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Q & A: Coach Calipari previews Thursday’s NBA Draft, talks Ulis, Murray, Labissiere prospects


Kentucky head coach John Calipari joined a teleconference on Tuesday to preview the 2016 NBA Draft, which will be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Thursday. Coach Cal spoke for nearly 40 minutes and covered each of the Wildcats’ four NBA Draft hopefuls, including Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere, Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress.

A complete transcript of Calipari’s comments is listed below.

Opening statement …

“It’s an exciting time for these kids and their families. I think as this thing all winds down, my hope is they’ve just performed in a way that they put themselves in a great position. I’ve talked to a bunch of teams about the kids and one of the things is they’ve really enjoyed the conversations, the meetings, the interviews that they’ve had with all of the kids. The comment that comes back is, ‘Wow, great guys,’ and that includes Isaiah (Briscoe), who they really though knocked it out of the park with all of the interviews he did. The other thing I want to tell you is one of the GMs said to me, ‘The great things is your kids come with that attitude that they want to win, and they’re willing to be a great teammate to win.’ That’s what I’m hoping is that last gift they get from us before they walk in that league, that they have an idea of winning and playing to win. I’m proud of the guys that are going to go this year, and I’m proud of the guys that have performed in the league to this point.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari spoke to media members Tuesday about the upcoming NBA Draft. As many as three Wildcats could be selected in the first round (UK Athletics Photo)

Kentucky coach John Calipari spoke to media members Tuesday about the upcoming NBA Draft. As many as three Wildcats could be selected in the first round (UK Athletics Photo)

On the rumors that Tyler Ulis has a hip issue that’s causing him to fall on mock draft boards …

“Well, everything that I know, and Kyle you watched him all year, did it look like he had a hip injury? So, there may be something structurally that they’re seeing that I don’t know about, but I just can’t believe it. … I don’t think the hip issue – the kid played every game, played 38 minutes a game, was defensive player (of the year), was the energy of our team, and he went all year with it. When he had to take over a game – so if the hip there’s a question it’d be – wow. Now, if they want to know about hips, I had both of my hips replaced. They may be talking about me. They’re watching me walk and think it was him.”

On Jamal Murray’s mental preparation prior to games …

“Roger, his father, did an unbelievable job of raising his son, opening his mind, getting him to think about the game in a different way. You’ve got to give Roger credit for that. I walked into the locker room and we have a video room that we meet prior to the game. The light’s out and I turn the light on and there he is – this is early in the year. He’s meditating. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m meditating.’ ‘Well go use my office so I can put the board up.’ So that became his routine. He would go into my office, turn the light out. I’d give him his time, I’d put up the board as I prepared for the game, and then I would either knock on the door or he would come out and say, ‘I’m done.’ He’s got a great mentality.

“Let me say this, the meditation, yes, it calmed him down, but this kid had a smile on his face every day. He would walk into practice and if I wasn’t smiling, he would point to his smile. Like, ‘Come on, Coach.’ And I got on him. He had to really, as we defined his game and let him go some and let him do some, but also make him be more efficient. He did it. He trusted us. The one thing I’ll say, and I said this, if you’re watching the championship, shooting, there’s a premium in the league right now. The game is becoming positionless. Whoever has it appears to be the point guard. That’s what he is. He’s 6-(foot)-5, he’s physical, he can slash, shoot the ball with anybody. He’s ambidextrous, which maybe they don’t know, but he is. He can shoot with both hands. I’d come into practice and he’d be shooting 3s with his left hand. And I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’s saying, ‘Watch.’ And he’d make like three. He said, ‘I’m gonna shoot this in a game.’ I said, ‘You’re not shooting a lefty.’ Again, a great kid from a great family who’s got a vision and a drive. He’s self-critical, but he’s also comfortable in his own skin.”

On doing the ESPN carwash on Thursday prior to the NBA Draft …

“Well, one, I’m going to be up there and they asked me to come in with Karl(-Anthony) Towns. I wouldn’t have done it if it was by myself. So I said, ‘Karl, do you want to do this?’ He said, ‘Yeah, let’s go have some fun.’ So I said, OK, we’ll do the ‘Mike & Mike’ and they’re supposed to bounce me around, I don’t know exactly how much I’ll do. But any chance I can to brag about my kids, and they give me that opportunity, oh I’m bragging about my guys, now.

