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Kentucky sends more players to NBA than any other program, and they're pretty good!

By Jonathan Coffman
KyForward correspondent


John Calipari was introduced as head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats on April 1, 2009. If basketball fans were told then that 19 Wildcats would be drafted into the NBA within his first five seasons, they may have assumed it was some kind of prank.

But this is no April Fool’s joke. A total of 19 Wildcats have been selected by various NBA teams, and 14 remain on professional rosters today.

Entering the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, in April this year, Calipari said he wanted to change the infamous “One and Done” phrase describing college players who leave school after one season to the more positive-sounding “Succeed and Proceed”. The results show that the players Calipari has sent to the NBA have been the most successful of any college programs during his time in Lexington.

Demarcus Cousins is having his best NBA season yet for Sacramento (UK Athletics Photo)

DeMarcus Cousins is having his best NBA season yet for Sacramento after leaving UK in 2010 (UK Athletics Photo)

Other notable college programs fall significantly short of Kentucky’s NBA success during this period. The schools closest to Kentucky in drafted players are Duke (13) and Kansas (12). Each team claims 10 players on NBA rosters currently.

Teams start trending down from. Connecticut has had five drafted with four remaining on rosters, while Michigan State has had three drafted who all remain in the league.

One may be tempted to make an argument that Duke and Kansas’ success rivals Kentucky’s based on their smaller margin of players who have been cut. However, the Quality Over Quantity argument works in Kentucky’s favor once you look at the players’ statistics. Out of the 39 players on NBA teams from the three schools, Kentucky has four of the top five in points per game, including the top two in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Duke’s Kyrie Irving ranks third among these players with 20.86 points a game.

Here are the numbers, average points, rebounds and assists:

Anthony Davis 25.38, 11.23, 1.77
DeMarcus Cousins 23.47, 12.60, 2.40
John Wall 18.57, 4.43, 9.21
Brandon Knight 18.00, 4.94, 6.19
Eric Bledsoe 14.62, 5.19, 5.5

These are impressive numbers for young players, but the story of their success goes deeper than these surface level statistics.

Eric Bledsoe has averaged almost twice as many points per game since joining the Phoenix Suns as a starting point guard, currently leading the team to a potential playoff appearance in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

Brandon Knight ranks fourth among former Calipari coached Kentucky players, despite being best known for being professionally posterized. He’s played for two of the inferior Eastern Conference’s worst teams (Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks). Knight is beginning to flourish with the rebuilding Milwaukee team, averaging a career best 18 points this year.

John Wall’s elite athleticism immediately translated to modest NBA success, but his recent discovery of a consistent jump shot is taking him from good to great. He runs the point for the Washington Wizards in arguably the best backcourt in the East, with Bradley Beal working the shooting guard position. Wall is also having a career year in assists and steals per game. The Wizards are currently second in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

DeMarcus Cousins earned a reputation for his bad attitude early in his professional career. Cousins led the league in ejections during his rookie year and a garnered a league high 36 technical fouls over his first three seasons. However, 15 games into the current NBA season, Cousins has only two technical fouls and zero ejections. Cousins is also currently averaging a career best in points, rebounds and blocks per game.

Anthony Davis is an MVP candidate this season and is featured on this week's cover of Sports Illustrated (UK Athletics Photo)

Anthony Davis is an MVP candidate this season and is featured on this week’s cover of Sports Illustrated (UK Athletics Photo)


And finally, there is Anthony Davis. The crown jewel of Calipari’s Kentucky tenure is at the center of this year’s NBA MVP conversation, and for good reason. Davis has had exponential growth in major statistics year to year in his short three year tenure with the New Orleans Pelicans. Davis has increased his scoring average from 13.5 to 20.8 to his current 25.4 in three years.

As for the MVP conversation, Davis’ 25.4-point average accounts for 24.7 percent of the Pelicans’ average offense. He’s not on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated for nothing.

On The Rise: Kentucky Players On The Verge

So that covers the top five NBA players produced by Calipari, but what about the remaining nine: Patrick Patterson, Enes Kanter, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, James Young and Julius Randle?

All of these players are young with many years ahead of them to flourish in the league. The oldest player out of the group is Patterson at 25. With a variety of strengths and weaknesses, any combination of players could step up to be the next stars out of Kentucky.

Three Kentucky players to keep your eyes on are Noel, Jones and Patterson.

Noel was sidelined his entire rookie year with the Philadelphia 76ers due to a torn ACL suffered during his one year at Kentucky. He was a star of this year’s NBA Summer League, showcasing his elite shot blocking ability and defense. Noel currently has modest averages of 7.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks through his first 13 games played.

His rebounding and ability to alter shots with his lengthy build initially prove to be his best assets, but Noel will get plenty of playing minutes to improve his overall game on the winless 76ers roster.

Jones, on the other hand, is a proven contributor in the NBA. As a starter for the Houston Rockets, Jones has elevated his game entering his third year in the league. Although limited to just four games played this year, Jones has shown signs of improvement with increased scoring and rebounding averages.

Jones, unlike many other young Kentucky NBA players, has the advantage of playing with already great players opposed to being the focal point of a rebuilding process. Playing with James Harden and Dwight Howard gives Jones the breathing room to grow at his own pace and blossom into an effective contributor on a championship contender.

The player you may not have seen coming is Patterson. The Toronto Raptors’ backup power forward was a troublesome big man during three years at Kentucky, and continues to pay his dues to earn respect as a professional.

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Patterson is currently on his third NBA team, following stints with the Rockets and Sacramento Kings. He doesn’t have the elite skills like some of his Kentucky colleagues, but what Patterson does have is elite mental toughness. Any other Kentucky player from this period who moved teams more than once is no longer playing in the NBA.

Patterson not only remains a solid contributor, but his minutes have also steadily been in the mid-20’s. Now playing with the top-ranked Eastern Conference team, Patterson will have the chance to showcase his toughness in the playoff atmosphere. This could lead to breakout postseason performances, and likely more team changes as he continues to improve and attract attention. However, Patterson has already proven he can be effective despite tough circumstances.

These three players show unique cases in which they can be successful in the league, but this is not an attempt to discount the other Kentucky players listed. Kidd-Gilchrist is a fiery defensive player on a fast improving Charlotte Hornets team. Goodwin is on a good Phoenix Suns team playing behind Bledsoe.

The two youngest players, Randle and Young, are rookies and currently injured, but showcased superstar potential on their way to the NCAA Championship in 2014.

Five years from now, NBA fans can analyze a full decade of Calipari-coached Kentucky players in the league, barring any departure. Hall of Famers such as Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce will have surely retired by then, and a new era of league superstars will have emerged.

At this rate, it seems likely that former Wildcats will be the picks of the litter in the NBA.

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