Five Wildcats taken in first round
Scott Van Pelt
Kentucky coach John Calipari shares his thoughts on watching five of his former players get selected in the first round of the NBA draft, the future of the Wildcats' program, the scrutiny that he deals with and much more.
Regardless of the polarizing opinions about Calipari, he has delivered on his charge. Kentucky basketball is the No. 1 entertainment property in Lexington. The Kentucky Derby in Louisville is the highlight weekend of the sporting calendar in the Commonwealth, but Kentucky basketball games -- more so than Louisville -- are truly events. It's nothing new in Bluegrass Country, but is certainly a different feel than the previous few years of mediocrity.
To do that, Calipari had to bring in the talent. He added three freshmen -- John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe -- to a freshman recruit of former coach Billy Gillispie, Daniel Orton, and junior forward Patrick Patterson.
The Wildcats won 35 games, topped the SEC, and reached the Elite Eight, falling short of the stated goal of a Final Four and a national title.
But Calipari coached a record five first-round picks and the first No. 1 pick (Wall) in UK history.
That's Calipari's legacy so far after one year with Kentucky. It should resonate with potential NBA-bound recruits, likely more so than even a national title would.
"Right now, it feels like we won a national title,'' said Calipari, who was in Haiti on Wednesday with Samaritan's Feet before jetting up to New York to be with the three Wildcats who were in the draft's Green Room -- Wall, Cousins and Patterson.
"That's how I feel,'' Calipari said. "I have a tingle in my body, more so than when we went to the Final Fours [at UMass and Memphis].''
Calipari shrugs off the criticism that he's all about recruiting the one-and-done players. He is. And he knows it means he's got a chance to be a title contender every year and right back at the NBA draft every June.
"Everyone says you cannot win a national title because you're too young,'' Calipari said. "That may be the case, who knows?''
The players were well-aware of the historical evening. Cousins said he couldn't believe that it had never been done before. Wall said it would mean a lot to him to see all five get selected in the first round. Patterson was more reflective about the on-court maturity of the elite players he coexisted with this past season.
"I had a bunch of freshmen who played like veterans every single night,'' Patterson said. "I had to play alongside them and also had to take a step back and watch them play.''
That was the key. To do what Calipari has recently pulled off, you need players to check their egos at the door and accept their roles.
Wall was the unquestioned star from day one. There was no doubt he was going to be the No. 1 pick as soon as he landed in Lexington. Nothing changed, and the Washington Wizards selected him in that top spot. Patterson was the other lock. He was a true pro but at times was a secondary forward to Cousins, who was more of the offensive force. Cousins was selected by Sacramento at No. 5 while Patterson went to Houston at No. 14 in the last spot in the lottery.
Bledsoe and Orton were role players, with Orton mostly coming off the bench. Bledsoe was selected by Oklahoma City at No. 18 and ultimately was moved to the L.A. Clippers. Orton, who had to deal with questions about his knee throughout the draft process, was taken by Orlando at No. 29.
A year ago, no one would have projected Orton or Bledsoe in the first round or considered them early entrants. Cousins had the size, strength and upside, but it was hard to project he would produce enough to make the jump.
"Patrick and John were the two we knew would be here,'' Calipari said.
Calipari said that because the players trusted the coaching staff and trusted each other, they were able to flourish in what he says is a pro-style system.
"I'm not trying to be braggadocios, but if you're a player with pro potential, where do you want to go?'' Calipari said. "Not long ago it was Florida, and then it was Duke and then North Carolina. Right now it's Kentucky. I'm not saying I prepare a kid better than someone else, but I was told by NBA folks that it's easier to evaluate your guys because you let them play.''
Put this in perspective: Kentucky had more players drafted than the Big Ten (one) and Pac-10 (two) combined Thursday night.
And guess what? The Wildcats could be back here next year (barring an NBA lockout) with at least three more if Enes Kanter, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones live up to their hype after one season with the Wildcats.
"I was sitting with some friends and we said, 'Who will it be next year?' If it all comes together, it could happen again," Calipari said. "We had five first-round picks, including a No. 1. Our next challenge is to go for six and a No. 1 pick [in the future].''
Calipari has coached in the NBA, with two-plus years in New Jersey in the late '90s. He said there has been some NBA interest, but again denied there was a package deal to go to Cleveland or anywhere else to coach LeBron James.
But he has an NBA mentality already at Kentucky. The NBA is a player's league. "We're a players-first program,'' Calipari said. "And we might have just had the biggest day in Kentucky basketball history with a No. 1 pick and five first-round picks.''
Kentucky has won national titles. The Big Blue Nation desperately wants to win another. Of course, Calipari wants to win one, as well, even if he won't say it publicly. But to run his program at its current level, he might rather sell Thursday's draft of five first-round picks and a No. 1 selection, even if he had a national championship on his résumé.
Duke can push its four national championships under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. Kentucky can now advertise it is the gateway to the NBA. The NBA sells to recruits and right now, like him or not, no one can make that pitch more effectively than Calipari. The stats don't lie.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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