Kentucky prospects' sacrifice creates NBA readiness


Kentucky prospects' sacrifice creates NBA readiness

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.

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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.

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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."

Lineup changes could be on the way for Bulls: 'It's still up in the air'


Lineup changes could be on the way for Bulls: 'It's still up in the air'

It’s tough to call the position battle for the backup point guard spot on a Lottery-bound team important, but here we are two days into the Bulls’ season.

It won’t move the needle in NBA circles and Dwane Casey won’t be putting in additional time getting ready for Saturday’s game, but there appears to be potential for change in Fred Hoiberg’s rotation.

One day after an embarrassing display in a season-opening loss to the Sixers, Hoiberg said the Bulls have yet to make a decision on a potential lineup change for tomorrow’s affair against the Detroit Pistons. Kris Dunn, who missed Thursday’s game for the birth of his first child, was not at practice on Friday and may or may not be available for the home opener.

That could prompt changes after Cam Payne, inserted into the starting lineup, was largely ineffective, failing to score on 0 of 4 shooting in 21 minutes.

“We’re gonna see how practice goes today and then make that decision,” Hoiberg said. “It’s still up in the air on what we’re gonna do.”

The loss certainly can’t fall on just Payne, as the Bulls went lifeless after a 41-point first quarter that had them in the lead after 12 minutes. From there the Sixers outscored them by 29 in the second and third quarters, facing little resistance from a Bulls defense that doesn’t appear to have made much improvement from a year ago, Dunn or no Dunn.

Philadelphia shot 48 percent from the field, scored 20 fast-break points and 46 points in the paint, cruising to 102 points through three quarters before reserves finished things off. Even with Dunn the defensive prospects don’t look good, meaning Hoiberg might have to make changes to ignite the offense that scored just 35 points in those second and third quarters.

The Bulls could go a few different routes. Zach LaVine’s hot hand in the first quarter – 15 points on 6 of 7 shooting – saw the ball in his hands, and he even added two assists.

“It's a collective effort. You've got to have all five guys out there trying to play the right way and again, we found a recipe with Zach, especially in that first unit, where we let him bring the ball up the floor,” Hoiberg said. “We ran a couple actions where he was the facilitator and we put Cam in the corner. So a lot of that will be dictated by who has it going on a particular night and last night it happened to be Zach, so he was the one that was doing a lot of facilitating.”

Past a point guard-less lineup, the backups to Payne – Ryan Arcidiacono and Tyler Ulis – could also see extended minutes going forward.

Arcidiacono had 8 points and 8 assists in 28 minutes, though the majority of those stats came in garbage time. Still, he hit a pair of 3-pointers and didn’t turn the ball over, and five of his assists resulted in makes at the rim.

Ulis, acquired off waivers last week, could inject some life into the second unit.

“He’s ready. He’s done a good job in practice,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve gone through the system with him as far as what we expect and if there’s a point in the game where he can go out there and we feel he can help us, I’m confident that he’ll go out there and give us good effort.”

The point guard rotation isn’t the key to unlocking the Bulls as a lockdown defensive team, or no longer suffering the offensive dry spells that happened Thursday. But in a season that’s already showing signs of adversity, shaking up the lineup might be Hoiberg’s only chance.

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

PHILADELPHIA – Picture yourself at 19 years old.

Maybe you were in college. Maybe you hit the job market early.

What you likely weren’t doing was guarding one the NBA’s best centers in your first professional game.

That was the task charged to Wendell Carter Jr. in the Bulls’ 127-108 loss to the 76ers in the season opener at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday.

Carter Jr. was the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft after just one season at Duke. He earned the start in his NBA debut after an impressive preseason, but nothing could’ve prepared him for going up against Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Carter Jr. said when asked if Embiid was as impressive as he thought he’d be. “He’s a phenomenal player. He’s one of, or the best, big man in the league. Very skilled, very poised. He knows his spots on the court.

“I didn’t go out there with my best effort. It’s just a learning experience for me.”

Carter Jr. had eight points, three rebounds, three assists and a block in 20 minutes. He also picked up four fouls, which the rookie attributed to the physicality and craftiness of Embiid.

But he did flash the impressive and varied skill set that made him a high pick and such a coveted prospect. He was also able to garner the praise of the Bulls’ veterans.

“Even though Wendell got in foul trouble he was still playing (Embiid) solid,” Zach LaVine, who scored a team-high 30 points, said. “That’s a tough first game right there. But he didn’t lack for confidence. Made him take some tough shots, but he’s going to make them. He’s that type of player.”

To his credit, Carter Jr. was candid about his performance. He admitted that his emotions ran the gamut from nervous to excited to happy.

In a season that will have its ups and downs as the young Bulls develop and learn, there will likely be more games like this against other elite NBA competition. It’ll be how Carter Jr. responds that will define his career.

“It’s the first game so I don’t want to put too much on myself,” Carter Jr. said. “It would be different if it was like the 50th game or 60th game. It’s the first game. We’re just going to move on from it. We’ve got our home opener on Saturday (vs. the Pistons). That’s where my mind is right now.”

See, he’s learning already.