The Kentucky Wildcats kicked off what will probably be their second-toughest month of the season with a 63-51 statement victory over No. 6 Texas on Friday night. The Longhorns fought valiantly in the first 20 minutes of play, but in the second half the Wildcats put on a performance that has the college basketball world abuzz over their talent and potential. Through eight games, the Wildcats are 8-0 with an average margin of victory of 31.6 points. That’s significantly inflated by low and mid-major mismatches, but once finals are out of the way (December 13) the Wildcats will close the year out by hosting UNC, UCLA and traveling to Louisville. Those three stiff challenges, along with the Texas game, make December the best month to evaluate the Wildcats from an NBA Draft standpoint next to the NCAA Tournament. They’re poised to steamroll through SEC play with very little resistance, as the league is down in a year where John Calipari has assembled a team on par with his 2011-12 national championship squad. With such a critical stretch ahead, now is a good time to assess the Wildcats’ stock individually to see how Coach Cal’s platoon system is impacting their draft stock.
Even though he’s just the Wildcats’ seventh leading scorer, the odds are very high that Towns is going to be the first one taken on draft night. In fact, he’s still firmly in the mix to go number one overall, although at some point this season his production is going to have to come close to being on par with his potential in order for him to really surpass Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, who is currently the heavy favorite to go No. 1.
Towns possesses a unique combination of size, length, skill and a high basketball IQ. He came in known primarily for his wide-ranging offensive skill set, but is averaging a team-high three blocks and 7.4 rebounds, a sign of how Calipari has quickly been able to shift his focus.
It’s unfortunate that we’re only seeing Towns in a supporting role, because based on the way his per 40 numbers jump off the page, he’d probably be the talk of the country if he was featured the way Okafor is. Even though his potential is far greater, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson are playing too well right now to give Towns more playing time than them.
NBA Comparison: Greg Monroe Current Draft Projection: Top Five
Cauley-Stein’s stock is soaring right now after a monster performance against Texas in which he was the most impactful player on the floor. Overall his stats aren’t much improved from what they were last year, other than his scoring (which is up four points). However, Cauley-Stein’s defensive ability sets him apart from most players in his draft class – especially one like this where the other top big men are more offensive-minded players.
Cauley-Stein is like the middle linebacker of a Kentucky defense that is No. 1 in points allowed (45.4), field goal percentage allowed (28.2 percent) and second in blocked shots per game (8.6). He makes plays all over the floor, is fouling less than four times per 40 minutes and has all the tools needed to transition over to being a big defensive presence at the NBA level as well. Cauley-Stein very easily could have left after either his freshman or sophomore year, but his willingness to stick around and develop has helped him become dominant on the defensive end of the floor.
Offensively, he’s made strides as well. He’s expanded his range a bit, and is a notably better free throw shooter, connecting at a 64 percent clip compared to 48.2 percent last year and 37.2 percent the year prior.
NBA Comparison: Tyson Chandler Current Draft Projection: Top 14
Dakari Johnson – 6’11, 263 lbs. Center (Sophomore) Averages: 10.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 19.5 mpg Per 40 Minute Averages: 21.3 ppg, 14.4 rpg, 2.6 bpg
After the win against Texas, Johnson became the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 10.4 points a game. His teammates do a really good job of dumping it down to him when he’s out on the floor and taking advantage of his strength and skill in the interior. He’s a quality offensive option that should be able to get buckets in the paint at the next level even though he’s not incredibly quick or explosive. He’ll rely more on his length, footwork and touch once he’s regularly going up against players of his size.
A big key for Johnson raising his stock is simply staying out of foul trouble and remaining healthy. He’s accomplished both so far, while being the epitome of efficiency, converting an impressive 62.8 percent of his attempts. His 34.7 PER puts him in elite company among the other NBA prospects.
A traditional five in a mold that we rarely see, Johnson has the potential to play a long, long time in the NBA, and will probably be utilized quite similarly to the way he is at Kentucky. He may never be a starting big man who you can play 30+ minutes a night, but he’ll be one of the few backup centers in the league you can design plays around offensively.
NBA Comparison: Chris Kaman Current Draft Projection: Mid-to-late first round
In terms of perimeter players, Booker may be the Wildcats’ best prospect. He’s a quality shooter with a great understanding of the game and how to get his looks despite not being an elite-level athlete. What’s been disappointing about Booker so far from a draft standpoint is that he’s been at his best against the worst competition, and at his worst against the best competition. Booker’s double-digit scoring games have come against Buffalo (10), Boston (15), Montana State (18) and Texas-Arlington (19). Against Kansas, Providence and Texas, the three best teams Kentucky has faced to date, he scored a combined 10 points on 4-12 shooting from the field and 2-8 from distance. The only stats he recorded in 22 minutes against Texas were two fouls and a turnover, so the freshman stud clearly has a long way to go.
