Thursday, August 21, 2014

The John Calipari Debate

“The Kentucky Effect is there and it’s real,” Coach Cal said. “Senator Mitch McConnell has said to me, ‘You’re creating more millionaires than a Wall Street firm,’ and I went, wow, we are.”

In his first five years at Kentucky, John Calipari has won a national title, lost in the national championship game, lost in the Final Four and lost in the Elite Eight. He is 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament and two of those losses (2011 UConn, 2014 UConn) came against teams who went on to win the whole thing. To be sure, the players are the primary reason for his success, but that makes him no different than any other coach. A coach can only be as good as his players.

There's a perception out there that Calipari is nothing more than a glorified bus driver, a pretty face for the cameras who sweet talks recruits, rolls the ball out on the court and lets all his future NBA stars carry him to victories. Given the number of future pros that have rolled through Lexington (19 draft picks) and the fact that Kentucky has a Top 3 recruiting class every year, it's easy to think every season is like 2010, when he had DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, or 2012, when he had Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones. 

If you want to know how good of a coach he is, you have to look at a year like 2011. Here was their starting line-up:

Brandon Knight
Doron Lamb
Darius Miller
Terrence Jones
Josh Harrellson

After they went to the Final Four, it was easy to be like there goes another team full of future pros dominating over-matched competition. All five of their starters ended up being drafted, which pretty much never happens in college basketball. However, when you look back it three years later, it's not clear how talented that team really was.

Knight was a five-star PG, a Top 5 recruit whom everyone expected to be a one-and-done guy. After one season at Kentucky, he declared for the draft and was widely seen as a Top 3-5 pick, someone who was right behind Kyrie Irving in the pecking order. He ended up falling to Detroit at No. 8, where he was expected to be a franchise PG. Instead, he only held on to the job for two seasons before being shipped out to Milwaukee. At this point, it's unclear whether he will even remain a starter long-term or whether he would be better off coming off the bench as a Jason Terry/Lou Williams type.

Lamb was ranked right outside the Top 20, a four-star guard who was seen as a good, but not a great recruit. Other guys in his range - Joe Jackson, Ryan Harrow, Vander Blue, Tyler Lamb. After two seasons at Kentucky, he was drafted in the second round by the Orlando Magic. Despite being on one of the worst teams in the NBA, he couldn't crack the rotation and he's going to have to earn a spot with the Dallas Mavericks in training camp. As a 6'4 shooting guard who isn't an elite athlete and can't run point, there's no guarantee he ends up sticking in the league long-term.

Miller was a four-star recruit in the class of 2008, ranked in the 40-60 range by the recruiting services. For every guy like Markieff Morris who makes the league from that spot, there are a dozen guys like Tony Mitchell, Drew Gordon and Renaldo Woolridge. After four seasons at Kentucky, he was drafted in the second round by New Orleans in 2012. He averaged 3 points a game in his first two seasons, so this is a make or break year for him. If he can't crack the Pellies rotation in 2014-2015, he could easily wind up heading overseas.

Jones was really the only blue-chip NBA guy on that year's team. If he had declared after his freshman season, he would have been a Top 5 pick in 2011. Instead, after taking a smaller role on the 2012 team and winning a national title, he fell to Houston at No. 17. At 22, he's already established himself as a starter on a 50+ win team.

Harrellson wasn't in the Top 150 coming out of high school. He was a juco guy recruited by the previous coaching staff who turned himself into a fringe NBA player under Calipari. I was surprised he was drafted, but he ended up being taken in the middle of the second round in 2011. He's been on three teams in three seasons and played in only 75 games at the next level. I'm dubious he's going to stick, even though he's a big guy who can shoot, as he's not really capable of playing NBA-level defense at either interior position.

You can look at this 2011 team and see five future NBA players including two lottery talents or you can look at it and see one blue-chip guy, one guy who should stick in the league and three fringe guys who can go either way. The reality is there are a lot of teams at the college level with that kind of talent among their top 5 players. The difference is they don't get rated as high in the recruiting rankings because Cal isn't pursuing them, they don't win games like Cal's teams win them and they aren't in the spotlight in the same way that Cal's players are.

It's the same with Alabama in football - whenever Kentucky goes after a basketball player, he instantly becomes a bigger name. The brand is so strong that it validates the player, even though it doesn't necessarily mean they are up to the standard that Cal has set for his teams. If you look at Lamb, Miller and Harrellson's physical profiles and college stats, there's nothing that screams they had to be drafted. If they were playing on an average NCAA team, they might never have gotten a chance at the next level. You can just look at how much publicity Miller and Harrellson were getting when they were playing for Billy Gillespie - basically nothing.

My guess is a lot of the same thing happened in 2014 - if the Harrison twins and James Young weren't playing for Kentucky, I'm not sure they would be all that highly regarded. They didn't do anything that impressive last season. If you don't believe me, check their stats. When you look at that 2014 team in 2017-2018, I would not be surprised if it ends up being Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and a bunch of guys. Because Cal was coaching them, though, everyone was acting like they were the Fab Five re-incarnated.

That's the Catch-22 that he has set up for himself in terms of public perception. He gets a ton of stars through Lexington, but not every guy drafted out of Kentucky ends up like Wall, Cousins or Davis. People look at it like he's riding off the success of all these future NBA players when the reality is he's creating a lot of NBA careers for fringe prospects. It's not that Cal won all these games because he had 19 future NBA players - Cal had 19 future NBA players on his roster in large part because he won all those games and did such a great job of selling his program.

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