Kentucky a ‘springboard’ to NBA, but scouts find ‘guys from everywhere’

·7 min read

Of course, you can’t spell Big Blue Nation without an “N,” a “B” and an “A.” Kentucky is practically synonymous with the National Basketball Association.

Kentucky’s program is not shy about associating itself with the NBA. Be it putting pictures of ex-Cats now in the NBA on the Rupp Arena video boards before each game. Or staging a televised “Pro Day” each preseason. Or calling attention in 2021-22 to John Calipari’s first 12 seasons as coach resulting in 43 players drafted, 32 in the first round and 21 as lottery picks.

Speaking from the NBA’s Elite Camp Monday, Kellan Grady saluted this connection as a key to recruiting top prospects.

“It was certainly a factor, I think, in everyone’s decision to go to Kentucky,” Grady said before putting that in perspective. “That’s part of it, but ultimately I wanted to be part of the tradition and play in front of great fans at Rupp Arena and compete in the SEC and play for Coach Calipari.”

The website Sidelines.io recently posted that the 113 players in NBA history who previously wore Kentucky jerseys are the most from any one school. UCLA is second with 93 and Louisville is eighth with 57.

That would seem influential in the recruiting process.

“It was a huge factor,” Keion Brooks said. “Kentucky is almost like a springboard to the NBA. …

“I think it plays a big part in getting recruits. You know if Kentucky is interested in you and you’re interested in going there, I was pretty sure you’ve got aspirations of being a NBA player. You don’t go there if you don’t.”

Shaedon Sharpe took this to an extreme when he entered this year’s NBA Draft after only practicing with the UK team as a late-arriving freshman this past season.

Bobby Marks, ESPN’s NBA front office insider, questioned a college program marketing itself as a training ground for the professional level. “Are we running a NBA Academy?” he said. “Or are we trying to win a national championship?”

TyTy Washington said his recruiting decision broke down to the “best fit,” which he defined as a place where he would not have to change his playing style. He also cited the “coach’s résumé,” which included the track record of producing pro players.

Of course, you could say Johnny Juzang doubled down on this college-NBA connection. He played for Kentucky and UCLA. He said he benefited from playing for both Calipari and UCLA Coach Mick Cronin.

“I think you just want to go to a program where the coach is going to develop you and be invested in you,” he said. Playing for Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke or Kansas (the top five programs on the Sidelines.io list for producing NBA players all time) can be incidental to a pro career.

“It’s good to be on the big stage,” Juzang said, “but those (NBA) scouts, they find guys from everywhere. So, as long as you’re becoming the best player you can be, that’s the main thing.”

Kentucky’s Keion Brooks (12), a 6-foot-7 forward, averaged 10.8 points and 4.4 rebounds this past season.
Kentucky’s Keion Brooks (12), a 6-foot-7 forward, averaged 10.8 points and 4.4 rebounds this past season.

‘Short sample size’

Last week saw the NBA stage a G League Elite Camp and then its annual Combine in Chicago. It seemed reasonable to consider both an advancement in terms of a player’s NBA Draft profile.

Keion Brooks and Kellan Grady participated in the Elite Camp. Neither was among the players subsequently invited to the Combine.

When asked Monday how he would feel being invited to the Combine, Brooks said, “I think that would be something that’s really, really good. But it’s not an end-all, be-all. It’s a short sample size of who you are as a player. … If you get a promotion or not, that’s not the end of your story.”

Shot adjustment

Three-point shots from the baseline (aka “corner threes”) are a noted offensive weapon.

As regularly as it’s shot, it might be surprising that the corner three was part of the adjustment going from college basketball to the NBA Draft process, Kellan Grady said. That’s because the three-point line is closer to the baseline and sideline in the NBA.

“There’s a bunch of people, myself included, that went out of bounds twice today,” he said of Monday’s scrimmage game in the Elite Camp.

This smaller space had been noted in more than one of his workouts for NBA teams the previous week, said Grady, who added, “it’s something to be mindful of.”

‘Extremely happy’

Walker Kessler transferred from North Carolina to Auburn last year. Both Kessler and his former school had good seasons.

Kessler, who participated in the NBA Combine, averaged the second-most blocks in Division I: 4.56 per game.

And UNC advanced to the national championship game.

When asked how he felt about the Tar Heels thriving in his absence, Kessler said, “I was extremely happy. Those were my guys.”

‘I felt bad’

UK fans might recall that Walker Kessler set the pick that leveled Sahvir Wheeler when Kentucky played at Auburn last season.

“I felt bad,” he said when asked about the pick. “That was a hard, hard screen.”

Earlier in the season, Wheeler injured his neck running blindly into a screen at LSU.

Was setting picks on Wheeler part of the game plan? “Not at all,” Kessler said. “I’m a screen-setter. So, I just saw my man was coming down in transition, so I set that screen.”

Did Kessler hear a UK player try to warn Wheeler by calling out the upcoming screen?

“Not really,” Kessler said with a hearty laugh.

Social justice champions

Former UK standout Karl-Anthony Towns is one of five finalists for the 2022 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award, the NBA announced Monday.

The other finalists are Reggie Bullock (Dallas), Jrue Holiday (Milwaukee), Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis) and Fred VanVleet (Toronto).

The award recognizes the year’s most impactful social justice advocates.

After his mother, Jacqueline Towns, died of COVID, Towns began working to create greater health equity and education. He worked with the NBA on a public service announcement regarding vaccines and helped provide 100 COVID testing kits distributed to more than 50 schools in his native New Jersey and Minnesota.

Towns also donated $20,000 to the George Floyd Foundation and $30,000 to the Vera Institute of Justice (which works to end the overcriminalization and mass incarceration of people of color, immigrants and the poor).

In support of gender equity and greater sports opportunities for women, Towns made a donation to Kean University.

Towns also serves on the board of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition.

The winner of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award will be announced during a TNT telecast of a Western Conference finals game. The NBA will donate $100,000 to the social justice organization chosen by the winner.

The other four finalists will receive $25,000 donations to the organization of their choosing.

Belated happy birthday

To Keith Bogans. He turned 42 on May 12. … To Nate Sestina. He turned 25 on May 12. … To Quade Green. He turned 24 on May 12. … To Kevin Grevey. He turned 69 on May 12. … To former Missouri coach Kim Anderson. He turned 67 on May 12. … To Merion Haskins. He turned 67 on May 13. … To Valerie Still. She turned 61 on May 14. … To John Adams. He turned 79 on May 15. … To SEC Network analyst Pat Bradley. He turned 46 on May 16. … To former Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson. He turned 59 on May 17. … To LSU Coach Kim Mulkey. She turned 60 on May 17. … To Ron Mercer. He turned 46 on May 18.

Happy birthday

To Enes Kanter Freedom. He turned 30 on Friday. … To Jamaal Magloire. He turned 44 on Saturday. … To Rob Lock. He turns 56 on Sunday. … To former Florida standout Keyontae Johnson. He turns 23 on Tuesday. … To Cedric Jenkins. He turns 56 on Wednesday.

UK draft prospect needed to learn early: ‘This isn’t high school anymore’

Keion Brooks seeking to convince NBA he’s ‘more than just an athlete’

‘Mystery man’ of NBA Draft was ready to play for Kentucky, teammate says

Kellan Grady transitioning from UK’s ‘Granddad’ to professional rookie

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