He’s really taken a liking to the Klay Thompson comparisons, and there are definitely some similarities between the two. Thompson was a star and a primary option for two out of his three years at Washington State, though, so we should give Booker a little bit more time to prove himself before running too wild with the comparison. If Booker sticks around and puts up numbers like Thompson did his sophomore or junior year, he has a chance to go in the same range (Thompson went 11th in the 2011 Draft). Currently, he’d have a hard time cracking the top 20.
NBA Comparison: Klay Thompson Current Draft Projection: Late first round
The Harrison twins knew what they were getting themselves into by coming back to such a loaded Kentucky team. Their attitude and body language were two of the biggest knocks on them last year and it was a big question how they would handle sharing the backcourt with Tyler Ulis and Booker, two freshmen who have already taken away about 10 minutes of their playing time a night. So far, they’ve embraced the demotion (if you want to call it that) and are buying into the team concept in a way many wondered if they would ever be able to. Remember, they came in as blue chip recruits expected to be gone by now. And, they very likely would have been first round picks, but they opted to stay and from the outside looking in, seem to be as coachable and unselfish as ever.
As far as Aaron as an individual goes, he’s having a down year. He’s shooting a woeful 33.8 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from distance. After the way he proved himself as a shooter last year, though, especially in clutch moments, he shouldn’t be overly concerned with his cold shooting impacting his stock. If teams have confidence in any aspect of his game, it’s his ability to shoot.
He’s been much more engaged defensively, an important development. Maturing is the real key for Aaron. He’s not going to be the star in the NBA that he was in high school, nor is his brother, but coming to terms with that now and accepting a supporting role at the NCAA level should greatly benefit him for many years to come.
NBA Comparison: Danny Green Current Draft Projection: Late first round
Andrew Harrison – 6’6, 210 lbs. Point Guard/Shooting Guard (Sophomore) Averages: 7.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 3.5 apg, 20.9 mpg Per 40 Minute Averages: 15.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.7 apg
All of the positives not reflected by statistics that were listed for Aaron apply to Andrew as well, although he’s been the more productive player of the two so far. Andrew looks to be in peak condition and he’s running the team well, boosting his assist-to-turnover ratio to 2.55:1 from 1.46:1 last year. He’s also shooting the ball much better and is just operating with a lot more poise and precision overall.
There’s some debate over whether Andrew will remain a point guard at the next level. He may not be a true lead guard an NBA team can start and depend on to get the ball where it needs to be, but thankfully for Andrew with his size and strength a transition to shooting guard does not spell disaster like it would for a lot of players who can’t play the point in the NBA. Even if he does spend more time at the two than the one, he’ll always be capable of bringing the ball up the floor, handling it against pressure and creating for others in spot duty. That kind of versatility should keep him in the first round mix and on the right side of the bubble.
NBA Comparison: Ramon Sessions Current Draft Projection: Late first round
Trey Lyles – 6’10, 235 lbs. Power Forward (Freshman) Averages: 7.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.4 apg, 17.3 mpg Per 40 Minute Averages: 17.4 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 3.2 apg
Deep down, Calipari has to be hoping that he gets another year to coach Lyles, because he hasn’t been able to come close to utilizing him to his full potential so far. Lyes is a skilled, versatile big man who can do it all offensively and confidently attack any big man in the country. There just isn’t the need for him to do that on this team, though, unfortunately. He’s always out on the floor with four guys who can score the basketball, so we’ve only been able to see Lyles’ gifted offensive arsenal on display in flashes.
To a certain extent, this could all work in his favor. NBA talent evaluators are already sold on his ability to score the basketball. He has the potential to be a double-figure scorer for a long time at the NBA. What’s going to determine whether he gets the kind of playing time he needs to do that is whether he can defend and rebound at the next level as well as he can score. So far, Lyles is showing more athleticism than he was previously given credit for, and he’s happily accepted his role. It’s highly doubtful that he would fall out of the first round. However, he could end up taking the Terrence Jones path to the NBA. By sticking around for his sophomore year, Lyles should have no trouble climbing into the top 20 and making all of the sacrificing well worth it.
NBA Comparison: David West Current Draft Projection: Late first round
Alex Poythress – 6’8, 238 lbs. Small Forward/Power Forward (Junior) Averages: 6.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 21.0 mpg Per 40 Minute Averages: 11.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.2 bpg
As a freshman, Poythress played 25 minutes a game, averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds and had a legitimate shot at going in the first round. At that point NBA talent evaluators were still willing to gamble on his actual skill set improving, but three years in Poythress is still largely the same player. He’s very unselfish and has handled the decreased playing time with great maturity, but the hope that he would eventually develop into a small forward is drastically smaller. Poythress is now looked at as a dreaded small forward/power forward tweener who is a better athlete than basketball player. He can do certain things well, especially on the defensive end, where he’s going to make his living as a pro. However, the perceived upside is nowhere near what it used to be and Poythress’ stock has a pretty low ceiling as a result.
