LEXINGTON, Ky. — Most of John Calipari’s players at Kentucky have relatively easy NBA draft decisions. He’s had 31 players picked, 24 in the first round and 17 in the lottery over the last eight years. But what about the guys on the fringe?
That’s where freshman Jarred Vanderbilt and sophomore Wenyen Gabriel found themselves last month as they weighed whether to come back to school or risk slipping into the second round — if they’re picked at all — in the 2018 draft on Thursday night in Brooklyn. Calipari was there to talk them both through those difficult decisions.
“I think you try to be honest, which is what we do in the recruiting process,” the coach explained on Monday. “I’m not going to oversell. I’m not going to tell you, ‘If you come back, I’m going to do this, that and the other.’ It’s not what I do. It’s [about] what they do. So I think you’re honest with the young man and you say, ‘Look, there’s a good chance you’re not going to get drafted.’ ”
Sometimes that doesn’t matter. Both Vanderbilt and Gabriel elected to stay in the draft. While Kentucky teammates Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox are projected lottery picks and Hamidou Diallo looks like an early second-round selection, Vanderbilt and Gabriel are on less certain footing (literally, in Vanderbilt’s case).
The latest ESPN mock draft has Vanderbilt going 46th overall (right in the middle of the second round) and Gabriel going undrafted. Vanderbilt’s is a question of health, having injured his left foot three times since high school and playing just 14 games for the Wildcats last season. Gabriel’s is a question of production as a former 5-star recruit who couldn’t hold down a starting job in two seasons at Kentucky.
So why not come back for another year in Lexington to address those questions? It’s complicated.
“I can remember DeAndre Liggins,” Calipari said, “where I told him, ‘Deandre, the best you’re going to do is in that second round somewhere. That’s the best, and you may go undrafted.’ [He said], ‘Coach, I’m ready. I’m built for it. I want to do this. I’m going to go after it.’ And you know, it’s kind of worked out for him.
“I remember saying it to Jodie Meeks when I first got here. ‘Jody, if anybody’s telling you you’re going in the top 15 picks, they’re not telling you the truth.’ [He said], ‘Coach, you would be my third coach. Time for me to do this.’ And I said, ‘I’m with you, kid. I’ll do whatever I can to help you.’ And Wenyen was the same kind of conversation.”
Whether Gabriel sneaks into the second round or goes undrafted, his coach figures, he’s going to have to take the same route to the NBA: by first getting physically stronger and proving himself in the developmental G League.
“He wanted to go for it, and he was adamant, ‘I gotta do this, Coach,’ so at that point, my shift is, ‘OK, how do I help? What teams are you working out for? Who can I call? I’ll give you a feel for what they’re saying,’ ” Calipari said. “But I just think it’s bad business trying to override or [say], ‘You have to come back. Or this one: ‘I’m going to play you like this so you’ll be able to show …’ I’m not going to do that.”
Vanderbilt’s situation is a fairly unusual one. The 6-foot-9 former McDonald’s All-American was wildly productive in the brief time he was healthy at Kentucky: He averaged 18.5 rebounds per 40 minutes and grabbed an astounding 25 percent of all possible rebounds while he was on the floor.
Had he come back for a sophomore season with the Wildcats and showed that he could avoid injury and shoot it a little better, Vanderbilt might’ve turned himself into a lottery pick. But the fear of what yet another injury could do to his draft stock was too great.
“That was our conversation — the whole conversation,” Calipari said. “And let me say this: of all the kids, he was the one who kept calling and saying, ‘Cal, tell me what you think.’ And then we had to talk about what’s out there, what’s the opportunity? What are teams saying? Can you get a 2-year deal? Because at the end of the day, he’s been injured and now it becomes, OK, what happens if next season you can’t play right away or whatever? So he was great about it.
“I think we talked through everything, every scenario. He knew what they were. And in his case, I’m counting on his agent being on top of what’s true and what’s not true for him, the opportunities.”
Calipari said he’s hearing Vanderbilt could go as high as late first round and shouldn’t slip any further than the middle of the second round. He’s hopeful Gabriel will sneak into the end of the second round, where he would be “a steal in my mind.”
“All those teams are really looking at the analytics stuff and [Vanderbilt’s] in those  games were off the charts. NBA motor, goes after balls, feel for the game, quick twitch, can pass it and bounce it,” said Calipari, who added that a couple of teams really like Gabriel because “he’s 6-10 and he can really shoot it, and that’s kind of where the league is going.”
In both cases, though, they’ll have to fight to prove they belong in the NBA. Liggins did it. He was the 53rd overall pick in 2011 and has played in 177 NBA games, earning almost $4 million in the league. Meeks did it. He was the 41st overall pick in 2009 and has played in 531 NBA games, earning $27 million in the league.
Dakari Johnson, Andrew and Aaron Harrison and Alex Poythress were all second-round picks or undrafted and scratched their way from the G League onto NBA rosters.
“At the end of the day, you’re not tricking the NBA. At the end of the day, you cannot play around whatever weakness you have. You gotta get in the gym,” Calipari said. “Whether it’s weights, whether it’s ball handling — a lot of times it’s just plain shooting — there’s one way to do it: you gotta get in the gym and show them you’re moving in the right direction. If they see that growth going the right way, you’re fine. If they don’t, now you have issues.”