It’s no secret that when it comes to Kentucky basketball, there really are three seasons. There’s the regular season (duh). Recruiting season, which never really starts or ends; just kind of exists in its own universe. And then there’s draft season. Kentucky deals with the highs and lows of this particular part of the calendar more than any other school in the sport.
And this year specifically, the NBA Draft cycle is unlike any other Kentucky has never seen. This year Kentucky has a uniquely odd group of players. There are more individual players than usual who could (in theory) make the jump to the NBA, but fewer with guarantees on where they’ll land. Outside of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox it really is hard to peg where any player will go if they decide to enter the NBA Draft. Or if they’ll be selected at all.
Which is what will make this NBA Draft cycle at Kentucky especially fascinating. This is a truly different kind of year, where there are few guarantees or givens, and where each individual player has to make the decision that is uniquely best for him. A guy who might be guaranteed to go in the first round might still decide to come back to school. A guy who could go undrafted might decide to leave anyway.
Still, it’s a topic that will make for captivating theatre in Kentucky over the next few weeks and months. And after talking to people all around basketball over the last couple weeks as well as following media reports (such as the one Matt Jones dropped a few days ago) here is my ranking of the players most likely to leave Kentucky in some form or fashion between now and the start of next season.
9. Nick Richards
This one really doesn’t need much explanation: Richards just isn’t ready to be a professional basketball player. Not in the NBA. Not in the G-League. He’s not even close. For all the size he has, the skill just hasn’t caught up. And that’s not even really my opinion, but instead a fact. In all the mock drafts I’ve looked at over the last few weeks I haven’t seen his name mentioned anywhere.
Now of course that doesn’t mean that he can’t or won’t go, and the fact that he’s pretty old for an incoming sophomore doesn’t help (he’ll be 21 before the start of season). Still, if the NBA isn’t going to draft you, and transferring means sitting out for a season, what options do you really have?
Stranger things have happened. But I’d be stunned if he weren’t back in Lexington next season.
8. Sacha Killeya-Jones
For Killeya-Jones the conversation isn’t “NBA or not” but whether or not he’d consider transferring to another school. In most cases, when a kid plays just 13 minutes a night as a sophomore (even if this writer thinks it should have been more) and there is no clear cut path to more minutes, you’d think that the player would at least consider it.
Yet while Sacha Killeya-Jones’ transfer has become a hot topic among fans (and I’m sure assistant coaches at other schools trying to poach him), there is one person who doesn’t seem to have all that much interest in talking about it: That’s Sacha Killeya-Jones himself. A few weeks back Killeya-Jones did a great interview with Larry Vaught in which he explicitly said that while he understands why many think he’s gone, it’s not something that’s actually crossed his mind. That makes sense when you consider that most people had Killeya-Jones pegged as a 3-4 year college player when he committed to Kentucky back in 2015.
Put simply, a lot could change over the next few months. But with few NBA suitors and after publicly stating that he has no interest in transferring, who am I to doubt him? I suspect he’ll be back in Lexington next year.
7. P.J. Washington
It feels ironic to have Washington this low on the list, since at the time of this publication, he is the only player to actually declare for the draft. However he plans to do so without an agent, which (as my colleague Drew Franklin explained), is a move that makes sense for Washington. It allows him to get real feedback from NBA personnel on both where he could be drafted and what skills he needs to work on. From there, if he’s good enough to go pro, then Washington will have his shot. If he isn’t good enough, then he’ll come back to school better equipped for next season. Lots of others have taken NBA feedback from the Combine and turned it into a positive, like Mo Wagner (Michigan) and Aaron Holiday (UCLA) this season. There’s no reason Washington can’t do the same.
Furthermore, if you actually read the statement Washington released on Monday, it kind of feels like he’s already hedging his bets. Here is part of the statement:
“I want fans to know that I love school, I love this program, and I love Kentucky. I am not in a hurry to make any type of decision but Coach believes I should evaluate where I am right now.”
Now you tell me: Does that really sound like the kind of guy who is actually going to go pro? Or someone who is simply taking the advice of the coach who has been here a million times before?
Beyond that, even if Washington declared for reasons beyond John Calipari’s suggestion, that doesn’t mean he’s actually good enough to go pro. It’s no secret that Washington doesn’t scream “NBA prospect” and most mock drafts have him going in the second round of the draft, if they have him being selected at all. Considering that Washington has explicitly stated he wants to be a first rounder, you’d think that’s a good sign for Kentucky fans who want to see him in Lexington next year.
Washington is the rare player who doesn’t seem like he’s in a rush to go to the pros, nor does he have the skills to force his decision either. It feels almost certain he’ll be back next year.
6. Quade Green
Now this is where it gets interesting to me. Green isn’t going to the NBA. We get that. But are we sure he’s definitively going to be back next year? I’m not totally sure, since over the course of Final Four weekend I heard some scuttlebutt from people I trust that Green is at least considering a transfer. I’m not saying it’s certain or even likely. My new colleague TJ Walker even spoke to Green’s high school coach today, and he said, to the best of his knowledge, that Green wouldn’t be going anywhere.
Still, I feel like there are a few signs, starting with Kentucky’s continued pursuit of a couple more guards in this recruiting class. At this point it seems almost certain that Ashton Hagans will reclassify, and if he does, Kentucky will be the favorite to land his services. The fact that Calipari reached out to Brandon Williams from my neck of the woods in LA is interesting too.
