A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

NBA opening-night rosters feature 31 former UK standouts; Davis looks to lead Lakers to repeat

By Eric Lindsey
University of Kentucky

Amid all the changes to the NBA schedule and the uncertainty over the last year, one thing remains a constant in the professional ranks: No other program prepares its players for the NBA quite like the University of Kentucky.

As the 2020-21 NBA season began Tuesday night, a staggering 31 players on NBA opening-day rosters (including two-way and inactive lists) played and finished their college basketball careers at Kentucky. Underscoring the fact that no other school in the country can match UK’s ability to develop players and put them in the NBA, UK’s 31 players are once again the most of any college basketball program, beating the next-closest school (Duke with 26) by five players.

Of the 495 players in the NBA to start the 2020-21 season, 6.3 percent played and finished their college basketball careers at UK. There are actually fewer teams without a Wildcat (12) than there are NBA teams featuring Wildcats (18).

Kentucky’s NBA dominance is best represented in Charlotte, Minnesota, New York and Oklahoma City, where a combined 13 Wildcats now play at the highest level of the game.

Former UK stars Kevin Knox II (2018), Nerlens Noel (2013), Immanuel Quickley (2019-20) and Julius Randle (2014) call New York their professional home, leading some to nickname the franchise the Kentucky Knicks.

Malik Monk (2017), Nick Richards (2018-20) and PJ Washington (2018-19) are all in Charlotte; Hamidou Diallo (2017-18), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2018) and Darius Miller (2009-12) suit up for OKC; and Ashton Hagans (2019-20), Karl-Anthony Towns (2015) and Jarred Vanderbilt (2018) are with Minnesota.

Four other franchises –the Houston Rockets (DeMarcus Cousins [2010], John Wall [2010], Miami Heat (Bam Adebayo [2017], Tyler Herro [2019]), the New Orleans Pelicans (Eric Bledsoe [2010], Wenyen Gabriel [2017-18]) and the San Antonio Spurs (Keldon Johnson [2019], Trey Lyles [2015]) – open the season with at least two Wildcats apiece.

John Calipari

With so many players in the NBA, it was an active offseason for the Wildcats. Several former UK players found new homes. Most notably, Wall and Cousins, the centerpieces of John Calipari’s first Kentucky team in 2009-10, have been reunited in Houston. Both will return after missing last season with injuries.

Rajon Rondo (2005-06), now entering his 15th season, is the most experienced Kentucky player in the league and has landed with the Atlanta Hawks, his seventh different NBA team. Hagans, Tyrese Maxey (Philadelphia 76ers), Quickley and Richards got off to great preseason starts as they enter their rookie seasons.

Of the 31 Wildcats on an opening-day NBA roster, Calipari has coached 30 of them. With Derrick Rose (Detroit Pistons), who played for Calipari during the 2006-07 season at Memphis, Calipari has coached 31 players on 2020-21 opening-day rosters.

It’s worth noting that approximately 20 more Wildcats are slated to play in the NBA G League or playing professionally overseas. Former UK video coordinator Frank Vogel and former Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne are in the league as coaches. Vogel is the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Payne is an assistant with the Knicks. Other notable alumni include, 1978 national champion Dwane Casey, who returns as head coach of the Detroit Pistons, and Pat Riley continues to serve as president of the Heat.

Kentucky has enjoyed unprecedented success at putting players in the NBA under Calipari. In the 11 previous seasons of the Calipari era, 41 players have been selected in the NBA Draft, more than any other school. Included in the recent run are 31 first-round picks, three No. 1 overall selections (Anthony Davis [2012] Towns and Wall) and 21 lottery selections.

Calipari’s players have entered the league NBA-ready. His players have garnered 23 All-Star selections, with Davis winning the game’s MVP honor in 2017. Rose was named NBA MVP in 2011. Five of his players have been tabbed All-NBA, three have been named NBA Rookie of the Year, and 14 players from Calipari’s first 10 teams at Kentucky have made the NBA All-Rookie teams.

The most recent indicator of NBA success was this past NBA season, particularly in the NBA bubble in Orlando. Whether it was four players vying for an NBA championship in the NBA Finals, record-setting scoring performances, early 20-something-year-olds quickly becoming stars or Wildcats making game-winning plays, UK players had their fingerprints all over the NBA Playoffs.

Jamal Murray (2016) ascended to superstar status with mind-blowing scoring performance after mind-blowing scoring performance for the Denver Nuggets. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two other players scored more points over a three-game span in the NBA Playoffs: Jerry West (1965) and Michael Jordan (1988).

Adebayo and Herro captivated NBA fans while leading a young and exciting Miami Heat team to the NBA Finals. Adebayo emerged as one of the game’s best big men and had an unforgettable block in game one of the Eastern Conference finals. Herro hit clutch shot after clutch shot during the postseason run, highlighted by a 37-point night vs. the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.

Before the postseason began, Devin Booker (2015) nearly willed the Phoenix Suns into the playoffs by going undefeated during the regular-season restart.

And the crowning achievement belonged to the Davis, Rondo and Vogel, who won the NBA title with the Lakers. Davis hit an unforgettable game-winning 3 in the Western Conference finals and dominated in the championship series, while Rondo stifled opponents with his never-aging craftiness and ability to share the basketball. Davis became just the eighth player all-time to win an NCAA title, an NBA ring and an Olympic gold medal. It was Rondo’s second NBA championship.

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