Eight Kentucky Wildcats Going Pro?
When Aaron Harrison nailed the game-winning three against Michigan, he didn’t just send the Kentucky Wildcats to the Final Four. He also earned the coaching staff and athletic director $330,000 in bonuses, adding fuel to the fire that college student-athletes deserve to be paid. While the NCAA and universities netting billions off of amateur athletes and restricting their potential income in the process is an issue that needs to be addressed, no tears should be shed for Harrison and his teammates – because their big pay day is just around the corner.
One of the other byproducts of this unexpected run by the Wildcats is that their entire rotation’s draft stock is rising.
Regardless of how they fare at the Final Four, eight Wildcats are going to have to legitimately sit down and contemplate whether they want to return next season or go pro. For some the decision will be clear cut, while others may want/need to stay, but would have to embrace the risk of losing playing time to another loaded recruiting class coming into Lexington. Calipari already has National Letters of Intent from four of the top recruits in the 2014: shooting guard Devin Booker, point guard Tyler Ulis, power forward Trey Lyles and center Karl Towns Jr.
Here’s a look at each of those eight players individually and where they stand in terms of the NBA Draft:
Julius Randle – Power Forward
Once Randle arrives back in Lexington, he should immediately pack his bags and get ready to move to wherever he is doing his pre-draft training, because his time in college has come to an end. Kentucky head coach John Calipari wouldn’t let him stay if he wanted to. The whole reason Randle signed on to play for Cal was to be groomed into the best prospect he could be and that has happened. He’s put up a double-double every tournament game so far and while Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins have been watching since the opening weekend, he’s established himself as the most pro ready of the bunch.
We’ll have to see just how high that moves him on draft night, but Randle’s stock is firmly in the top four and there is absolutely no reason for him to even think about staying for his sophomore season.
James Young – Small Forward
At times this year, Young has played like a top 10 pick. Unfortunately for Young, that was earlier in the season. He’s been steady, but not as explosive as he was earlier in the year. Still, there’s not going to be much debate for Young when he thinks about staying or going. He needs to go. As one of the top-ranked small forwards in the class with pro-level skills offensively, Young is highly unlikely to last past the middle portion of the first round. He’s going to see the floor right away as a rookie because of his ability to score the basketball in a variety of ways. What will really determine how successful he is as a pro is his defense. Young has all the tools to be a quality defender. If he makes the most of them and continues to polish his offensive game, he could be a starter sooner rather than later.
Andrew Harrison – Point Guard
There are few positions in college basketball that hold more prestige than playing point guard under Coach Calipari. Andrew hasn’t played up to the level of his predecessors Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans or John Wall. His numbers are more on pace with what Marquis Teague put up during the Wildcats’ championship run in 2012, but he still ended up being a first round pick despite modest statistics and Andrew could as well. At 6’6, Harrison is a big point guard who has made strides throughout the season, both in his play and his approach. For a young team in need of a leader, Andrew has become one and an NBA team in the later portion of the first round is going to make the investment in him with hopes that his biggest improvements are still yet to come.
Aaron Harrison – Shooting Guard
Few players in the country have been scoring in as efficient a manner as Aaron, the hero in Kentucky’s Elite Eight victory over Michigan. He’s really found his niche in Calipari’s offense, looking comfortable and confident. At 6’6, he too has good size for the next level, although his advantage isn’t as great as Aaron’s is at the point. He’s arguably the second best player on the team right now behind Randle, so don’t expect him to give coming back much consideration either. His decision is made easier by the fact that his brother’s stock has started to rise too. They’ve played together their entire lives and they’ll likely want to go through the pre-draft process together as well.
Dakari Johnson – Center
Calipari has invested a lot of time in Johnson and put his faith in the center’s development. He reaped the benefits from his patience against Louisville as Johnson went for 15 points and six rebounds. He’s shooting a ridiculous 66 percent in the tournament and at 7’0, 265 lbs. he has the size, strength and low-post skills that will help teams look past the fact that he’s extremely raw and likely a couple of years away from being a consistent NBA player. He’s really going to have to work on his body and adjust to the increased speed and athleticism that he’ll be facing, but is potentially playing behind Lyles and Towns the best way for him to do that? Probably not, which is why Johnson could be gone despite the fact that he’s far from ready.