Now ultimately I know what most people would say: Well, Cal is protecting himself incase Shai Gilgeous-Alexander goes pro. But is he really? The Wildcats already have three guards locked in for the upcoming recruiting class, including one point guard, Immanuel Quickley. They also – in theory – have Green and Jemarl Baker coming back. That’s five reliable guards, and two point guards. Do they really need another? Again, I’m just crunching the numbers here and something doesn’t add up. Even if you believe Hagans is an elite talent (which most believe he is) is it worth taking him and upsetting Green? It’s a fair question, which leads to another: Would you rather have an uber-elite freshman like Hagans on your roster next year if it means losing a steadying veteran like Green?
Again, I’m not saying that Kentucky will lose Green. There is no report that Green is even considering a transfer, let alone is definitively leaving. Therefore if you made me bet, I’d still wager that Green returns to Lexington next season. But I can’t say that I feel as good about it today as I did a month ago.
5. Wenyen Gabriel
Look, we all know that Wenyen didn’t have the easiest upbringing. It’s why – as Matt Jones suggested – he may have no choice but to go pro. No one thinks he’s NBA ready. But if his personal situation is dire, no one can blame him for going pro. Me certainly included.
At the same time, if he does go pro let’s make one thing clear: It’s unlikely he gets drafted. That’s because as much improvement as Wenyen showed this year, I’m still not sure what he does well besides shoot three-pointers. He doesn’t handle the ball well, can’t create his own shot and doesn’t have much of a game around the basket. So in the end, is someone really taking a risk on a hustle and energy 6’9 player who can shoot but little else?
I don’t know. That’s also why I feel bad for Wenyen. He can only do what’s best for him. But if he can afford another year in college he should come back. If he were to work on his ball-handling and low-post game he could legit be a first round pick in time.
4. Jared Vanderbilt
To be blunt, Vanderbilt has maybe the most bizarre set of circumstances I’ve ever seen. He is an injury-prone player, and as a general rule, when you’re injury prone, you get to the pros, get whatever money you can and hope you can stay healthy. For J-Vando though, is that it’s not that simple.
Because Vanderbilt basically had one foot injury or another starting with last year’s Nike Hoops Summit straight through the middle of this season, the NBA doesn’t have a ton of tape on him. Furthermore, not only do they not have tape on him, but – because of his most recent ankle injury – he might not even be healthy enough to go through pre-draft workouts for individual teams or the Combine. If he hasn’t been healthy all year, and he isn’t even healthy enough to work out for teams during the NBA Draft process, than it could be disastrous if he stays in the draft. How disastrous? He might not get drafted. Even if he’s healthy he probably won’t go in the first round.
Add it all up, and this to me – more than anyone else – is the toughest decision of any Kentucky player. My hunch is that he ends up staying in the draft, just because the risk of returning to school and suffering another injury is way too much.
I do feel bad for poor J-Vando though. And I don’t envy the decision that he has.
3. Kevin Knox
So I’ll be honest: When Matt Jones first reported that Knox was very seriously considering coming back I thought Knox was crazy. In a way, I still do. It’s very, very, VERY rare for a perceived lottery pick to return to school. The only time that usually happens is when a kid comes out of nowhere to get on the NBA’s radar (like Texas A&M’s Robert Williams or Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford). It almost never happens for a guy who everyone knew was a one-and-done before he stepped on campus like Knox.
Only here we are, and the longer this goes the longer I’m starting to think…. can Knox really come back?
His arguments make sense. As his dad said earlier this week, the family is financially stable and Knox really does want to win a championship of his own, after his dad won a title with Florida State football in 1993. He’s also incredibly young for his age and would be one of the youngest players in this year’s draft.
And when you think about the possibility of moving up next year’s draft it really makes sense. Just for fun I looked up the numbers, and did comparison. Let’s say that Kevin Knox could have been the No. 12 pick in this year’s draft, but he came back and instead was the No. 3 pick next year. He would get more than double the salary in his first season ($4.7 million compared to $2.3). He would also get $16.7 million over the first three years of his career, rather than just $8.1 million at No. 12.
Therefore, the longer this thing drags on, the longer I actually think, my goodness, Knox could come back.
I won’t say definitively because 1) This is all speculation and I have no proof 2) I don’t want to let everyone reading down. But it certainly is starting to feel like Knox could be back next year.
2. Hamidou Diallo
Considering how much I’ve written so far, I’ll keep Diallo succinct.
I think we can all agree that Diallo isn’t ready for the pros. But someone will still draft him this year based solely on his potential and the belief that they can turn him into a high quality NBA player. He’s still only 19 (although he’ll be 20 in July) some NBA team will talk themselves into him. Hami probably isn’t a first round pick. But someone will take the plunge in the second round.
The problem then becomes this: What if he comes back next year and doesn’t improve? At that point I think he’s basically undraftable. He would be two years removed from high school and nearly 21-years-old, meaning he wouldn’t have nearly as much upside.
If I was advising Diallo, I’d tell him to go pro.
1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
I know Gilgeous-Alexander’s decision to push back his official announcement caught quite a few off-guard. But while I’d love to see him come back to college, I just can’t imagine the decision to delay the announcement really changes all that much. This is a kid who is a projected lottery pick, his stock is probably as high as it will get, and – as mentioned above – Kentucky has already signed multiple guards for next year and is still recruiting Ashton Hagans.
Gilgeous-Alexander was one of the pleasant surprises not only at Kentucky this year but in all of college basketball.
Expect him to be in the NBA next year.