Ahead of the NBA restarting its season in Orlando, 15 former Kentucky Wildcats are slated to compete for the title over the next few months, and I’m going to rank them. While guys like Karl Towns, PJ Washington and Mychal Mulder may sadly be missing the historic restart, for the first time in quite a while most of the current former Kentucky guys actually play for winning teams, and the three leading contenders – the Bucks, Laker and Clippers – each have a Wildcat on their roster.
No. 1 should be no surprise…
1. Anthony Davis | Lakers
If not for his generational teammate’s celebrity, Davis might draw the same MVP praise as the King. Still a top-three defensive player and 25+ points-per-game scorer, AD plus LeBron is comfortably the best duo in basketball and were when the season stopped. Anthony Davis could feasibly become the first Kentucky Wildcat to win a Finals MVP, and no one else on the list is remotely capable of that achievement in 2020. He’s our guy, No. 1 in any list, always.
2. Devin Booker | Suns
Devin Booker has never made the playoffs and certainly won’t in 2020, but his Phoenix Suns keep inching closer behind Booker’s ever-expanding offensive superstardom. He landed in one of the top spots among the bubble’s former Wildcats because, frankly, he’s the best scorer; he scores the most, scores most efficiently, gets to the free throw line, creates shots for himself and others, and has carried an NBA offense for four consecutive years, averaging 22+ points a game each year (including 26 over the last two).
The highest-rating pro offenses have veteran (more talented or more athletic) Devin Bookers: a lead playmaker + a superstar scorer. Booker stands solidly taller than the average point guard at 6-foot-5 (some sites even list him at 6’6″) and is considerably bulkier – factors that, coupled with his crooked scoring and assist numbers, draw James Harden comparisons from the bewitched take-manufacturer that is NBATwitter.
Devin Booker was cooking today at practice ?
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 18, 2020
His Suns are still hopeless when it comes to the playoffs, but even competing for a spot this late in the season is abnormal for Phoenix. Booker will be playing in the most significant games of his career thus far and that itself is worth monitoring.
3. Bam Adebayo | Heat
I already regret putting him third.
If you’re asking me who is the more reliable performer between Adebayo and Booker, the one who brings consistent high-level defense, energy and hustle, well, it isn’t the pretty boy. Booker’s scoring upside pushed him over the top in a league modernly dominated by 25-per-game scorers, but Bam will arguably be more valuable to his team. The Heat is a mid-level Eastern Conference playoff team with the raw size to try to handle Giannis, compared to a distant Western conference afterthought.
Bam is in the mix for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award after leaping from substitute big man to Defensive Player of the Year contender as the starting center for a competing team in the East. At stretches over the ’19-20 season, Bam was Miami’s most valuable player (advanced analytics also love Bam). I can’t wait to see Bam get a 7-game crack at Joel Embiid or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander | Thunder
I also seriously considered Shai for the second spot among the returning ‘Cats. He doesn’t score nearly as much as Booker nor does he pass like him, and while SGA defends his position at a very high level, Bam’s defense is more forceful and geared toward protecting the rim. SGA is more malleable than either of them. He can bend to a three-guard lineup next to two ball-dominant point guards like with this funky 2020 Thunder squad, or he can run point guard as he did in Lexington and frequently during his year with the Clippers.
Another Most Improved Player candidate, and, for my money, the smartest basketball player of the Calipari era next to Tyler Ulis. He can play three positions, guard three positions, hit the three, run the offense, create his own shot… All of it, as a 21-year-old apprentice to Chris Paul. Plus, I think his team is better than either the Heat or Suns, for what that’s worth.
5. De’Aaron Fox | Kings
No, Fox’s recent ankle sprain is not why he dropped to fourth (although he’s getting back to full strength!).
Heading into the 2019-20 season, Fox would have certainly come right after Davis among this group. He’d made his leap from a young, turnover-prone lightning bolt to steady, steam-rolling lead ballhandler with some shooting touch. In 2020, he and the Kings didn’t take the step(s) forward they’d expected after a near-playoff-qualifying and unexpectedly competitive 2019 season headlined by their young core.
Partial blame for the shortcomings can go on injuries, particularly to former No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley, who played just 13 games all year, and Fox, who missed almost 20 himself before the season was paused. Sacramento is at least the fourth-most likely team to snag the eight-seed behind better rosters in Memphis, New Orleans and Portland. Plus, with Bagley out and Fox less than 100%, their presence is more financially ceremonial than anything else.
