As you would expect for a team that went 38-1 and lost in the Final Four, the vast majority of Kentucky’s rotation elected to go pro on Thursday, with as many as seven different players expected to be taken in the 2015 NBA draft. When they get to the league, though, they are going to be in a little bit of a shock as they will no longer be on a team with vastly more talent than the majority of its competitors. DeMarcus Cousins has been in the NBA five seasons and he still hasn’t played with two guys as talented as John Wall and Eric Bledsoe.
The point is that each and every one of them will have to stand on their own as prospects. There are no package deals at the NBA level, no one who can cover for everyone else’s mistakes. When you are drafting from a John Calipari team, you want to make sure you are taking guys based off their talent level and skill-set not their proximity to greatness at the NCAA level. So how do the seven guys from this year’s team stack up with each other?
1) Karl Towns
Towns is the best player to come through Lexington since Anthony Davis. At 7’0 250 with a 7’3 wingspan, he has the size of a center and the speed of a guard. And while he spent most of the season playing in the post, he showcased a very well-developed perimeter game on the All-Star circuit last season and he seems like exactly the type of versatile big man in demand in the modern NBA. You can use Towns as a PF or a C and expect him to be an elite player on both sides of the ball and you can fit him into almost any role in any system and not worry too much about the transition from NCAA. In my mind, Towns is the clear No. 1 prospect in this year’s draft and he’s the one guy I would take regardless of whoever else I already had on my roster.
2) Willie Cauley-Stein
The rare Kentucky player who wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, Cauley-Stein is all the proof you need that Calipari is doing a lot more than just rolling the ball out on the floor and letting elite recruits win games for him. At 7’0 240 with a 7’2 wingspan, Cauley-Stein came into school as an extremely raw big man who was more comfortable playing football than basketball. Over the last three seasons, Calipari has harnessed his athleticism on defense while slowly turning him into a relatively smooth player who won’t kill you on the offensive end of the floor.
Anyone drafting Cauley-Stein is doing so for his defensive ability, primarily on the pick-and-roll. The modern NBA is all about isolating big man and forcing them to defend in space and few 7’0 in the history of the sport have ever moved laterally as quickly as Cauley-Stein. Calipari even used him a perimeter stopper this season on PG’s, SG’s and SF’s. The question for whoever drafts him is making him fit on offense, as he is likely never going to be the type of back-to-the-basket scorer that can punish a team for going small. The easy solution is to put him in a spread pick-and-roll offense that allows him to catch alley oops at the rim and kill people on the offensive glass. The worry is that he ends up on a slow-paced team with a lot of size and not a lot of shooting that doesn’t let him play in space and tries to make him into something he is not.
3) Trey Lyles
Lyles might be the most underrated of the Kentucky players because he was forced to sacrifice the most for the good of the team this season. Once Alex Poythress went down with an ACL injury, Lyles was the only one of their big men with the ability to play on the perimeter as a SF, forcing him out of his natural position of PF. As a result, Lyles rarely got the chance to drive against a spread floor or post up smaller players around the rim, the two main ways he will be utilized at the next level. At 6’10 235 with a 7’3 wingspan, Lyles has prototypical size for a PF and his time on the perimeter at Kentucky prepared him for the way the position is changing in the NBA. If he can ever develop a consistent three-point shot, he could be as good a player as any in this draft. Lyles is a guy with Top 5-Top 10 potential who could be available deep into the first round.
4) Devin Booker
Booker was fantastic as a freshman and he played a huge role for Kentucky but he’s the first guy on this list I’d be a little worried about whether the flaws in his game were being minimized by being on such a talented team. As a SG, there’s no situation you would rather play in than with big men who demand double teams in the paint and move the ball and PG’s who control tempo and create shots for you in the half-court. At 6’6 205 with a 6’6 wingspan, he’s not an elite athlete and he doesn’t have the type of length to allow him to be a defensive stopper on high-level NBA wing players. Booker is a lights out shooter with a good feel for the game who could conceivably walk into a role in an NBA rotation but there are SG’s in this draft with more tools who weren’t in as advantageous a position at the NCAA level.
5) Dakari Johnson
Johnson has snuck pretty far below the radar in his two seasons at Kentucky but he clearly has potential. At 7’0 255 with a 7’0 wingspan, he’s a wide-bodied bruiser with a developed low-post game who has been tested on defense by going up against some of the best big men in the country over the last three years. (He played at the same high school as Joel Embiid) Johnson’s per minute numbers indicate that he has the potential to be a decent rim protector (2.6 blocks per-40 minutes) although he may never have the footspeed to extend too far out on the perimeter on defense.
More important for Johnson than when he will be drafted is where. The ideal scenario would be a team with a defensive scheme built around a massive 5 who falls back in the paint on defense - think backing up Roy Hibbert or Andrew Bogut. The worry is that he ends up on a career path similar to Daniel Orton, the forgotten 5th first-rounder of Calipari’s first draft class in Lexington. Johnson is the Kentucky player I was most surprised declared since he could have improved his draft stock by thriving in a more featured role on offense as a junior.
6) Andrew Harrison
One half of one of the more polarizing guard tandems in the recent history of NCAA basketball, Andrew elected to declare for the draft despite shooting 38% from the field. At 6’5 210 with a 6’8 wingspan, his main selling point is his size. The problem is that he lacks NBA-caliber explosion which means he struggles to create efficient shots off the dribble, finish around the rim and stay in front of smaller players on defense. The key for him to stick at the next level is to refine his shooting, playmaking and overall feel for the game since he’s never going to be a great athlete. Forget the recruiting hype. This is a guy who would have really benefited from polishing his game over four years in college. As is, he’s got an uphill battle to make an NBA roster and crack an NBA rotation as a second-round pick. Regardless of where he ends up being taken, expect to see a lot of him in the D-League next season.
7) Aaron Harrison
The basic problem for Aaron is that he has all of the negative of his twin brother in terms of decision-making, shooting and athleticism and none of the positives. At 6’6 215 with a 6’8 wingspan, he has fairly average size for an NBA SG and no real calling card for establishing himself at the next level besides the ability to hit clutch shots - ask Acie Law how much that matters if you can’t even get on the floor in the NBA. He does have a chance to eventually crack an NBA roster since 6’6 guards who can shoot and put the ball on the floor will always intrigue teams. From the looks of it, though, he’s going to have to post really good efficiency numbers in the D-League before he’s going to get a shot at the next level.