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."

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Previous making the case for: Deandre Ayton | Luka Doncic | Mo Bamba | Marvin Bagley | Michael Porter Jr.

The modern NBA center is transforming. Last season 12 centers (as listed by Basketball Reference) made 50 or more 3-pointers, up from 10 players in 2016-17. The year before that, in 2015-16, five players accomplished that feat. Four players did it in 2014-15, three did it in 2013-14, and from 1990 to 2012 only Mehmet Okur (five times), Channing Frye (three times) and Byron Mullens (once) accomplished it.

Many of the names on that list, however, don’t exactly cut it on the other end. Sure, players like Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Marc Gasol are elite defenders. But repeat 50+ club members also include Karl-Anthony Towns, Marreese Speights, Kelly Olynyk, DeMarcus Cousins and Pero Antic. In other words, players Rudy Gobert won’t have to worry about contending with for Defensive Player of the Year.

But that former list – the Embiid, Horford, Gasol one – could add another member to it in the coming years. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. was a rarity in college basketball this past season. He became the fifth player since 1992 to compile 35 or more 3-pointers and 100 or more blocks in a single season. Jackson had 38 and 106, respectively, and he accomplished those numbers in 764 minutes; the other four players on the list averaged 1,082 minutes, and the next fewest was Eddie Griffin’s 979 minutes in 2000-01.

Staying on those minutes, Jackson averaged 21.8 per game. That was decidedly fewer per game than Carter (26.9), Bamba (30.2), Ayton (33.5) and Bagley (33.9). We’ll get to why those minutes might be an issue, but for now it’s a reason to not be scared off by his lack of raw numbers (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks).

Jackson’s block percentage (14.2%) ranked fourth in the country. That was higher than Bamba’s 12.9%, despite Bamba tallying 3.7 blocks per game. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Jackson was elite as a rim protector. He ranked in the 99th percentile in defensive possessions around the rim, allowing a mere 0.405 PPP. To put that number in context, freshmen Joel Embiid (0.844), Karl-Anthony Towns (0.8) and Myles Turner (0.667) weren’t even close. This past season Bamba allowed a whopping 1.088 PPP in that area, ranking in the 33rd percentile nationally.

Jackson plays bigger than the 236 pounds he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine. Here’s where we tell you he’ll need to add muscle like all 18-year-olds entering the NBA (oh, he’s also the youngest first-round prospect in the class). But defending the interior shouldn’t be a problem; his defensive rebounding rate wasn’t spectacular (19.8%), but the Spartans were a solid rebounding team as a whole – 76th nationally – so Jackson didn’t need to be great for the Spartans to succeed.

Jackson is going to defend at a high level, and in five years he’ll likely be known more for his defense than his offense. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have potential on that end of the floor. He ranked in the 91st percentile in points per possession (shooting 51 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep helps), doing his most damage in the post (1.22 PPP, 98th percentile) and on jumpers, which were almost exclusively 3-point attempts (1.09 PPP, 81st). He was even a plus on pick-and-rolls, averaging 1.11 on a limited 27-possession sample size.

But not all 3-pointers are created equally. Consider that Jackson did almost all of his damage beyond the arc from the top of the key. He went 21-for-42 from straightaway, according to Synergy Sports, an absurd percentage on that many attempts. From all other areas he went 17-for-54. But in the pick-and-roll era, Jackson’s ability to pop out to the top of the key after setting a screen, and his confidence to take and make those shots, is priceless.

He needs polish on both ends. That seems like the easy way out, and a generic statement that could be made for all these prospects. But so much of his game is still raw; again, there’s a reason he played just 54 percent of all available minutes, and tallied 15 minutes in the Spartan’s NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse.

He committed 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes (Bamba committed 4.3, for reference) and he shot just 48 percent on non-dunks inside 6 feet. His post numbers were good because he is nearly 7 feet tall and was always one of the most talented players on the floor. It’ll get tougher at the next level, and he’ll need to improve his feel around the rim as well as his post moves.

It doesn’t appear likely at this point, but there’s still a chance Jackson could fall to the Bulls at 7. We’ll safely assume Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic will be off the board. If Michael Porter’s medicals check out he should go in the top 5, and the other three selections could be Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba and Trae Young. Young is certainly the least likely of the bunch, but it only takes one team to fall in love with his potential. Orlando at No. 6 is a natural fit.

If he is there at No. 7, he needs to be the Bulls pick. Admittedly this would be less of a decision than some of the other picks we’ll get to in the coming weeks. Allowing Lauri Markkanen to roam the wings while Jackson set picks for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine would improve the offense drastically. And putting an elite rim protector next to Markkanen only covers up the latter’s weaknesses and, thus, makes him a better player.

