When talking about the NBA during its most unique moment in league history, it’s hard to go too long without mentioning something Kentucky-related.
Here’s what I mean.
Anthony Davis is the costar next to LeBron James on the league’s most famous team. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro have become a rising duo in Miami that has the Heat mapping out the next five seasons. Jamal Murray announced himself as a future All-Star the moment the playoffs began, dropping multiple 50-point outings. “Playoff Rondo” is a real thing. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander nearly helped bounce James Harden and the Houston Rockets out of the playoffs in round one. Devin Booker’s eight-game run in the seeding portion of the restart will be talked about for years to come. Keldon Johnson went from borderline NBA player to future starter in a few months time. Rajon Rondo’s brother helped kickstart the NBA’s barbershop on the Orlando campus and has since been kicked out of a Lakers game for calling Russell Westbrook trash. Several of the players above have been named to various All-NBA teams. The list goes on, and on, and on…
In total, 17 former Kentucky players participated in the NBA’s Bubble restart down in Orlando, Florida and 13 of them advanced to the playoffs. Once the Conference Finals began last week, there were still six one-time ‘Cats on the hardwood, but it’s arguably more impressive that five of them are receiving heavy minutes. The main four–Davis, Adebayo and Herro, and Murray–are all considered invaluable pieces to their respective team’s potential championship run.
Easily the two most memberable moments from the playoffs thus far have come from the hands of two BBNBAers: one taking a shot away, the other burying a shot from 25-feet.
Adebayo’s block on Celtics wing Jayson Tatum in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals sealed a win for the Miami Heat and gave them an early 1-0 series lead. Tatum drove past Jimmy Butler and into the lane with five seconds left and Boston trailing 116-114. Adebayo slide over from the baseline, met Tatum at the apex, and contorted his arm into a banana before sending Tatum–and the ensuing dunk attempt–into the floor. Adebayo recovered the loose ball, hit a free-throw at the other end, and the Heat walked off the court with a monumental victory.
After Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray swatted Danny Green’s desperation jump shot from the corner out of bounds with 2.1 seconds left in Game 2, it set the scene for a climax straight out of the movies. The Los Angeles Lakers were already up 1-0 in the Western Conference Finals but on the brink of blowing a double-digit lead barring a miracle. Denver led 103-102; cue Anthony Davis. Rajon Rondo fed a great bounce pass to Davis, who was in the perfect positon to catch and shoot, then hit nothing but net at the buzzer, sending the Lakers bench into a frenzy.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has been at the helm in Lexington for a decade now. 10 years is a long time, but it feels like over two decades since the likes of Davis and John Wall were hustling up and down the Rupp Arena court. I guess when a team is constantly rotating five or more players in and out of a program every year for 10 years, the names can begin to add up, especially when so many of them have been this impressive. But this is what Kentucky has always been under Calipari, and the overall results have been more than worth whatever price one might think it has cost.
Calipari’s winning culture within the walls of the Joe Craft Center and Wildcat Coal Lodge has created a similar culture outside of them. One that now extends to the professional ranks and the NBA. Members of La Familia often (although not every player) stay connected in some fashion for years to come. Most former ‘Cats sill openly represent the Big Blue Nation, whether it’s on their social media pages or by sporting Kentucky gear, and a few of them have been joined together as vocal leaders in the social justice movement that the NBA and WNBA have helped spark across the sports world.
Five years ago, Kentucky didn’t–or couldn’t–have the same effect on the NBA that it does now. It’s taken an entire decade for a massive batch of Calipari’s one-and-dones to develop into All-Stars and off-court captains. It started with Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who both recently turned 30 years old, and continued nearly every single year on. From Davis, to Karl-Anthony Towns, to Devin Booker, to Murray, to De’Aaron Fox, to Adebayo, to SGA, and the many more that will surely come in the future, Kentucky’s culture and impact is being ingrained in the NBA and has been for the last decade. It was only a matter of time before they began to take over as the faces of the league; producing an average of over two lottery picks every Draft since 2010 will eventually pan out for a few different NBA franchises.
“Think about it. The guys that are becoming the face of the NBA … they’re our guys,” Calipari told Jason King. “I’m not surprised. The kids that come here are just built different.”
Calipari doesn’t even need to actively recruit anymore. He can just point to his track record (which he does a lot, actually).
Even after the one-and-done rule is abolished, the fingerprints from Calipari and Kentucky are going to continue to coat the NBA for probably another decade, if not two. The Walls and Cousins of the early Cal years are just now entering their 30s. Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker haven’t hit their primes yet. The rising stars such as Bam Adebayo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are in their early 20s. B.J. Boston and Terrance Clarke haven’t even played a game at Kentucky yet.
Most of Kentucky’s highest-drafted players have gone to organizations suffering and struggling to pull themselves out of the bottom-half of the league. They typically entrust a great deal of responsibility in 19-year old kids who spent one season in college before making the leap to the real world. As one might expect, those players can have a difficulty grappling with the jump in talent. Those years of frustration are key to long term development, but brutal to endure in the short term. What’s happening now is the long term plans have paid off in the form of several All-Star caliber players who once wore the blue and white.
Calipari has still yet to have a former Wildcat win an MVP award or help lead a team in the NBA Finals–that’s when they would truly form a long-lasting legacy–but it’s coming. Davis is the second-best player on a Los Angeles Lakers squad that appears primed to make a run right now for the franchise’s 17 title. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could still win an MVP in the next few years, either. KAT and Booker could one day reach that level, too. Who’s to say Adebayo can’t in the next five seasons? What about all of the future five-star prospects UK will likely bring in over the next decade?
If you’re a fan of Kentucky basketball, now is a bad time not to watch the NBA.