“Let me say this, I didn’t even say this about Jamal Murray: I’ve been wrong before in what I think. I think the last time I was wrong, I think it was 1978. I believe that Jamal Murray will be the leading-scoring rookie in the NBA. That’s what I believe.

“I got a chance to go on and talk about Skal. I am so proud of Alex right now. These teams are calling me back like, saying, he’s gotten healthy, he has leg strength on both sides, which some of that falls on us where he was probably injured more than we thought throughout this year. But shooting and all that. All of a sudden, he becomes that solid second round – maybe he slips late first (round). The chance to brag about these guys – and how about the chance to brag about the 25 guys in the league and talk about what they’ve been able to do. You give me a chance to do that and I can do it with a player, with Karl Towns, he and I can have some fun and have a couple good hours together, I do it.”

On aspects of Murray, Ulis or Labissiere’s game that may not show up on a scouting report …

“The first thing I want to tell you is if you talk to any of our guys, playing at Kentucky where every game is someone’s Super Bowl, where you’re trying to win every single game, you’re not just trying to win games, you’re trying to win ’em all. The expectations that we put on ourselves, and then the other expectations that are hanging out there, make this a different environment to get ready for that league.

“But when you talk about stuff that’s not on paper, that is exactly Tyler Ulis. Tyler Ulis is going to have a long career. Tyler Ulis will sell a lot of tickets in that league because people are going to want to go watch him play and not believe that he can have an effect on the game at that size. Tyler Ulis, they’ll say he’s too small. Really? He was the defensive player of the year in our league. They’ll say, ‘Well, you know, the rigors of the game at his size.’ He played 38 minutes a game and if I could’ve eeked out two more – I had to get him out for foul trouble and I tried to (take) him out 30 seconds before a TV timeout. This kid, you’ve got to forget about his size. Now, how many teams in the league are posting up point guards? How is Isaiah Thomas doing in Boston at 5-10? Now you may say, ‘Well, he’s more of a scorer.’ Tyler can score if that’s what you want from him, but what’s going to happen is every player in that league is going to want to play with Tyler Ulis because they’ll get the ball more. Oh yeah. They’ll get the ball more. He will pick up and disrupt defensively. If he’s your second unit point guard you’ve got a really, really good team. And I think, again, the numbers help him, but they’re going to look at him and say, ‘Too small!’ I said that. My whole career I said I’m not playing with small point guards. You know what? I played with him and last year and the year before, he was a big reason for us to win however many, 60-some games that we won over that period of time.”

On how players are evaluated at the next level …

“First of all, they want to know what does this young man do that translates and transfers into our league? Does he rebound? Is he a scorer? Will he be able to defend his position? Where is he athletically compared to the rest of the league? And again, they do all those stats and numbers. They know the speed, the quickness, the height, the jumping ability of the league. Does he have that which will transfer into this league?

“Let me give you an example of Skal. People would look at Skal and say, ‘Well, he had a disappointing year.’ No he didn’t. No he didn’t. We all had to look at where he started and then where he finished. The best thing that they like about Skal right now: He never gave up. He did not quit. It was extremely hard, and he finished at his best. They’re working him out now and they’re looking at Skal saying, ‘He’s 7-foot tall. This kid is a good athlete. He can shoot.’ It’s huge in the NBA that you can make shots now. He can make perimeter shots. They are even calling me saying, ‘You know what? He’s more physical around the basket than we even thought he was.’ Now, you may say he didn’t show a lot of that in the year. A lot of that’s on me. I was trying to use the blueprint of Karl Towns and Anthony Davis. Guess what? That lesson plan didn’t fit him. It took me three months to figure out exactly what he was. Understand that after the (Nike Hoops) Summit game last year he was the No. 1 pick in the draft. That’s what he was. And now these teams are looking at Skal and saying, ‘You know what? He fought through Kentucky. He made it through. He didn’t use it as an excuse. And now we’re looking at a kid – maybe he could have gone back to college for another year, but if he did we would’ve never got him. Now all of a sudden we’re in a position to get a kid that if he had gone back to school would’ve been one of those picks.’