6. Jamal Murray | Nuggets
Jamal Murray was the Denver Wildcard in 2019. In a strange but wicked-effective offense revolving around Nikola Jokic, a blubbery 7-footer who couldn’t jump over Sunday’s copy of the Courier Journal, postseason wins and losses revolved around whether Jamal Murray could hit jump shots. With the Serbian polar bear camped at the elbow every time down the court, Murray’s job is what it was at Kentucky: run circles around the three-point arc and hit the open ones.
Except that is Denver’s primary offense. It kills in the regular season, don’t get me wrong. However, when your hopes are tied to Jamal Murray fadeaways in the NBA Playoffs, how far can you really expect to go?
If Murray can reliably hit those jumpers – something similar to the midrange side-step flurry CJ McCollum fed him during the DEN/POR series last season – Denver reasonably can challenge for the West Finals in a much more stacked bracket than they faced a year ago.
7. Eric Bledsoe | Bucks
Among starting point guards, Eric Bledsoe is pretty much the Medoza line – the average, an enduring member of the tremendously average, a middle-class starting point guard who fell in the lap of the best player in the NBA.
Like Enes, Bledsoe has been a volatile piece of NBA conversation over the past two postseasons – primarily as a scapegoat. Until he learns how to hit an open three during the warm months of the year, Wisconsonians and national analysts are going to continue to exploit his shooting as the flaw that’s holding Giannis’s Milwaukee back. Bledsoe needs to open up the floor for the behemoth MVP of the league by hitting enough threes to be simply respected, which he hasn’t in the past two years.
He has to make 34% or higher this postseason or he’ll be pulled for the older, more reliable shooter George Hill once again and might just be traded in the offseason. His three-point shot won’t fool anyone this year, he just has to make them.
8. Rajon Rondo | Lakers
Rondo’s performance during the regular season would land him near the very bottom of this list. He stopped playing defense in December, started passing the ball like Ashton Hagans, and left his jump-shooting behind for good.
In the same way there’s a Matt and then there is Bahamas Matt (who screams “Bahama MAMBA!” in the Atlantis lobby after winning blackjack hands); there’s a Rondo and then there’s Playoff Rondo, who in later years strikes as a barbed-wire defensive point guard averaging double-digit assists while backing up his late-2000s status as a revered trash-talker and modern basketball genius.
Playoff Rondo is a different breed?
3 steals pic.twitter.com/8RXEmJj89M
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) April 15, 2019
As the years pass and Rondo stinks it up more and more each year in the regular season, Playoff Rondo only grows more legendary in conversation. Last time Rondo saw the postseason, he and Anthony Davis alley-ooped their way to a first-round sweep of 2019’s West Champs, Portland.
Expecting Rondo to re-kindle that form, two years older and recovering from a fractured thumb (he just broke it this week, heartbreakingly) is highly unlikely. But look around that LA locker room. Are JR Smith and Dion Waiters coming out of their corners to serve as the secondary Laker ballhandlers? What about Alex Caruso? He just fouled out of Saturday’s scrimmage in 12 minutes. Rondo, if he can return healthy, feels like the obvious other point guard in a playoff situation, even if he’s a little eroded.
9. Enes Kanter | Celtics
If I were polling this list based on each guy’s value to their specific team, Enes would be three or four spots higher. By measure of conversation and twitter discourse around these guys, Enes gets more coverage and stories written about him each postseason than nearly all of his teammates. I mean this in the most bizarre fashion.
His first postseason of consequence was 2016 when his pick-and-roll offense and total lack of defense made him the most divisive conversation piece of the epic Golden State/Oklahoma City series. He came in, grabbed a ton of offensive boards, scored off screen and rolls and couldn’t defend a soul. Some argue he wound up costing them that series. I wouldn’t go that far. He didn’t matter that much.
Then, last year, Kanter filled in for Portland after their starting center went down. His shoulder health was deciding factor in nearly every Portland postseason game in 2019, and his injury perseverance, defensive toughness and Hakeem Olajuwon’s mentorship helped he and the Trail Blazers push past Jokic and the Nuggets.
As a Celtic, he’s somehow found himself yet again in a position of absolute need while remaining a completely divisive player among critics, coaches and the like. Whether he performs like the Enes of 2016 or 2019 could again decide his team’s playoff fate, as Boston rostered zero centers with NBA experience aside from Kanter before the start of the season.
10. Nerlens Noel | Thunder
Pigeonholed in the Kanter role of 2016 next to a much better and more minutes-eating Steven Adams, Noel comes off the bench as the fierce shot-blocker he was at Kentucky, but with an improved sense of how to set screens and score with touch around the rim. I really like those rim-runner/shot blocker types, and it feels like every good team has a pogo stick big they can toss in to protect the basket, finish dunks and grab offensive boards.
