to answer. With the definitive power ranking of every Kentucky Wildcat in the NBA bubble.
And the caveat here is this: It’s not just about how good they’ve been in the bubble. But how good they’ve been relative to what we expected coming in.
Let’s do it!
13) Enes Kanter, Boston Celtics
Somebody has to be last, and unfortunately, in this case, that person in Enes Kanter. It’s not as though the one-time Kentucky enrollee (although he never played – damn you, NCAA!!) has done anything wrong. It’s just that he is on a squad that traditionally plays four guards or wing players (Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward) and also has depth ahead of him up front with Daniel Theis and Grant Williams.
Yet even with that said, it’s not as though Kanter has been a total dud in his time in Orlando either, as he had three double-figure scoring games in the bubble before the playoffs began. And seriously, if your team’s “worst” player has scored double-figures three times in eight games, is he really doing bad? The answer of course is no, which in a weird way is a testament to just how good these Wildcat guys have been the last few months.
12) Hamidou Diallo, Oklahoma City Thunder
Admittedly, I had limited expectations of Hamidou Diallo when he entered the NBA. So the fact that he has been able to carve out a role with the Oklahoma City Thunder just two years into his career is impressive. He even had a couple big games once the Thunder clinched their playoff spot, including a 27-point performance against the Clippers in the final regular season game before the playoffs began.
However once those playoffs began, he was relegated to the bench on a deep and talented Oklahoma City team. Diallo played just 10 total minutes in their first round playoff loss to Houston.
At the same time, it’s a credit to him that he has found a role on a playoff squad. And appears as though he has a bright future with one of the bright young teams in the NBA.
11) Patrick Patterson, Los Angeles Clippers
The veteran on John Calipari’s first great Kentucky team is now officially a veteran in NBA circles. In terms of his role with the Clippers, Patterson found big minutes early in the bubble, having his best game – ironically enough – in what was Diallo’s best game as well. Patterson dropped 17 points in that double-overtime matchup with Oklahoma City.
Yet like Kanter, the overwhelming depth of the Clippers relegated Patterson to the bench come playoff time. In Patterson’s case it came with the return of Montrezl Harrell to the bubble, all but eliminating Patterson’s role on a Clippers team which was expected to compete for a title. Patterson is an unrestricted free agent this off-season. So we’ll see if he returns to Los Angeles next year, or pursues other opportunities.
In an unrelated, truly shameless note, I had Patterson on my podcast during the pandemic back in April. If you’re looking for a fun trip down memory lane from his Kentucky days, give it a listen.
10) Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs
Shout out to Keldon Johnson. Because if I was skeptical about Diallo’s long-term prospects in the NBA, I flat out didn’t think they existed for Johnson. When Johnson declared, I openly questioned if it was the right decision and believed he needed to come back to school for another year.
Instead, after spending the early season in the G-League, Johnson exceeded all logical expectations after getting called to the big club mid-winter. And once he arrived in the bubble he took his game to another level, dropping 24 points in each of San Antonio’s last two games in Orlando.
Sometimes in life you just have to take an “L.” And it’s looking more and more like I was just completely wrong on Johnson.
9) Nerlens Noel, Oklahoma City Thunder
Of every Kentucky player in the bubble, Noel probably gets the least credit relative to the success he had. The guy clearly isn’t a star, but carved out a really important role on the Oklahoma City Thunder these last few months. There, Noel served as a back-up to Steven Adams and did what he has done since his days in Lexington: Rebounded, played hard and protected the hell out of the rim. In the process, he saw the court in all seven of the Thunder’s playoff games and clearly has found a nice role as a back-up big man.
Like Patterson, he is an unrestricted free agent this year.
And I’d expect him to get a nice pay bump from the $2.02 million he made in 2019-2020.
8) Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks
Bledsoe has been a key cog on a Milwaukee Bucks team that has earned a No. 1 seed in each of the last two years, but once the season was postponed in February, the poor guy couldn’t catch a break.
First, he actually contracted Covid-19 back in July. Thankfully, while he was OK, Bledsoe was late to the bubble and struggled once he got there. He ended up shooting just 36 percent from the field in Milwaukee’s eight games before the playoffs began and was even worse in Milwaukee’s five-game series loss to Miami, shooting just 32 percent. While there was plenty of blame to go around in Milwaukee following the playoffs, Bledsoe took a big chunk of it for his performance.
Ultimately, a couple bad weeks shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the guy is still a damn good NBA player; he averaged just under 15 points per game on one of the best teams in the league this season. But since this article is based on what actually happened in the bubble, there is no doubt that there were definitely some struggles too.
7) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
I mean, what can we say about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that hasn’t already been said?
Gilgeous-Alexander exceeded expectations in Lexington. He exceeded expectations as a rookie with the Clippers last year. And exceeded expectations in 2019-2020 with the Thunder. His time in the bubble was no different, where he averaged 16 points, five rebounds and four assists per game in the playoffs, this after averaging 19 points per game in the regular season.
Admittedly, none of us should be surprised. But it really is incredible how far and how fast Gilgeous-Alexander has come in his short career.