“So I think, again, they try to project, they try to see what transfers and then when they meet them, if a kid makes excuses, if he plays a blame game, if he’s delusional about who he is as a player, they walk. They don’t have time. They want him on a mission. They want to know they understand team basketball.

“You know, it’s funny. This will be 18 freshmen who have left us, 18 after one year. I believe nine of the 18 that left after one year – they were all first-round draft picks – and nine of the 18 – I believe nine – scored more in the NBA than they did in college. What? Well they look at that and say they understand how to be a good teammate and that’s the guy they want.”

On where Murray is defensively now compared to where he was when he came to Kentucky, and how much better he can still get on that end of the floor …

“Here’s the other thing that you have to talk about and it matters: Where a kid is as a 19-year-old, which is what Jamal is, and where a kid is as a 23-year-old? I want you to think about that. That’s four years. They also project, which is why some young kids will go before a veteran player, because they just look and say, ‘That young guy, he’s 19.’ Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist) was the youngest player in the draft his year and so was Devin Booker. And now all of a sudden Jamal, who reclassified and went to school early, becomes that guy. You don’t know how they’re thinking, what their team needs, but I’m telling you that Devin Booker, I told five teams: ‘Guys, he is the best shooter in the draft.’ The way the league is going, positionless, he’s 6-7, positionless, shooting. And now all of a sudden, I’ve got a Jamal Murray, who his release is kind of similar to Steph (Curry). It’s not a high release like Devin, it’s more quick. Finishes around the goal, can score multiple ways. I’m sold on him, but see, I coached him and I’m sold on him as a kid. Kid wants to win.

“Defensively, he improved 1,000 percent in the year. He improved his efficiency scoring without the basketball, scoring that way. We all know he can score with the ball. We saw him in Canada with the national team. Now all of a sudden, with the ball in pick-and-rolls, without the ball, coming off screens, catch and shoot. Curling off screens and getting shots off because of his size. His ability to draw fouls toward the end of the year. Now all of a sudden he became a more well-rounded player. And you know what? He sent me a great text going over – because it’s painful. It’s painful for these kids. They’re not always, like, absolutely excited to have to go through it, but the ones who do and buy-in are guys like Jamal and what he’s been able to do.”

On if he ever roots for his players to go to a certain team, such as Ulis going to the San Antonio Spurs …

“Let me just give you one story, and absolutely I feel that way. If he could ever play with the Spurs and that organization, I would do a backflip on draft day. And the reason is, you’re around true professionals who are teammates that understand, what do we all have to do to win and how winning supersedes everything else. It’s amazing what gets done when no one cares who gets the credit. That saying has the Spurs logo beside it.

“Here’s a kid that had to play in platoons his first year. He accepted it and did well. Here’s a kid that does what’s right in basketball. He’s the best floor general. And, you know, I had John Wall and Derrick Rose. I had Brandon Knight, I had Tyreke Evans. I had a lot of really good point guards. Andrew Harrison was a terrific point guard. This kid was the best floor general (in) that I could let him do his thing for our team and just tell him, what do you think, and he would have a good feel.

“Now, I’ll just give you (one) Karl Towns story. When I knew Karl Towns – and I knew late in the year that he’d be the No. 1 pick. I mean, I watched. I could see that he had everything that transferred. He could guard, he’ll block a shot (and) he’ll go rebound. It wasn’t just that he could score points, even though I knew he would. I looked at him and I just said, ‘Karl, being in L.A. wouldn’t be all bad, you know, dropping a pick.’ And he said, ‘Coach, I’m going to Minnesota. I’m going to be the No. 1 pick.’ And it was nothing against Minnesota. Flip (Saunders) was a friend. Milton Newton had played for me at Kansas. I wanted him there, but I made that comment and that was his comment back. And I would probably say ‘Tyler, to go later in the draft would be better and show up in San Antonio,’ and he’d probably say, ‘Coach, I wouldn’t want to risk it. I probably think I’d want to go earlier.’ But I think he’d be ecstatic there and he’d be a great fit.”

