LEXINGTON, Ky. – There’s a mural that hangs at Kentucky’s practice facility, headed by a banner that reads: “The greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.”
Except the four players in the mural are all, presently, barely old enough to rent a car in most states. John Wall, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were indeed all great at Kentucky. They were also all there for just one season.
No, Kentucky does not run from its one-and-done reputation. And why should it? When John Calipari got to Lexington and unabashedly recruited one-and-dones, Wildcat fans reluctantly embraced it while outsiders and other coaches bashed it. Now everyone is doing it, especially pristine Duke, which won the NCAA tournament last year with three freshmen who subsequently declared for the draft.
“The players that have that opportunity, I think we coaches should be more about them than ourselves,” Calipari said Monday. “Which means if they’re able to leave after a year then so be it.”
Since Calipari’s arrival, Kentucky has had 16 freshman get picked in the first round, an average of almost three a year. A couple more seem certain to be added to the total in June.
Georgia coach Mark Fox, whose team on Tuesday must find a way to beat Calipari’s latest bunch of NBA prospects, is among the many who wish the pros would let the high schoolers back in. Fox has long favored the same rule as in pro baseball: You can go pro out of high school, but when you go to a four-year school you can’t be drafted until after your third year.
“Why restrict a kid who’s good enough to go? Because there aren’t really any who are good enough to go,” Fox said. “Then if they go to college, let’s do what other sports have done and keep them around for a while.”
Yes, the one-and-done issue generates plenty of heat. Here are some truths about it:
– It’s the NBA’s rule. So stop criticizing the NCAA for it. Or Calipari, when so many of his colleagues are recruiting and often landing the same players.
– In fact, Kentucky isn’t the only program Georgia will face this WEEK that has a probable one-and-done. (Mississippi State forward Malik Newman is projected to be a first-rounder if he goes.)
– Georgia would do it if it could. The Bulldogs recruited Jaylen Brown for years, but ultimately he went to California.
– The rule is almost certainly not going to change. If anything it will be increased to a two-year limit.
“I think that issue is way down the pecking order to be honest with you,” Fox said.
Last year 12 of the 30 first-round picks were used on college freshmen. Only four seniors and four juniors were picked in the first round, the rest either underclassmen or international players.
The first four picks of the 2014 draft were one-and-dones – and none of them were from Kentucky. (Although the seventh pick, Julius Randle, was.)
Basically, it’s ceased to be much of an issue. It’s become accepted.
But it’s not foolproof, as Kentucky (17-6) is finding out this year.
Forward Skal Labissiere was one of the nation’s top recruits, and is still projected to be a lottery pick – 10th to be exact in the latest rankings by Draftexpress.com. The only problem is Labissiere is struggling, averaging just 7 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. He’s come off the bench the past 12 games.
When he got a rebound against Florida, after a three-game stretch without one, the fans at Rupp Arena let out a roar.
“I think everything is magnified here at Kentucky,” Labissiere said. “The fans pay attention to everything we do.”
Another Kentucky freshman, guard Jamal Murray, torched Florida for 35 points on Saturday. He’s projected to go eighth overall, while fellow freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe is projected to be the second pick of the second round.
But seven other freshman are also projected to be first-rounders, and they hail from Duke, Kansas, Maryland, Marquette, UNLV and California.
In fact California has two, including Brown. But the Bears are only 15-8.
When you recruit top-flight talent, it means being able to crow in June. But from November to March, it’s not always easy.
“Now what happens though when you start losing those guys you find out this is really hard to have a new team every year,” Calipari said. “It’s hard to have really young guys on your team, and it’s the best thing for the players, it’s not the best thing for the coach, like I can tell you. It makes it a really tough thing that we’re trying to do.”