Noel is a perfect fit, even though his situation in OKC is the polar opposite (stuck behind a lumberjack version of himself).
11. Tyler Herro | Heat
Personally, I’m super excited to see the bucket take on a Disney World playoffs.
The best basketball I’ve ever seen Herro play was the last time he played in a resort, ahead of his freshman season. Herro averaged 20 points in those four 2018 games in Atlantis. After watching him in person for probably five minutes in the second game of the trip, I tapped my buddy and commented “he’s gonna be a lottery pick.”
Tyler Herro has been impressive for Miami in their first 2 scrimmages ?
20 Pts, 7 Reb, 4 Ast vs Jazz
15 Pts, 6 Reb, 2 Ast vs Kings
Smooth buckets from the rookie! pic.twitter.com/zLtxFS3mDa
— Hilltop Hoops (@HilltopNBA) July 26, 2020
We never saw the loose Tyler of the Bahamas over the actual 2019 season – he was more wound up and careful in the games that actually counted. But in those Bahamas games, Herro snaked around the court commanding the ball when he need it, maneuvering into any array of open shots he chose. I would say under dimmer lights, with fewer and drunker fans, and with Coach Cal in stands rather than along the sideline, Herro played his best basketball. Perhaps he will again.
12. Patrick Patterson | Clippers
In the twilight of a career spent rebounding and standing in the corner shooting threes, Patterson serves a larger role than you’d think for the Los Angeles Clippers, the preseason title favorite. He even started 18 games this season, mostly when either of LA’s star wings Kawhi Leonard or Paul George sat.
I don’t expect to see him much in the postseason, but with how little Los Angeles is inside and how thin they are with big man depth, Patterson is on the shortlist of options at the 4 or 5. If he could hit a three or two a game and grab a few boards for the NBA champion, and that’d be pretty cool.
13. Wenyen Gabriel | Trail Blazers
Two Wenyen Gabriel moments have made my jaw slap the floor. One involved KFC and a one-dollar bill. The other was the Lakers’ first game after Kobe’s death. After LeBron and all of the LA celebrities wept for 45 minutes, the starting lineups were introduced. The poor bloke assigned to guard Anthony Davis to start the game? Wenyen Gabriel.
Of course, Portland won that game. Likely due to Wenyen holding Davis to just 37 points and 16 rebounds while he added zero points and a rebound of his own.
I don’t care if he publicly spat on Cal or if he indeed struggled to dribble at UK, Wenyen pushed the pedal whenever he was on the court at Kentucky, and that’s why he has an opportunity as a pro that prospects much more talented than him blew. He has my support!
14. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | Hornets
Since the quarantine kicked in, I’ve rewatched the 2012 NCAA title game two or three times, and each time the same couple things stick out: Calipari’s raven black hair and MKG’s physical domination. Kidd consistently beat the absolute crap out of junior and senior college forwards as an undersized freshman. Heck, he scrapped his way to the second pick – with a pinch of help from AD – even though he could barely score on his own.
Ultimately, that was his downfall professionally, and he almost certainly won’t get off the bench for Dallas because of it, but if he does, a five minute stretch of MKG wreaking total defensive havoc wouldn’t shock me. He should consult fellow former Wildcat DeAndre Liggins on how to fill that role.
15. Hamidou Diallo | Thunder
I really like where Hami is headed as a pro. He has a chance to assert himself as – and I’m really not joking – the best wing on OKC, a mid-tier West playoff team without a single reliable small forward. Diallo’s raw athleticism has always been his calling card and if he can use it to capitalize in transition or off cuts in the halfcourt while providing steady defense, he could play upwards of 20 minutes in some of these playoff games, an opportunity 20-year-old fringe G-League guys don’t get very often.
16. Keldon Johnson | Spurs
Johnson’s 2020 has been as quiet as San Antonio’s on the basketball court. He appeared in just nine total games before the stoppage and won’t be getting any meaningful minutes in the restart – although he may log some big-minute nights down the stretch of the seeding games, as I predict the Spurs will be out of the playoff picture pretty, pretty early. There’s your ticket to playing time inside the bubble, Keldon – just root for some big losses!
Starting on July 30th, you can catch all of our beloved Kentucky Wildcats as the NBA restarts in its Disney World bubble. I’m sure there’s a sports bar off South Broadway and Virginia Avenue that might be able to help you out if you’re looking for a place to watch.