Jump on the bandwagons while you can, folks. Former Kentucky players continue to fill NBA rosters and it’s only a matter of time before they start to overflow.
They are currently 30 former Kentucky players on active NBA rosters (including the latest batch of rookies), which doesn’t include players such as Alex Poythress, Tyler Ulis, and Aaron Harrison, who played for NBA teams last season but don’t currently have a deal. Ulis and Poythress should expect to see some sort of deals – whether it be training camp or 10-day contracts – while Harrison and other players such as Kyle Wiltjer and Archie Goodwin are still on the outside looking in with potential deals being a definite possibility.
As of right now, though, there are 30 players to root for spread across 16 teams. Eight of those teams have multiple former Kentucky players and one team with a total of four. If you don’t have an NBA team that you favor, perhaps one of these five will pique your interest.
5. The New York Knicks – Enes Kanter, Kevin Knox
From a Kentucky fan standpoint, the two former Wildcats on this team will constantly put on an entertaining brand of basketball, both on and off the court. Enes Kanter is a social media savage and plays a bullying style of offensive basketball. He’s a much better defender of his Twitter account than against opposing centers, but he’s always doing something that keeps him in the news. From calling out LeBron James to hanging out with The Undertaker, Kanter is pure social media comedy.
He was one of 12 players in the NBA last season to average at least 10 points and 10 rebounds (he averaged 14.1 PPG and 11.0 RPG) and was one of the most efficient offensive rebounders in the league. His 3.7 offensive rebounds per game were fourth-most in the NBA among players who played at least 25 games.
At 25 years old, Kanter still has two years left on his deal in New York and plenty more of his game to showcase. Joining him is the Knicks freshest addition, Kevin Knox, who was selected with the ninth overall pick.
Knox expects to play a large role with the Knicks in his rookie season. With Kristaps Porzingis hoping to return from his ACL injury by the middle of the season, Knox is going to be a highlighted player and one expected to put up points in bulk. He’s not quite the same personality as Kanter, but the Knicks front office have high hopes for the 18-year old.
With Porzingis set to return this season and rumors that superstars such as Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, and possibly even Kawhi Leonard are thinking about linking up in New York during next summer’s offseason, now is the prime time to jump on the Knicks bandwagon.
From a strictly entertainment point of view, the Knicks are going to be hard to compete with.
4. Sacramento Kings – Willie Cauley-Stein, De’Aaron Fox, Skal Labisierre
While the Sacramento Kings aren’t exactly a team I would advise you “root” for in general, they do have some outstanding Kentucky connections. Yes, they now have two former Duke players (Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III) along with two more from Kansas (Ben McElmore and Frank Mason III) AND another two from North Carolina (Justin Jackson and Vince Carter), but three ex-Cats overrule them all.
De’Aaron Fox had a solid rookie season and is poised to break out in year two if he can get his jump shot and dribble penetration under control. Willie Cauley-Stein has been on the verge of taking a leap for a couple years now, although a now-loaded Kings frontcourt might interfere with that. And Skal Labisierre will hope to soak up even more minutes than his career average of 19.9 per game.
Unlike the Knicks, the Kings don’t appear to have a clear direction moving forward. To be honest, they haven’t made any serious strides in what feels like close to a decade now. Becoming a Kings fan would be more about supporting some favorite Wildcats instead of cheering on what will likely continue to be a bottom four team in the Western Conference.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder – Hamidou Diallo, Nerlens Noel, Patrick Patterson
The Oklahoma City Thunder are one of three NBA teams with three Kentucky players. They don’t have the star power or All-Star Kentucky names like other teams, but they have a ton of fan favorites and they’ll all likely have roles within the rotation.
After a tumultuous season last year, Nerlens Noel found himself a perfect fit with the Thunder as the backup center, where he’ll be able to learn under Steven Adams, a well-established and top 10 center in the league.
Patrick Patterson was not the contributor last season for the Thunder that he was the year before for the Toronto Raptors, but he still played in all 82 games and shot 38.6 percent from three. He recorded career lows in minutes, points, and rebounds last season, but with no more Carmelo Anthony in the mix to completely destroy the chemistry of this team, Patterson should seamlessly slide into a similar role with a much higher efficiency. I’d put a ton of stock in Patterson having a much bigger impact than last season.