If teams fall in love with Bamba’s length, Young’s shooting and Porter’s health, Jackson could be waiting when the Bulls pick at No. 7. He isn’t the wing the front office covets, but he is a two-way player with immense upside.

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need


Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

The Bulls are in need of talent. That much is clear after a 27-win campaign in which they finished ranked 28th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’ll add a pair of prospects next month, with two selections in the first round, and presumably take the next step in their rebuild. Talent is important, that can’t be overstated. The Bulls should stick to their board and take the best player available nine out of 10 times.

But as much as the Bulls need an influx of talent, versatility in the backcourt might be a close second. And while there isn’t really any player at No. 7 that would fit that bill – they could reach for Collin Sexton – there are a number of versatile guards, in a class dominated at the top by bigs, who could be there when the Bulls are on the clock at No. 22.

Meet Wichita State guard Landry Shamet. That classic NBA buzzword “versatile” is thrown around more often than ever before. The idea that a player can play multiple positions, can defend 1-3 or has the potential to learn two spots at the next level. Then there’s Shamet. He’s actually done it.

He arrived in Wichita as a shooting guard, the Shockers’ highest-rated recruit in nine years. A broken foot cost him all but three games of his freshman season, but he returned in 2016 and made an immediate impact, including a shift to point guard midway through the season; the move went seamlessly, as he led the Shockers in assists (3.3) and was 14th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.00). He matched Kentucky freshman point guard DeAaron Fox in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting in a loss.

He remained at point guard in his sophomore season and dominated, earning an honorable mention All-American nod while leading the team in points (14.9) assists (5.2), and 3-pointers (2.6) per game for a Shockers team ranked in the top 25 all year, and as high as No. 3 in December.

He had the ball in his hands plenty at Wichita State, but his shooting hardly suffered. A point guard in name, his shooting may be his best attribute. In his final two seasons Shamet shot 44.1 percent from deep on 354 attempts. He was the nation’s best spot-up shooter when Greg Marshall used him off the ball, and made multiple 3-pointers in 23 of 32 games.

His versatility can best be explained as such: He was the only player in the country – and just the 13th since 1992 – to average at least five assists, 2.5 3-pointers per game and shoot 44 percent from deep. The 6-foot-5 guard brings shooting, facilitating and length defensively to the table. It’s no cliché.

“I feel like I can step in and do whatever a coach needs me to do, whether it’s playing on the ball being a facilitator/playmaker/initiating offense, or a guy you’ve got to honor off the ball (as) a spot-up shooter,” Shamet said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine.

He struggled shooting in the 5-on-5 scrimmages over the two-day span, but also noted that he accomplished his main goal of defending well. His 6-foot-7 wingspan will be looked down upon in an era where measurements mean more than ever, but he also had a 39-inch max vertical (12th best) and a 3.11 three-quarters court sprint (10th best).

He admitted he’s more athletic than some give him credit for – as his vertical would suggest – but that his game is more “cerebral” and making the right decisions.

“I feel like I have a high IQ, a cerebral player,” he said. “I’m not going to wow you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. I feel like I’m a solid player, pretty steady across the board.”

It’s a skill set the Bulls could use. His numbers and measurements look similar to Denzel Valentine, who has drawn mixed reviews in two NBA seasons and is really the closest thing the Bulls have to a “versatile” guard; Valentine was one of 21 players with 140+ 3-pointers and 240+ assists, 12 of whom were All-Stars.

Shamet also has seven inches of vertical leap and a quicker sprint as far as Combine times are concerned, and he’s a more natural fit as a point guard than Valentine. Shamet said two players whose games he studies include Malcolm Brogdon, a less-than-flashy guard who won 2017 Rookie of the Year making just about every correct play. Brogdon possesses the same sneaky athleticism – ask LeBron James – has shot 40 percent from deep in two NBA seasons and has a 2.62 A/TO ratio.

“You don’t want to step out of your comfort zone and be somebody you’re not, so out here I’m trying to be me, be solid, (and) make the right play all the time,” he said. “I don’t rely on my athleticism, I like to think the game. So I try to just be myself.”

Kris Dunn is cemented as a point guard for the Bulls’ future, and the front office sang Cameron Payne’s praises at season’s end, though he’ll be a free agent after next season. But Dunn, Payne and Jerian Grant combined to shoot 33.6 percent from deep, and even Payne’s 38.5 percent shooting came in a limited, 25-game span.

Shamet wouldn’t be a home-run pick, and certainly not a sexy one. Those picks have burned the Bulls in the past with players like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and even Valentine. Shamet is 21 years old and has had two major foot surgeries. But the skill set is one the Bulls have needed for some time. And in a draft where the Bulls will be searching for talent, adding a player who fits the bill as a team need as well makes sense.