Kentucky products dominate the NBA and the Wildcats are reloaded, but recent success has been elusive

By | March 9, 2024

Nearly every year, Kentucky lands highly rated five-star recruits who develop into one-and-done prospects. Head coach John Calipari is seen in the green room on draft night, sitting at the table of one of his prized recruits. In the last nine NBA drafts, Kentucky has selected 14 players in the first round and there are currently 28 former Wildcats in the NBA or G League. Kentucky has the most active NBA players with Duke second (24) and UCLA third (15).

It’s not all about quantity for Kentucky, as a handful of former Wildcats are producing at an extremely high level in the NBA. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is having an MVP-caliber season, averaging 31.1 points, 6.5 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Anthony Davis, when healthy, has been dominant for the Lakers, posting 40 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and three blocks in a win over the Wizards on Feb. 29 and helping lead LA to a championship in 2020. Tyrese Maxey is coming in Philadelphia, where he made his first All-Star selection and was the favorite to be named the league’s Most Improved Player. Before he tore his meniscus, Karl-Anthony Towns was instrumental in helping the Timberwolves to the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro are key players on a Miami team that reached the NBA Finals last season.

According to HoopsHype’s global rating, Kentucky has nine players in the NBA’s top 50, more than any other collegiate program. Considering how well former Wildcats are doing in the NBA (especially guards), scouts need to approach Kentucky players differently when evaluating them before they enter the league.

“No one wants to be the team that passes on another Tyrese Maxey,” an NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “Coach Cal has a knack for bringing in talent, and even if there are mistakes in their play during the one or two years in college, the track record speaks for itself and most importantly looks ahead to how a player’s game will develop translate into the NBA and not a college system.”

LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY - MARCH 6: Rob Dillingham #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against Ven-Allen Lubin #2 of the Vanderbilt Commodores during the second half at Rupp Arena on March 6, 2024 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Kentucky’s Rob Dillingham takes on Vanderbilt’s Ven-Allen Lubin during the second half at Rupp Arena on March 6, 2024 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

This collegiate season has been mostly positive for Calipari’s program. Kentucky had the No. 1 recruiting class and is currently ranked No. 15 with a 22-8 record. However, there have been some bumps in the road. Kentucky lost to UNC Wilmington by eight points in December and lost three straight games at Rupp Arena in late January for the first time in school history.

This is a far cry from the 2012 team that went undefeated in conference play and won a national championship. Or in 2015, when the Wildcats went 38-1 and lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four. In Calipari’s first six years in Lexington, he reached the Elite Eight five times and had four Final Four appearances. The last two seasons ended in a loss to No. 15 tournament seed St. Peter’s in 2022, and in 2023, sixth seed Kentucky lost to No. 3 Kansas State in the second round. Kentucky has also missed the tournament in three of the past five seasons.

The talent is certainly there for this Kentucky team to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. There are potentially seven NBA players on the roster with two likely lottery picks in freshmen Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham and three 7-footers (Aaron Bradshaw, Ugonna Onyenso and Zvonimir Ivišić). There’s also upper-class talent in Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell.

Dillingham was the biggest surprise with how well he played off the bench. Calipari has let him play freely within his system, and it has paid off. Dillingham was known as a playmaker heading into the season, but NBA scouts were curious to see how he would perform off the dribble and if he could create separation from just 6 feet away. Dillingham hasn’t had any trouble, hitting step-back 3s with a defender in his face and rising in the lane over taller players for mid-range jumpers. He sticks to his guns in big games and has become the man with the ball in his hands when the clock runs out.

Sheppard is a Kentucky throwback and both of his parents played for the Wildcats in the 1990s. Similar to Dillingham, there wasn’t much hype surrounding Sheppard heading into the season, but he quickly changed that with how dynamic he was on defense and showed an IQ beyond his freshman status. He leads the team in steals (2.6) and assists (4.5) and has become Kentucky’s do-it-all player this season.

“Whatever it takes to win, I’m good at it,” Sheppard told Yahoo Sports last year. “Whether that’s going out and shooting threes, or making assists or getting some water. Whatever happens, I’m good as long as the team wins.”

On paper, this Kentucky team should be cruising through the SEC, but that’s where it falls short. The Wildcats are currently tied for second place with South Carolina, Auburn and Alabama in conference play. The team has a lot of offensive performances, but cannot string together stops defensively. According to KenPom, the Wildcats currently rank 98th in defensive efficiency, and 81st in total rebounds. This doesn’t feel like a talent problem, but rather a matter of coaching, timing and commitment.

“What Kentucky does defensively is all about length and personnel,” an NBA Eastern Conference scout told Yahoo Sports. “The fact that [Cal] who has to adapt to continuity every year with new recruiting classes, affects him most on the defensive side with rotation and physicality. That’s an easier adjustment at the NBA level and not something you perfect in a 35-game season.”

However, that has not shielded Calipari from criticism that he is not getting the most out of his talent.

“Please leave my players alone [alone]“Let them be young and learn and keep attacking me,” Calipari abruptly told reporters after a Feb. 17 win over Auburn. ‘I might be the worst in the country. Just attack me and leave these kids alone.”

Kentucky will face No. 4 Tennessee on Saturday with a chance to separate itself from the pack and earn a victory over the top team in the SEC. The Vols have already defeated the Wildcats once this season at Rupp Arena and several NBA scouts and executives will be in Knoxville to watch the next wave of Kentucky talent reach the NBA. Whether Kentucky can make a deep run in the tournament is yet to be determined, but there is something about this schedule that will translate to the NBA.

It just hasn’t translated into major success in recent seasons.

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