The most interesting prospect of this team is their 2018 draft pick, Hamidou Diallo. I’m personally not a huge fan of the fit with Diallo in OKC, as their depth at guard is comprised almost entirely of long athletes who struggle to shoot from outside (Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, and Terrance Ferguson come to mind). Adding in a super-athlete such as Diallo doesn’t give them much variation at that position and I’m afraid he’ll be stuck trying to steal minutes from players who already do the exact same things he can do. Nonetheless, Diallo had a solid Summer League debut and we can only hope that the Thunder take that into account and he can build off of it going into training camp.
If only Dakari Johnson hadn’t just been traded to the Orlando Magic…
Either way, there are still three former Kentucky players on this team and there’s a good chance that at least one of them will be on the court for the majority of games.
2. Denver Nuggets – Trey Lyles, Jamal Murray, Jarred Vanderbilt
The Denver Nuggets join the Kings and Thunder as the three NBA teams with three total former Kentucky players. Unlike the Kings, however, the Nuggets are set up to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams across the entire NBA next season with a ceiling that goes higher than the city’s altitude.
They have budding stars in Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris along with solidified stars such as Paul Millsap. But go ahead and throw Jamal Murray into that group of budding stars. Murray took a huge leap from year one to year two and expects to do the same in year three. He positioned himself as the Nuggets starting point guard and one of the most dynamic shooters in all of basketball. If I had to rank my list of most entertaining players to watch in the NBA, Murray would definitely be in the top 5 and might even hold the top spot depending on how he’s playing at that moment.
Much like Murray, Trey Lyles also saw a huge jump in production last season. After being somewhat of an afterthought in Utah and essentially a throwaway player in the deal that resulted with the Utah Jazz selecting Donovan Mitchell in last season’s NBA draft, Lyles saw Denver as a place to start over. With the injury to Millsap, Lyles minutes saw a considerable uptick and he quickly established himself as a bonafide rotational NBA player, which only made things harder for the team when Millsap did return. A good problem to have, however. With the departure of Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur along with the fact that Micahel Porter Jr. might not even play this season for the Nuggets, Lyles opportunity to slide into the rotation full-time will be there.
But there’s another player looking to steal those minutes, if healthy. Jarred Vanderbilt was the Nuggets second-round selection – a huge steal – and will be one of the more interesting prospects in all of basketball before the season begins. His overall health is a valid concern, but the upside is so compelling that he’s going to receive minutes the second he can step on the court.
If you’re looking for a team on the rise with legitimate Kentucky connections, the Denver Nuggets are a no-brainer to cheer for.
1. New Orleans Pelicans – Anthony Davis, DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller, Julius Randle
This decision was easy. The New Orleans Pelicans are the only NBA team that has both a superstar Kentucky player with Kentucky role players surrounding him AND they’re the only team with four former Wildcats. Anthony Davis is a future best-player-in-the-NBA type of superstar. He’s somehow only 25 years old and it baffles me that there he’s still going to get much, much better. We’re looking at a potential all-time great player. A player on the path to be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. You shouldn’t need another reason to root for the Pelicans (if for some reason you don’t already), but I’m going to give you more, anyway.
The replacement of DeMarcus Cousins with Julius Randle is going to be an exciting experiment to watch unfold. The frontcourt trio of Davis, Randle, and the sharpshooting Nikola Mirotic is going to be dangerous yet quite unpredictable at first. Randle has proven himself as a promising starter despite not receiving the attention in free agency that he deserved. He’s out of the spotlight in Los Angeles, but in New Orleans, he’s going to play a more important role on a team with playoff hopes.
DeAndre Liggins played a limited role for the Pelicans last season but was an above average on-ball defender. His ability to step up and willingly take on the challenge of guarding the opposing team’s best player has not been lost on the organization. He may be a major liability on the offensive end of the floor, but his defensive prowess is more than worth it as a 10th man.
Last, but certainly not least, is Darius Miller. Miller revitalized his career in NOLA after winning more than his fair share of championships in Germany. He shot 41.1 percent from deep last season, one of the top percentages in the entire NBA, and will go into next season as a player of focus on opposing team scouting reports.
Kentucky is officially taking over the NBA and it’s only a matter of time before the number of teams with former Wildcats tops 20. If Calipari keeps pumping out three or four kids into the draft each year, the Kentucky expansion is only going to get more infectious.