6) Rajon Rondo, Los Angeles Lakers
First note here is that Rondo has the honor of being the only player on this list who didn’t play for John Calipari. The fact that he is still going strong at 34-years-old, when players who were just out of diapers when he got to Kentucky in 2004 are thriving in the bubble really is incredible.
Secondly, I know that having Rondo this high on the list might be a bit controversial. He didn’t play his first game until the second round of the playoffs against the Rockets.
At the same time, this list is about expectations, and I doubt many peopled expected Rondo to be this good in the bubble. Which brings me to another point: It really does feel like the Lakers have completely taken off since Rondo got back on the court a few weeks ago.
Yes, LeBron and Anthony Davis are the two most important players on this team. But if you take out Rondo’s first game when he was forced back into action, the Lakers are 6-1 in games he plays, and he has added a new dimension to the team as a pesky defender and player who can take the playmaking responsibility out of LeBron’s hands. After stepping back into the bubble and right into the playoffs, he is averaging 11 points and seven assists per game.
Again, you just have to watch the games to realize the impact he is having. But at 34-years-old, it is crazy to see what this guy is still able to do.
5) Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns left the bubble about five weeks ago, and you can still argue all this time later that Booker was one of the breakout stars of the event. You could also argue that he did more to raise his profile than just about anyone else in the bubble (except for a few guys beneath him on this list, of course).
Look, we already knew Booker was an emerging star. This is a guy who dropped 70 points in a game during his second season and have averaged 22+ points per game in each of his last four. At the same time, he really did take his game to another level in this bubble, averaging 27 points per game in the eight games he played, hitting a buzzer beater and leading his team to an 8-0 mark.
The only disappointment out of all this is that even after that 8-0 performance, the Suns couldn’t do quite enough to stay in the bubble a little bit longer. Hopefully they can carry this momentum into next season, make a push for the playoffs and we get more Devin Booker in 2021. Because the kid really is special.
4) Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Now look, if we were just doing a list of “best Kentucky players in the NBA bubble” Davis would probably be in the No. 1 spot. After all, we all knew that he was one of the most talented players in this league coming in and he has done nothing but confirm that in the 21 games he’s played in the bubble.
Still, while we already knew this guy was a star, I also think that we can make a legitimate case that Davis has still, somehow exceeded expectations since arriving in Orlando. Remember, this was a guy who had one playoff series win prior to this season, and plenty of people wondered how he would handle the bright lights and tough games that come in the postseason. Well , I’d say he’s doing pretty well. Considering that, you know, he’s averaging 28.5 points, 10 rebounds and a block and a half a game.
Oh, and did I mention that he also hit maybe the defining shot of the playoffs in Game 2 against Denver?
Anthony Davis for the… WIN!!! I think we can officially stop wondering how AD will handle the big stage of the playoffs pic.twitter.com/XJhR6vZgXY
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) September 21, 2020
In the end, everyone reading this already knew just how good Davis could be. But he has emerged as a true superstar on the title favorite, and a guy who can take the torch from LeBron as “best player on the Lakers” over these next few years and keep the organization a title contender late into the 2020’s.
Davis was already a star. And has somehow raised his profile in this bubble.
3) Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
I’m sure some will complain in the comments section about having Bam ranked ahead of Anthony Davis, but remember this is all about expectations. And while we knew AD was capable of being this good, I’m just not sure we can say the same about Bam. Yes, Adebayo was a first-time All-Star this year, so it isn’t a total shock. At the same time, he has somehow been better in the playoffs than he was in the regular season, averaging 17 points and 11.5 boards per game.
Oh, and he also had maybe the defensive play of the year in the NBA, with his block against Jayson Tatum in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
BAM ADEBAYO BLOCK OF THE YEAR !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/yO7o02idJV
— TrashTalk (@TrashTalk_fr) September 16, 2020
Like so many other guys on this list, the future is INCREDIBLY bright for Adebayo in Miami.
2) Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
I mean speaking of “incredibly bright in Miami” it doesn’t get much brighter than Tyler Herro. Looking back on last night, it really is surreal what he did, and the company he joined with that 37-point performance in Game 4 against Boston.
In the victory, Herro joined Magic Johnson as the only rookie to put up 35 points, five rebounds and three assists in a playoff game. He joined Magic and Derrick Rose as the only players under 21 to ever drop 35 points in a playoff game. He also became the youngest player ever to score 37+ points in a playoff game, surpassing Magic and LeBron James in the process.
Add in the fact that he dropped 22 in a Game 3 and is averaging 15 per game in these playoffs, and you could argue that Herro, as much as anyone else, has been a breakout star of this bubble.
1) Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
If we’re being honest, we could have gone with any of the top four or five guys on this list at No. 1, but to me, the choice here is Murray. This guy went from “really good player” to “one of the most terrifying and electric scorers in all of basketball” in a grand total of like six weeks.
Think about it.
This was a guy who has never averaged more than 18 points per game in a regular season. Yet in these playoffs, he’s averaging 27 points per game, a number which includes four 40+ point games and two 50 point games. One of those 40-point performances came in a Game 7 win over the Clippers.
Like I said, you could argue that there are three or four guys on this list who deserve recognition as “Best Kentucky Wildcat in the NBA bubble.”
But no one has not only exceeded expectations, but smashed them, quite like Jamal Murray has the last few weeks.