In a season when freshmen dominated the NBA draft as never before, it’s easy to draw that comparison.
No program has sent more players to the NBA since John Calipari become Kentucky’s coach in 2009.
But Calipari’s high-profile appearances at the NBA draft helps his own future as well. Given the high visibility that Calipari and his young draft picks get during the night, it’s easy to see that Kentucky has figured out how to use the NBA draft as a recruiting tool.
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This season, three Wildcats freshman were drafted in the first 14 picks and Calipari was in New York to see his players’ big moments in person. With those three, Calipari now has had 21 freshmen declare for the draft in his eight seaons at Kentucky; that’s almost three each year. All of them were taken in the first round.
But with so many top players departing after only a season, Calipari also needs to find a steady supply of college-ready basketball players to fill the roles of the departing stars. Draft night no doubt plays a big role. But not only potential recruits notice.
This week, North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who also has attended NBA drafts, and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called out Calipari’s approach to draft night.
“When I was at Kansas, I never went to the draft because I always felt like it was a special time for the families,” Williams said on The David Glenn Show on Thursday.
That was the reason I went to Kentucky. To be in this situation I am today.
Malik Monk, Charlotte Hornets top draft pick
“I kid John Calipari because he’s always jumping up there. ... I said, ‘I don’t want to be jumping up and have a kid grab me or anything like that,’” Williams said. “John’s so good about it. He says, ‘no, I want them to grab their mom first and then grab me so they see me on TV with them.’ I said, ‘I’m not doing that, Big John.’”
On draft night, Bilas made it clear he thinks that Calipari recruits, rather than produces, lottery picks. Still, Bilas has called Calipari “one of the truly great coaches in our game.”
Despite the criticism of his approach, Calipari’s track record in getting players drafted – no program has sent more players to the NBA since he become Kentucky’s coach in 2009 – resonates with many potential recruits.
Malik Monk, the Charlotte Hornets’ top pick Thursday, said he came to Kentucky with NBA draft night in mind.
“Of course,” Monk told reporters the night before the draft. “That was the reason I went to Kentucky. To be in this situation I am today.”
Thursday night, three Wildcats – Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo – all lottery picks, padded Calipari’s NBA draft stats.
Fox and Adebayo also told reporters that Kentucky’s penchant for producing pros drew them to Lexington. And the three first-rounders said they would have gone wherever Calipari coached.
At Kentucky, Calipari has produced three No. 1 selections, 24 first-round picks, 31 players drafted overall and a dozen top 10 selections in the past eight years. Each number leads all schools in that period. No other school has had more than one No. 1 pick. Duke is second in the other categories with 14 first-rounders, 17 players drafted overall and seven top-10 selections.
So, it’s not a stretch when the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton likens Calipari to the Pied Piper of college basketball.
Thursday, the piper went to work. Calipari flew from Colorado, where he’s in training camp with USA Basketball’s under-19 team – another potential recruiting tool – to Brooklyn.
In New York, Calipari took advantage of plentiful camera and interview time and kept his Twitter feed buzzing. But Calipari made it clear that he was working behind the scenes as well.
“I’ve probably been on the phone probably 20 times today,” Calipari told SECCountry.com’s Joe Musatto.
Calipari says he gets more anxious on draft nights than he does coaching in a national championship game. It’s a matter of control.
“National championship game, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re here, now let’s go have some fun,’” Calipari said. But during the NBA draft, “you’re just sitting there hoping they get drafted when you hope they should.”
Nervous or not, Calipari said the excitement of spending draft night with his players and their families still energizes him.
“It’s really exciting,” Calipari said. “Somebody said, ‘You got lipstick! Somebody kissed you.’ I said, ‘Yeah, it was one of the mothers. And don’t wipe it off. Leave it on there.’ These families, to live it with them, it’s just amazing.”
Calipari acknowledged the recruiting edge that national draft night exposure brings during this interview on ESPN, where not surprisingly, he also spoke in defense of keeping the current one-and-done system.
“They’re talking about one-and-done,” Calipari said in this clip. “It’s not broken! ... My kids finished the term, they’re on lifetime scholarships.”
“Can I recruit a little bit?” he asked, before offering his opinion that Monk reaped the benefits of a “gap year” playing at Kentucky between high school basketball and the NBA.
In a longer clip, Calipari further touted the benefits of a one-and-done system, for the right players.
“These kids have a genius, just like a pianist, just like someone with a cello. ... These kids are prodigies,” Calipari said.
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