Willie Cauley-Stein – Center
It’s very likely that Cauley-Stein would have been a first-round pick last year had he decided to declare. He envisioned playing a bigger role as a sophomore and moving into the top 10, but his playing time has remained virtually the same and his production has actually declined in some areas. Still, he’s an athletic seven footer who has all the makings of a defensive force at the next level. He suffered an ankle injury against Louisville that looks like it could cost him the rest of the tournament (he did not play against Michigan and has been ruled “doubtful” for the Final Four). That’s not the kind of note he wanted to leave on, but at this time it seems like Kentucky has done all it can for him. Even if he doesn’t play this weekend, he’s still likely to be a mid-to-late first round pick. The perceived upside you have as a sophomore is far greater than as a junior, especially if he doesn’t make monumental improvements. The pressure to produce at a much higher level, while battling projected lottery picks for playing time, makes the risk outweigh the reward in Cauley-Stein’s case.
Alex Poythress – Small Forward/Power Forward
Fair or not, a lot of Poythress’ teammates are going to look at his situation as reason to bolt early. Poythress probably would have been a late first-round pick last year after putting up 11.2 points and six rebounds a game. However, he wasn’t content with how his freshman season went and decided to stick around. His role was reduced to 18 minutes a game this season as he was out-recruited by the arrival of Randle. Cal has tried to use him in different ways and find a way to get more production out of him, to no avail. He did play a vital role in their win against Louisville and winning a national championship would certainly help ease the pain from his sophomore slump, but returning has not paid off for Poythress. As much as his stock has dropped, his decision to leave has probably been made for months now. When playing at his natural position as a power forward, Poythress could help an NBA team as a blue collar reserve. Look for him to get selected in the early-to-middle portion of the second round.
Marcus Lee – Power Forward
This season Lee has averaged 6.1 minutes a game, putting up 2.4 points and 1.5 rebounds a game. As a top 25 recruit who would have been seeing far more playing time at California or Louisville, who he spurned to be a Wildcat, it’s been a tough pill to swallow. He didn’t let that frustration prevent him from being ready when his number was called against Michigan, though. He came in and absolutely assaulted the offensive glass, scoring 10 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking two shots to help the Wildcats edge the Wolverines by three. They wouldn’t be alive still if it wasn’t for his outburst. One good game is hardly enough to justify being one-and-done, but Lee is a serious talent with great potential. If he declared, he wouldn’t go undrafted. Remember, Daniel Orton was a first-round pick despite only playing 13.2 minutes a game during his lone season at Kentucky. With Cauley-Stein potentially out for the rest of the season, Lee is positioned to see big minutes in North Texas once again. If he continues to surprise, he may decide to cash in because it’s not like a featured role is waiting for him next season. He’s going to be fighting an uphill battle to start over Lyles and Towns. The only way he stays is if he’s completely confident in his ability to push his stock even higher next year while likely being the third big man in the rotation. That’s a risky proposition – just ask Poythress.
Parker Still Undecided
Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker is projected to be a top four pick by almost every website that covers the draft, but there has always been talk that he could stick around for his sophomore season. Duke’s early exit from the NCAA Tournament increased those odds, as does the appeal of playing with one of Coach K’s best recruiting classes in recent memory, which features his close friend and dominant-low post presence Jahlil Okafor. Parker has just under four weeks to make his decision, and appears to be content to use a lot of it.
“He’s undecided and we know the [NBA’s Early Entry eligibility] deadline is the 27th [of April] so if he’s going to make a decision he has to make it by that date but right now he’s undecided,” Sonny Parker, Jabari’s father, told SNY.tv.
“He’s still in school. He goes to Duke University. He’s hitting the books, man. It’s all about school for him. He has to unwind from the season.
“It’s going to be his decision. I don’t put no pressure on him. He’s gotta make a decision when he’s coming out. He’s 19 years old now, he ain’t in high school right now.”
The fact that Parker is focusing on academics and not pre-draft training, as most of the other prospects whose seasons have come to an end are, is telling. Draft workouts may not hold as much importance for Parker as others, but you still want to go into them prepared and in shape.
If Parker decides to stay, it’s solely because he enjoys the collegiate experience and wants to be a part of a potential national championship team next season. The NBA is calling and he is ready (offensively at least). He doesn’t stand to gain much by returning, but it’s become a regular occurrence for at least one highly-ranked prospect to stick around despite his stock seemingly being peaked. Parker could be the one to do so this year.