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How Much Credit Does John Calipari Deserve For NBA First-Round Draft Picks?

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By LARRY VAUGHT

This year’s NBA draft produced three more lottery picks for Kentucky and coach John Calipari. In eight years at UK, he’s had three No. 1 overall picks, 24 first-round picks and 31 players drafted overall. No other school can match those numbers in the same time period.

So who deserves the credit for that? Is it Calipari for what he does for the players once he gets them to Kentucky? Is is parents, high school coaches, AAU coaches or trainers who spent years helping those players hone their skills and lay the foundation for the draft success? Is it both?

I reached out to Darrell Bird, a long-time friend and Cats’ Pause publisher, and Aaron Torres, author of ‘One andFun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats,” for their thoughts.

“In a vacuum I think it's fair to question the impact of a college coach on a player and his draft positioning. As the draft skews younger every year, it seems fair to say that the top 10 or so players would have gone high no matter where they went to college,” Torres said. “Look at Scout.com's final ranking of the top 10 high school players in the high school class of 2016 and it isn't all that much different than the NBA lottery in 2017. 

“However, I think that to not credit college coaches at all isn't fair either. While a De'Aaron Fox or Malik Monk — or in previous years a John Wall, Anthony Davis or Nerlens Noel — would have gone high without John Calipari, there are plenty of cases of high-profile kids falling through the cracks at other schools.

“Just look at Marques Bolden this year at Duke as an example of a kid that virtually everyone thought was a sure-fire ‘one-and-done’ type player who will be forced to come back to Durham for another year.”

Bird, the former sports editor of the Elizabethtown News-Enterprise, has a theory few could debate.

“God-given ability trumps every other factor for consideration in this debate. You, me and (former Cats’ Pause owner) Oscar (Combs)could play under John Calipari for 10 years and it’s not going to improve our wing span or increase our vertical leap, though I hear the Big O had quite the hops back in the day,” Bird said.

He’s absolutely right. There’s no substitute for God-given talent. Not sure about the hops for Oscar.

“But even with that, outrageous talent on a freakish frame is only part of the equation. A player must still have the drive and determination to develop those gifts to their fullest potential,” Bird said. “Yes, coaches can play a huge role in teaching shooting and dribbling skills, but it’s the countless hours alone in the gym where they are fine-tuned to stand out above hundreds of other athletes vying for those rare NBA slots.”

Bird believes the coach’s role in NBA draft picks is “tricky” for various reasons.

“Kentucky fans would argue that Calipari has been masterful in guiding 24 players to become NBA first-round draft picks in just eight seasons. Perhaps the brilliance is Calipari’s role in the mental aspect of the game, teaching already elite athletes to play in a group and to become mentally tough to handle the professional ranks,” Bird said.

“Likewise, Kenny Payne’s work with big men is a transformation we see play out every winter. But at the other end of that spectrum is Ben Simmons as the No. 1 overall pick out of LSU. Anybody want to give (coach) Johnny Jones credit for that?”

That would be a no. Probably the same with Markelle Fultz of Washington this year and coach Lorenzo Romar. That's why Torres points out something few want to mention about Calipari.

“One thing that John Calipari doesn't specifically get credit for is his keen eye for talent with the non-obvious, superstar, five-star players. When Devin Booker committed to Kentucky, everyone expected him to be a three or four year player. By what should have been his third year at Kentucky (which became his second year in the NBA) he dropped 70 points in a pro game,” Torres said.

“Willie Cauley-Stein was a much discussed football player before developing into a lottery pick on the court at Kentucky. No one thought Eric Bledsoe was one-and-done before he got to Kentucky. He ended up as a max contract guy in the NBA. 

“So ultimately, with the top players it's impossible to hand all the credit to a coach like Calipari. But he deserves plenty of credit, not just with his star recruits, but with the non-star ones as well.”

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