LEXINGTON, Ky. – Two months after he committed to play basketball at the University of Kentucky, Alex Poythress’ mother was diagnosed with Stage 5 kidney failure. Less than a year after he arrived as a McDonald’s All-American to play for a supposed championship contender, Poythress was part of the worst loss in the John Calipari era: a first-round NIT exit at Robert Morris.
Eight games into his junior season, for which he returned to erase the bitter taste of an NCAA title-game loss as a sophomore, Poythress tore his left ACL and was forced to watch as the 38-0 Wildcats fell in the Final Four. Without him, they had no one to stop Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky.
Four years after being considered an NBA lottery pick and presumptive one-and-done, Poythress’ draft stock was completely dried up when his senior season ended with a disappointing second-round loss in the NCAA tournament. And yet …
“I wouldn’t trade my years at Kentucky for the world,” he says now. “I matured. I learned how to handle things. I had everything thrown my way, different adversities – I’ve been through it all – and I just learned how to take a punch and get back up and keep on fighting.”
So in April, after finishing his UK career with 966 points and 597 rebounds, Poythress moved to Thousand Oaks, Calif., to rehab both his knee and NBA draft dream. He admits now that the knee was not fully healthy last season.
He injured it in December of 2014 and was back in the Wildcats’ starting lineup less than a year later. Then he suffered a minor injury in the other knee that cost him five games in the middle of the season.
“The strength in both my legs wasn’t the same,” Poythress said. “You could see there was a difference. I played like that the whole year. I’ve never had to deal with anything like it. Getting that last bit of strength is the hardest part of rehab. I just pushed through it during the year, knowing after the season I could rest a little bit and then actually do rehab and focus on it hard.”
He still managed a solid season – 10.2 points and 6.0 rebounds in 23.6 minutes per game – and showed flashes of greatness. Poythress produced four double-doubles as a senior after having just two in his first three seasons. He scored a career-high 25 points at Alabama. But he knew something wasn’t quite right.
“Of course I was still athletic,” said the 6-foot-8 forward known for his high-flying dunks. “I just wasn’t as athletic as I normally am. I know how how I usually jump. I could tell I was just missing a little bit. That’s a big part of my game. I’ve got to be explosive, be active, be athletic out there; use it to my advantage.
“If I’m missing a couple inches, I’m still more athletic than most people, but I want to be at tip-top form so I can play to my strengths. After the season, I pushed hard and we got it back.”
Each day out in California, Poythress had short morning workouts, then two hours of basketball drills and more weightlifting followed by a clinic visit to attack rehab on both his knees. He declined to work out in front of any NBA teams until he felt more like his old self.
Once he did, Poythress began turning heads again. He claims to have added 5-6 inches back to his vertical jump – putting it close to 40 inches now – and gotten his 3-point shot closer to the 42.4 percent mark he hit as a freshman at Kentucky.
“I feel great, 100 percent. Both knees feel fine,” Poythress said. “I got the strength back, so now everything is good.”
He started with a workout in California alongside fellow Creative Artists Agency clients in front of representatives of all 30 NBA teams, where he impressed with his athleticism and defense. He carried confidence from that into individual team workouts.
By Thursday night’s draft, he’ll have hit the Bucks, Celtics, Clippers, Knicks, Lakers, Magic, Mavericks, Pacers, Raptors, 76ers and Suns. Those teams own 21 of the final 41 picks in the draft.
“I’m getting a lot of good feedback from all the teams I’ve been working out with,” Poythress said. “They say with my explosiveness, I look like I’m back.”
ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford now ranks Poythress the 55th-best prospect in the 60-player draft. NBADraft.net ranks him 68th, while DraftExpress.com has him 77th. That means Poythress is hardly a lock to hear his name called, but he has made himself a legitimate prospect again.
“He’s a possible second-round pick because he’s an elite athlete and I think he can defend multiple positions. I actually hear he shot it pretty well in workouts,” Ford said. “That’s what he projects (as): a guy coming off the bench, playing great defense and hitting some spot-up threes. If he can just do that, I think he has a long career in the NBA.
“I think I see the potential there for him to become that, and you can’t teach his athleticism.”
Poythress, who is just two classes away from a master’s degree from Kentucky and plans to finish it, will return home to Clarksville, Tenn., to watch the draft with his family and friends. His mother, who continues to battle her illness with hours-long dialysis treatments, will be there.
“It’s going to be a lot of different emotions” if he’s picked, Poythress said. “It’s going to be a great feeling. All the work I’ve put in, all the adversity I’ve gone through – it’s been a tough road, but I can sort of see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know people gave up on me, but I never gave up on myself.”
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