Just how much better are Kentucky guys in the NBA compared to players of other prominent college programs? And how much are they overachieving?
To find the answer, I dove into the last ten years of NBA Drafts, the 2010s decade from 2010 to 2019, and I picked the five best players from each draft. Yes, it’s a wholly inexact science and my Kentucky bias is obvious I’m sure, but for the most part, tabbing the clear five best from each draft isn’t terribly difficult.
Why the top five? Some drafts, like the upcoming 2020 one, are downright terrible; others, like the Luka Doncic/Trae Young/Michael Porter Jr. class of ’18, are stocked with star power. However, the top five usually reflects a group of really good-to-elite level players annually.
My quest is to figure out how many high impact guys — not just replacement or starter-level players — passed through Kentucky before reaching varying degrees of stardom professionally.
Let’s start with 2010: John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, the 1st and 5th picks, performed to their hype, struggled with injury and if not, would both be ahead of Paul George in this fictional re-rank. George takes the top spot, the UK guys are two and three, then I’d throw Eric Bledsoe in at 5th, right behind Gordon Hayward. That’s three of the top five just in year one.
In 2011, Kentucky produced zero top five guys; although it’s worth noting that Brandon Knight was on an All-Star trajectory as the Milwaukee Bucks point guard before he was traded to the Phoenix Suns in the middle of the 2015 season and suffered myriad injuries since; and DeAndre Liggins had no business being in the NBA for his six years, but made it as a defensive rottweiler.
Ah, 2012 brings us to the Jekyll and Hyde one-two punch in the 2012 Draft. One a star, the other a certifiable bust. Anthony Davis and his new knuckle jewelry take the 2012 top spot, just as he did on draft night. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the former second pick, didn’t quite make the top-five cut.
2013 and 2014 are the only two years since 2011 where Kentucky hasn’t produced a top-five player in an NBA draft. During this “down” stretch, Calipari still saw Nerlens Noel selected sixth and Julius Randle seventh in consecutive years.
The 2015 NBA draft featured four Kentucky players in the lottery alone, and two of them — Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns — have already signed max contract extensions and developed into bonafide top-20 players in the NBA. Booker’s Suns just finished up an 8-0 bubble run while KAT finished 2020 with a career-high 26.5 points per game. They’re the two best out of 2015, from each end of the lottery, and both from Kentucky. (Just to rub the point in: remember Jahlil Okafor? Justise Winslow?)
2016 gave Kentucky fans arguably its best scorer of the century. Jodie Meeks was dirty on a pair of bad Kentucky teams, but Jamal Murray, alongside Tyler Ulis, held the 2015-16 squad together like bungee cords tied around vacation luggage. Murray was amazing as a tireless multi-phase scorer and especially fun three-point bomber in college, but he finally took off as an NBA star in this year’s bubble.
Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell are the two best players from the 2017 draft. Behind them, it’s a pair of Kentuckians, and I don’t know who goes first. After a sensational showing in the bubble, helping anchor a Finals runner-up, Bam Adebayo has to take the third spot, with De’Aaron Fox right behind. Remember this video, following the loss to North Carolina?
It’s my favorite UK basketball video in five years. Two kids, from Texas and from North Carolina, bawling their eyes and hearts out, weeping “I love my brothers” after their final game together; their final game wearing our state’s name across their chest. Even though they lost, it’s a moment that defined these two as people and players in my eyes. Ultimate, unselfish, competitors. There’s a reason their also-super-talented teammates couldn’t make this list.
The 2018 season was the closest thing to the 2013 train wreck, but still, Kentucky managed a five-seed and produced a top-five guy in what could’ve been the most consequential draft of the decade. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has every tool to become the exact type of guard the NBA is looking for: versatile, three-position defender, smart passer, smooth ball handler, decent spot-up shooter, and wise beyond his years with a basketball in his hands. He’s been terrific two years in.
Lastly, 2019 gave us another pair of top-five guys, although this group is less-defined given that they’ve played only a year (or less in many cases). But, Tyler Herro was a raging excitement to watch in his rookie postseason run, posting a 37-point outburst in the Eastern Conference Finals. His former teammate, PJ Washington, also had a nice little season, one that statistically matches Herro’s, although Washington was stuck on the Charlotte Hornets — who did not qualify for the bubble.
Altogether, how many players has John Calipari turned from recruit to NBA star?
By my count, there are 12 Calipari-coached Kentucky players who have become top-5 players in their respective drafts. Out of 26 total guys sent to the NBA since taking over, nearly half of them have developed into players worthy of a top-five selection in hindsight.
As an aside: During that same stretch, Duke is at just four players who registered as top-five players in their respective drafts (Kyrie Irving, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson). Kansas had just two, and Andrew Wiggins is on the fringe, leaving just Joel Embiid as their NBA success story. North Carolina had nobody worth of top-five consideration in any draft, which is incredible given their volume of blue-chip recruits.
Just some reading material for recruits who will make a choice between that foursome of Blue Blood programs.
We know the stars; guys picked high like Wall, Cousins, Davis, Towns, Fox, etc. But is every player like this? Who cares how many stars Kentucky has, they get all of the best players! — a Calipari rejecter might cry. Okay. How many of this group have thoroughly outperformed their draft position? As in, who was picked lower in the draft, but has performed at a level worthy of a top-five selection?
Eric Bledsoe was picked 18th. He’s been a starter for 10 years and was the best or second-best player on various Suns teams that made the postseason in the early 2010s.
Devin Booker went near the end of the lottery. Now a perennial 25+ points-per-game scorer and ringleader of the 8-0 bubble Suns, would teams pass on him for the likes of Mario Hezonja and Frank Kaminsky this time around?
Like Booker, Bam Adebayo fell to the tail end of the lottery. Viewed as little more than a bouncy big with a high rim-runner/shot-blocker ceiling, but quickly developed into one of the NBA’s elite defenders — maybe one of its two or three best down low — and also added adept passing and a consistent mid-range jumper. He’s an animal.
A year later, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander fell to the same end-of-lottery range that Kentucky players have recently dominated. Immediately in the NBA, Shai’s clever ball skills, mature decision-making, and extraordinary lankiness at his position propelled him to immediate success.
And we would be damned if another late-lottery Kentucky guy didn’t break out in the 2020 season. Tyler Herro took the bubble by storm, as we discussed earlier.
With 26 players in the NBA, 12 who I pegged as top-five in their draft, and 20 total All-Star appearances between the 26, Kentucky’s hold on the NBA is dominant among collegiate peers, evidenced at last by the NBA Finals, the only place former Calipari-coached Kentucky had yet to win. But then 2020 came, and Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo held up the 2020 Larry O’Brien Trophy while Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo came within a whisker of doing the same.
With AD continuing his reign next to LeBron, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic in Denver, Bam and Tyler headlining a young, hip Heat future, Booker’s Suns, the return of John Wall, among all the other interesting storylines involving Kentucky guys, the NBA is the most entertaining La Familia reunion around.