The impact that Kentucky Basketball has made on the NBA over the last decade is just now being felt across the hoops world.
Starting Wednesday night, the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat will tipoff with the presence of blue and white painting both benches. Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo, and Frank Vogel represent Kentucky on the Lakers’ end while Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Pat Riley do the same for the Heat. It will be the culmination of John Calipari’s first 10-year run at Kentucky and a promising look at what’s hopefully ahead for the next 10.
When the NBA’s Bubble concept in Orlando began back in June, there were 17 former Wildcats who made the trip. By the time the playoffs rolled around a couple of months later, 13 of them still remained. As the Bubble toiled along, one-time Kentucky players were taking turns sharing the spotlight, whether it was Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox, and Keldon Johnson during the seeding games or Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Enes Kanter, and Eric Bledsoe in the postseason, the Big Blue Nation was taking over–even if it wasn’t always for something positive.
What John Calipari has done at Kentucky over the last decade is being put on full display down in Orlando. It’s another recruiting pitch that he doesn’t even need to mention; players like Davis and Murray, and many more, are being idolized right now by 13-year-olds across the globe. Kentucky has 28 players currently on NBA rosters with another 16 in the G League or playing overseas. The odds that the program would one day hit on multiple All-Star players have always been much higher than any other school in history. Kentucky has six one-time All-Stars playing in the NBA right now, three of them (Adebayo, Booker, and Davis) making the team this past season.
But the fame and influence from former players isn’t just a great recruiting pitch or a reflection of Kentucky’s incredible player development skills–it’s also a teaching tool for current players. The 2020-21 Kentucky Men’s Basketball roster has at least two players who are expected to land in next year’s NBA Draft Lottery with another two or three (if not more) who will hope to make the leap to the pros, as well. Like every year, the turnover rate for next season’s roster will be high. Considering the uncertainty of the upcoming college basketball season, every extra second of practice or film watching will be worth it. And it’s hard to argue that watching film on the NBA’s best players–who played under the same coaching staff within the last 10 years–is anything but a useful tip.
“We’re texting back and forth. I’ll be sitting in my chair and one of them [a current player] will text me, ‘Did you see that?’” Calipari said during his press conference on Tuesday. “Some of the stuff we’re teaching, the dribble-drive right now where I am able to go slow or because we are having more time, they are seeing the spacing to the corner. They are seeing the loop behind. They are seeing pitches being thrown and they are texting me like, ‘That’s the stuff you were talking to us about today.’ So, they are getting a picture that we are teaching not plays, we are teaching them how to play basketball, how to play dribble-drive because if you’re watching the NBA, it’s either trying to get a layup or space out for 3s.”
What Calipari teaches in practice, his players are seeing replicated at the highest level. The NBA is built on getting to the rim and chucking up a ton of 3-pointers, and Calipari’s dribble-drive offense is all about creating shots at the rim.
Playing at Kentucky has never been about one person scoring 25 points every single night out, but five different players scoring 25 points at least once throughout a season. Calipari needs all of his personnel, from top to bottom, to buy into a culture that preaches accountability and teamwork in roughly eight months’ time. The mentality of understanding that you don’t have to score every time down the court also has to transition off the floor. Adebayo and Davis have both held themselves responsible during this postseason after poor outings, responding through their on-court production and attitude the next time out. That’s the mindset Calipari is trying to drive home to his current team.
“I talked to them about what Bam (Adebayo) did, took responsibility,” Calipari said. “That’s one of the meetings we had. We talk about the question they threw at Anthony (Davis), where Charles (Barkley) said, ‘You’re not aggressive enough. Tell us why?’”
Coming to Kentucky means dealing with media on a regular basis. Often times, it can only get more intense once they leave, particularly if they land in a big city such as Chicago, New York, or L.A. It’s not just about basketball for Calipari, but how you represent yourself, and he has an entire group of young men in the NBA who carry that message with them.
“So, they’re [the current players] watching the game, watching these [former Kentucky] players,” Calipari continued. “We’re telling them how hard they’ve worked, how much time they’ve spent in the gym, told them how committed they were and everything they were supposed to be doing, academics, to all the things we are doing in the community. It’s not one thing. It’s about, quote, being professional. How you act, how you respond to people, when you’re held accountable, what do I do and how do I change?”
On and off the court, former Kentucky players have been a model for current and future Wildcats. Every player has their own unique path, it just helps when a program has so many different options to help relate it too.