When Kentucky head coach John Calipari compiled a single roster consisting of nine McDonald's All-Americans and 10 NBA prospects, the foundation had been set for an historic season. The 2014-15 Wildcats won an NCAA record 38 games to begin the season, advanced to a second straight Final Four and received numerous postseason awards before bowing out to Wisconsin.
Yet for the individual and collective accolades earned, on the surface Calipari's group appeared to be the antithesis for college prospects attempting to increase their NBA stock by showcasing their talents on a nightly basis. A roster stacked with supreme collegiate talent made the Kentucky rotation 10 players deep, with no player averaging more than 26 minutes per game. While fellow five-star prospects advertised their talents as the primary scorers at other programs, the Wildcats learned sacrifice, accepted their roles and used team success to better their individual prospects.
"A lot of guys go to a school where they can be the star, where I can shoot 20 times and score 25 points a night," center Willie Cauley-Stein said at last week's NBA Draft Combine. "When you go into a program like Kentucky you know you’re not the man of the team, but you’re still doing those things that makes you powerful."
In winning those 38 straight games, the Wildcats were as balanced as any team in the country.
Eight different players led the Wildcats in scoring in those wins, with sophomore guard Aaron Harrison leading the team with just 11.0 points per game. Consensus top-two pick Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 6.5 field goal attempts per game - fourth on the team - in 21.1 minutes per game - seventh on the team - while SEC Defensive Player of the Year Cauley-Stein didn't even lead the Wildcats in rebounds or blocks per game.
But that culture of unselfishness also created a winning environment. Having more All-Americans than all but one NBA team (Charlotte) created competitive, high-intensity practices, many of which had NBA scouts in attendance, that Cauley-Stein said pushed everyone else to increase their level of play.
"You have to adapt to situations where this guy next to me is just as good as me. A lot of places you go, the guy next to him or the guy on the end (of the bench) is not as good as him, so you don’t have to go as hard," he said. "You get embarrassed if you don’t go as hard at Kentucky."
On a team with balanced talent levels - albeit of the elite variety - the Wildcats accepted roles. Whereas a player such as freshman Devin Booker could have led a program in scoring, he instead came off the bench as Kentucky's sharpshooter, averaging 10.0 points per game on 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc, earning the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year award.
Instead of acting as another team's foundation inside, 7-foot sophomore Dakari Johnson played a reserve role behind Cauley-Stein and Towns. The Harrison twins, sophomores Andrew and Aaron, shared backcourt duties with Tyler Ulis and Booker to create a four-headed monster that complemented a frontcourt unmatched in height by even any NBA team.
That sacrifice will be the key for these Wildcats at the NBA level. Though four of the seven NBA entrants coming from Kentucky's 38-1 group are projected as first round picks, they'll all begin their professional careers, in some sense, as role players. And whereas other top prospects will be required to change their mentality, transitioning from their team's top options to fitting in on an NBA roster, it's something the Wildcats have both already done and succeeded in doing.
"(NBA) teams know we can be unselfish, that we’re not selfish players," Johnson said. "They know we can sacrifice and know we’re coming in there to be eager and to learn."
Still, after a year - in some cases, two - of finding their respective niches on an All-Star lineup, the pre-draft process is finally a chance for these prospects to show off who they are individually. Booker feels he can be a ball handler at the next level, though Andrew Harrison and Ulis took those reins at Kentucky.
6-foot-10 freshman Trey Lyles was fifth on the team in field goal attempts but will "raise some eyebrows" as he shows he can be a more complete player. Cauley-Stein's defensive presence was all the up-tempo Wildcats needed to be successful, but the range and improving post game he'll show off in pre-draft workouts will prove "this dude really does have some offensive game he didn’t show."
It's not unlike Kentucky teams and players of the past. In 2012 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was selected No. 2 overall by the Hornets a year after he was fifth on the Wildcats in scoring. Eric Bledsoe didn't start a single game on the 2009-10 Wildcats, and four years later received a max contract extension from the Phoenix Suns. In 2013 Nerlens Noel was third on Kentucky in scoring and was the projected No. 1 overall pick before tearing his ACL. Two years later, after going No. 6 to the Sixers, he's quickly blossoming into one of the NBA's best young defenders.
The give-and-take required of players under Calipari was seen unanimously as a positive by the six prospects at last week's combine in Chicago - Towns did not attend.
Though their time at Kentucky didn't allow them to show off their entire skill sets, the exposure they received, the lessons they learned about sacrifice, practicing against the nation's best players daily and the understanding that the pre-draft process would give them a chance to shine made their unique situation worthwhile.
"That’s why you’ve got so many Kentucky guys in the league. They come in there and they already know the roles that you have to adapt to when you get (to the NBA)," Cauley-Stein said.
"And while you’re doing that everybody else’s light switch goes on. Like, ‘I’m not trying to get beat by him.’ Next thing you know you’ve got a whole team doing that, and that’s what made us so good."