Tomorrow night, at least three Kentucky Wildcats will hear their names called in the NBA Draft, a moment De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Bam Adebayo have dreamed of their entire lives. Not only is being drafted the culmination of years of hard work for the players, it’s a testament to the countless sacrifices made by their families.
Every year on the night before the draft, I like to go back and revisit each player’s story to fully appreciate what the moment means. As Kentucky fans, we feel like we know these players better than anyone, but on the eve of the biggest night of their lives, let’s look at the blood, sweat, and tears that got them here.
In a way, De’Aaron Fox has his older brother Quentin to thank for getting him into basketball. Quentin is five years his senior and just before De’Aaron turned two, really got into basketball. The family was gathered at his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving when De’Aaron noticed Quentin playing, and, like many little brothers do, De’Aaron picked up a plastic pumpkin bucket used for trick-or-treating to mimic him.
“It was just hilarious,” Lorraine Fox told Bleacher Report’s Reid Forgrave. “It was like, ‘OK, son, that’s not a basketball.'”
From there, Fox was hooked. He also played football when he was young (it was Texas, after all), but gave it up when he got tired of practicing outside in the unforgiving heat. Fox’s speed is undeniable, but his mind moves just as fast. Like many kids his age, Fox also loved video games, playing NBA2K as early as fourth grade for hours on end. Whereas gaming is often associated with lazy nerds, Fox and those around him credit the countless hours with controller in hand for sharpening his hand-eye coordination, concentration, and analytical thinking on the court.
Fox is predicted to go anywhere from second to fifth in tomorrow night’s draft, his most likely landing spot being Sacramento at No. 5. In a draft not short on stars, he’s emerged as the media darling thanks to his thoughtful, candid personality. The more Fox talks, the more Kentucky fans miss him. Not only did he tug on our heartstrings with an emotional tribute to his teammates in the locker room after the loss to North Carolina, he’s not afraid to speak his mind when it comes to topics like LaVar Ball. He really endeared himself this afternoon when he said of Kentucky, “We actually go to class, not like some other places.” Oh, snap!
De’Aaron will probably always be the player we wish we had gotten to know better earlier, but he’ll also be one to make us proud for years to come.
As the tattoo on his chest will tell you, Malik grew up in “The Woodz,” aka the basketball courts in Lepanto, Arkansas, a tiny town with a population of 1,893. There’s nothing flashy about Lepanto — its poverty rate is more than double the national average — but Malik considers it home, even after his mother decided to move them to Bentonville to be closer to his older brother Marcus and expand his opportunities.
“Escaping Lepanto was always the goal. Malik just did it early,” Ron Crawford, the longtime president of Malik’s AAU team Arkansas Wings Elite, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “He would’ve been the hero of the town, but he wasn’t learning anything. I know a lot of people, it hurt their feelings when Malik left, but it changed his life. It changed his life as far as his vision.”
Malik’s vision prompted him to pick Kentucky over Arkansas despite relentless pressure from Razorback fans, who envisioned him following in his brother’s footsteps as a home state hero. But when Malik made his decision, his family stood behind him 100%. So did the Big Blue Nation, his new family.
“Kentucky fans made one thing crystal clear to me: They had my back,” Malik wrote in a letter in The Players’ Tribune. “No one made me wait until the fall, until I got to Lexington, to be accepted into Big Blue Nation. Man, it was just right off the bat: Like, Once you’re one of us, you’re one of us. And whether it was defending me on social media … or sending me messages about how excited they were for me to come play there … or alums getting in touch and letting me know what an amazing experience was in store for me in the fall … it really helped a lot. It helped turn an extremely tough situation into an extremely positive one. And it helped me realize that, just by committing to Kentucky, I was already a part of something special. And I’ll never forget that.”
Malik proved to be the most electric scorer in college basketball last year, lighting North Carolina up for 47 points back in December. Projected to go anywhere from sixth to eleventh, Malik will be a valuable asset for whichever team picks him, a player that can scorch opponents on almost any night. Most mock drafts have him going to the Knicks at No. 8, and even though New York City is a far cry from “The Woodz,” all you have to do is take one look at that tattoo to remember what got him there.
Bam’s story has always centered around his mother, Marilyn. When Bam was seven, Marilyn moved them from the rough streets of Newark, New Jersey to the backwoods of North Carolina where she grew up. The two stayed with Marilyn’s sister until she got a job as a cashier at the Acre Station Meat Farm in Pinetown. Bam and Marilyn moved into a trailer nearby, and while she worked long hours, he played basketball. Bam was always a big kid — by now you know he earned his nickname by turning over a coffee table when he was one year old — but by age 13, he was already 6’6″. As Bam continued to draw attention for his size and power, his mother worked even harder to make sure he had what he needed.
“She fought for us,” Adebayo told Sports Illustrated’s Brian Hamilton. “She made it happen. She made it work. . . . Growing up in a trailer, you think everything you get is good. I always thought it was a gift from God, because some people are out here struggling and on the street. We had warmth. We had clothes. We had a roof over our head.”
There was no greater joy this season than watching Bam’s mother watch her son play. Marilyn, decked out in her custom “Yabba Dabba Blue” shirt, lit up every time Bam had the ball, and when there was a bad call, she made everyone in the stands aware. Who could forget her reaction to Kentucky’s win over Wichita State, in which her son “shut up” the Shockers’ Darral Willis, Jr., who had talked trash about Bam the day before:
Bam Adebayo's mother, Marilyn Blount, after UK's victory over Wichita State. "He didn't shut (Bam) down, did he?! Bam went at him!" pic.twitter.com/uRkR8B1vhD
— Tanner Hesterberg (@TannerWKYT) March 19, 2017
Projected as a late first round/early second round pick a few months ago, Bam went home to North Carolina to think about his decision. After consulting with his mother and family members, he decided to keep his name in the draft. Now, after impressing teams with his shooting, he’s projected to go anywhere from the late lottery to the mid-20’s. Most mocks have him going to Indiana at No. 18 or Portland at No. 20, but after a recent workout with the Hornets, there were rumblings that Charlotte may be interested in taking him at No. 11. I think the folks in Pinetown would be pretty happy with that.
No matter the scenario, can you imagine a better “thank you” than the hug Bam will give his mother once his name is called tomorrow night?