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John Calipari is great at getting players to NBA, but why can't they win at Kentucky?

Krysten Peek
·6-min read

Before squeaking by Mississippi State in double overtime Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats were 1-6. That hadn’t happened since 1911 and is a shocking stat when you look at all the talent on the roster. This is a team that had the No. 1 recruiting class coming in, led by five-stars B.J. Boston, Terrence Clarke and Isaiah Jackson. Those three players will most likely still go on to have successful careers in the NBA but what is it about playing one year under John Calipari that causes so many players to struggle in college?

“He’s really good at making players comfortable with being uncomfortable,” one former player who played for Calipari told Yahoo Sports. “Sometimes it takes longer to adapt to his system. Coach Cal wants to see his players be successful and have longevity at the NBA level and that’s sometimes more important than the win-loss column at Kentucky.”

Devin Booker came off the bench at Kentucky in 2015. He was a top-30 player in high school and chose the Wildcats over Duke, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama. At Kentucky, Booker played just 21.5 minutes per game and averaged 10 points, two rebounds and 1.1 assists for the season. The Phoenix Suns drafted him with the No. 13 pick and he’s now one of the best guards in the NBA. He scored 70 points in 2017 at 20 years old and became the youngest player ever to do so. Were there glimpses of his scoring abilities at Kentucky? Sure. But he was playing behind sophomore guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison and the offense ran through future No. 1 pick Karl Anthony-Towns.

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Glenn Robinson III #40 of the Philadelphia 76ers during a game on Aug. 11, 2020. (Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Glenn Robinson III #40 of the Philadelphia 76ers during a game on Aug. 11, 2020. (Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)

Tyler Herro was the No. 14 pick in the 2019 draft. He struggled with outside shooting at Kentucky, averaging just 35% from 3-point range. Herro was a top-40 player who decommitted from Wisconsin and flipped to Kentucky at the start of his senior year. In high school, he averaged 32.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game and his three-point shooting percentage was 43.5%. Once he left Kentucky and declared for the draft, his outside shot came back to him, where it was reported that he made 80 out of 100 threes during a workout with the Celtics.

“That workout, I was just feeling it,” Herro told Yahoo Sports on draft night. “When I get comfortable in the gym, I feel like I can make every shot I take.” In his rookie season for the Miami Heat, Herro averaged 13.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and shot 43% from the field and was the breakout player in the NBA bubble.

Tyrese Maxey was similar to Herro coming out of high school. He was a top-10 player in his recruiting class and averaged 22.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game at South Garland High School. He had a game-high three 3-pointers in the McDonald’s All-American game where he scored 13 points. His shooting dried up at Kentucky, where he shot only 29% from deep and averaged 14 points per game. There were glimpses of what kind of shooter and facilitator Maxey could be, including his first game against Michigan State where he had 26 points and shot 7-for-12 from the field.

“What I saw today is what I saw in high school and I had not seen it up until this point,” Coach Cal told reporters after the win over Michigan State. “I keep it real in practice. ‘Where’s the sniper that I recruited? You can’t even make a jump shot and you’re playing timid. We need you to get baskets for us.”

The same issues are being played out on the floor this season with five-star freshmen guards B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke. Boston was the star player on a loaded Sierra Canyon high school squad last year and Clarke reclassified and was named a McDonald’s All American. Prior to the season, one NBA mock draft had Boston as high as No. 3 overall and Clarke just outside the lottery. As the season sits now, both players will be lucky enough to go in the first round. In just seven games, Boston is shooting 15.6% from 3-point range, with Clarke not doing much better at 22.7%.

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - DECEMBER 26:  Brandon Boston Jr #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on December 26, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - DECEMBER 26: Brandon Boston Jr #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on December 26, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

“The young guards at Kentucky need to figure things out fast,” one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “This is a deep class and it’s a shooter’s league. You have to be able to make shots.”

Calipari has produced two first-round draft picks in every NBA draft since 2010. Freshman center Isaiah Jackson is looking like Kentucky’s best NBA prospect early in the season after having an impressive eight blocks against No. 3 Kansas in the second game of the year. The way Boston and Clarke are playing now might break the long-standing streak. Kentucky has to think about what this is doing to the die-hard Big Blue Nation fanbase and if there should be changes in how recruiting is done moving forward.

"Let me say this: I've had 20-some lottery picks and every one of them has gotten to a second contract because they have been prepared to go in the league and do well,” Calipari said. “It's a coach's choice to recruit these kinds of kids. If you want four-year guys, then recruit four-year guys. If you're old school and you've been following college basketball and you liked it with kids staying in four years and all that, then you’ll probably say this has ruined what my game used to look like.”

Winning changes everything just like losing causes a greater sense of urgency. There is no team under a bigger microscope than Kentucky for the remainder of the season. Some fans are blaming Calipari and asking for him to be fired (that’s not happening), while others are looking for every silver lining they can — like a recent scrimmage win over D-III program Transylvania University.

Kentucky might not make the NCAA tournament this year and will have to settle for the NIT — something that hasn’t happened since 2013. But the consolation prize is that three of Calipari’s players could hear their names called in the 2021 NBA draft. That’s three players gone who had all the potential in the world but couldn’t get it figured out at Kentucky. Maybe we’ll see Boston and Clarke have breakout rookie seasons in the NBA next year and we all will be left asking, ‘Where was this at Kentucky?’ The Wildcats already have three new players coming in next year. Five-star Daimion Collins and four-star guards Nolan Hickman and Bryce Hopkins. That’s three new players that will use Kentucky as a steppingstone to reach their NBA dreams. For Calipari’s sake, hopefully that group of players can be the sniper recruits he remembers from high school and win some games next year. Rinse and repeat.

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