Poythress just hasn’t evolved enough, and on this team, with the caliber of talent they have, he’s not going to get many chances to work on anything new. He’s going to be asked to go out there and play tough defense, crash the boards hard and finish around the rim. He’s in the kind of situation where he needs to just keep doing what he’s doing and not worry about mock drafts or stock projections, because they’ll only drive him mad. To his credit, it seems like he’s done that. His chance to climb will come after the season in private workouts – if he decides to leave. At this point, there’s not much harm he can do to his stock by staying around another year if he wants. In fact, it’s probably the best move for him. He missed out on striking while his stock was hot, and now should only be focused on being as prepared for the next level as he can be. As is, he still doesn’t look ready to be more than a hustle/energy guy on the low end of an NBA rotation.
NBA Comparison: DeMarre Carroll Current Draft Projection: Mid-to-late second round
At 5’9, no matter how good Ulis is or what kind of numbers he puts up, he’s going to be doubted as a prospect. There just aren’t a lot of guys under six foot who can stick in the NBA, but there is a precedence. Look no further than the former “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2011 NBA Draft, Isaiah Thomas. Also standing just 5’9 tall, Thomas has had no trouble carving out a career for himself, earning a big pay day and now being one of the leaders in the race for the Sixth Man of the Year Award.
While Thomas will likely be who Ulis points to as proof that he can play at the next level (whenever he decides to declare, he could be around for a couple of seasons), their games are different. Ulis is more of a pass-first point guard, but does possess the ability to create his own shot and hit from all over the floor. He’s also a much more dedicated defender, although the size and strength of NBA point guards during this golden era of play at the position will lead to him getting attacked a lot in the post.
You can’t help but love watching Ulis play at the collegiate level. He brings a ton of energy, is unselfish and an absolute handful to contain in transition with the ball in his hands. He’d really benefit from proving himself in a featured role as a sophomore or junior. In his current role, teams are going to be too caught up on his lack of size to invest in him before the second round.
NBA Comparison: Darren Collison Current Draft Projection: Mid-to-late second round
Marcus Lee – 6’9, 220 lbs. Power Forward (Sophomore) Averages: 1.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 13.9 mpg Per 40 Minute Averages: 5.4 ppg, 10 rpg, 3.2 bpg
It may not serve as much consolation for Lee, but at least now as he’s relegated to 13.9 minutes a night he can hang his hat on the fact that most people know he can play at a high level when given the chance. He had his coming out party in the Elite Eight against Michigan last year when he went for a surprising 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes with Cauley-Stein out due to injury. He’s a good athlete who can really be a difference maker defensively and on the glass. He hasn’t done much with his inconsistent playing time this season, but did have a strong outing against a ranked Kansas team when he had four points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 17 minutes.
Lee’s situation is very similar to former Wildcat and now Gonzaga Bulldog Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer was a role player at Kentucky whose minutes were poised to take a hit with Julius Randle coming in last season. Rather than remaining a role player, Wiltjer opted to transfer to Gonzaga, where he is now a star averaging 16 ppg and 5.1 rpg in a 7-0 start to the year. Lee would probably be putting up strong numbers too if he transferred to a program that needed a centerpiece, but he opted to stick with Kentucky even though it’s hard to see how he ever plays the kind of role he needs to in order for his stock to peak. He’s a talented prospect with NBA potential, but at Kentucky you can still be that good and end up being out-recruited. If he decided to go pro rather than transfer, he may have a team take a flyer on him in the second round, but he’d more likely have to work his way in either via overseas or the D-League.
NBA Comparison: Chris Andersen Current Draft Projection: Late second round
On a team with 10 players who legitimately have the talent to justify declaring for the draft this summer, it’s impossible for everyone to put up the kind of numbers they need to in order to improve their stock consistently. There’s simply not enough minutes or shots to go around, yet Calipari has found a way to get everyone to accept a reduced role and sacrificing for the betterment of the team. That’s set the table for Kentucky to potentially go down as one of the deepest and most dominant teams ever. Anything short of a national championship will go down as a disappointment from a team standpoint, but as long as everyone continues to accept their role and make the most of the time they do get, they can all end up winners on draft night, and join the long list of Kentucky Wildcats in the NBA. They may not all bolt this summer, but it’s pretty safe to say right now that all 10 of the players listed above will be in the NBA at some point, and there’s not another team in the country that can make the same claim as confidently.