Calipari speaking without a question asked during a down time in the teleconference …

“Let me say a couple things, you know almost 20 percent of the picks – in the top 10 picks – since 2010, almost 20 percent have been our kids. And if you look at how those kids are performing and what they’re doing and how Willie Cauley-(Stein) said the other day we’re playing a way that’s preparing them, the terminology and all that other stuff. And I’m not saying that they didn’t have talent coming in – they did. Our job is to get them ready, to prepare them, and when you look at it, these kids over the past seven years have done some really good stuff. And I’m excited to see where these four kids go. I’m excited.”

On Labissiere getting drafted after what he’s gone through in his life …

“Well, as you know, I went to Haiti a couple times and we raised money and I went down to see it myself. The devastation was unbelievable. When you hear his story it makes you cry. When you hear – even coming over to survive and what he had to go through. Then, he didn’t play for a couple years in high school, so what you end up having is a young man who was behind to start, both conditioning, mentally, physically, all the stuff that it takes. And he never stopped, he never quit, he never complained. He just kept trying. So to see him go in this draft and to see him – I know he’s in the green room, so hopefully it plays out (in the) lottery – it’s just life-changing for his family (and) for him. And his thing is, when you ask him, ‘What is your why? Why do you want to do this?’ he’ll tell you, ‘Coach, my family. I’ve got to do this for my family.’ And that’s what I said to him after the season, ‘Are you sure you’re ready?’ ‘Coach, what I just went through here, I’m ready to do this and I got to do it for my family.’ And I gave him a hug and said ‘Well, we’re going to get this done.’

“The training he’s done at IMG has been fabulous. They’ve gotten him even beyond where we had him – and well beyond. So I’m excited. The teams are looking at him, and I’m going to say it again: They’re looking at him saying, ‘If he had gone back to school, we could never get him. He would be gone well before where we’re getting a chance to pick.’ So they’re looking at him saying, ‘This kid’s got a chance to be special.’ ”

On the text Murray had sent him recently, and what his role is now after players have declared and are working out with teams …

“With him, just basically going through what we did and how we did it and that it wasn’t always fun, but when he looks back and he says to me, ‘Thank you. Now this is what I am as a player, and thank you.’ And you know, when you’re coaching and you know how hard you are on these kids – and I’m hard – we don’t have time for funsies here. It’s on. And keeping it real isn’t always fun. So when you get those kind of responses, it makes it worth all the stuff we go through together.

“The other thing is that when they pick an agent, I work for the agent then. The agent’s not working for me. They call me to say, ‘Here’s who we’re talking to. Has anybody called you? Can you call so-and-so?’ I work for that agent for that young man. So, at that point, other than I’ll check in, ‘Tell me how you’re doing.’ I’ve checked in on Tyler three or four times – ‘Tell me what’s up. Are you doing good? Do you need me for anything? How you feeling?’ Like when he hurt his knee: ‘Are you OK? How bad is it?’ Stuff like that.

“I hit Skal when I knew he had a great workout, ‘I’m so proud of you. Keep going.’ Alex and I talked. He came out of a workout and he had called Kenny (Payne) and we were in the car together – Kenny Payne – and I could tell that he had a smile on his face about how he’s working out and the responses he’s getting. And I told him, I said, ‘You know, it’s been a tough, long road because of injuries and other things, and this is your chance.’

“The one thing about being at Kentucky, you’re going to have your opportunity to be in that league if you have that kind of talent. And if you think that, ‘Well, I could’ve done this, this and this,’ prove it in the NBA. And you will get that opportunity. Sometimes it’s in the Summer League. Like, that’s the last opportunity. Sometimes you’re a first-rounder, sometimes you’re a second-rounder, sometimes you’re going to camp. But you will – because you played here – get an opportunity, and probably more than you would and in a better position than anywhere else. But now you’ve gotta perform. We’re not there for you. There’s no politics involved now. It is truly: Who are the best players? Who are the most prepared? Who can help us win as a team in the NBA? Who are the greatest kids? We don’t want bad guys. And you go do it now. Now it’s on you.”

On how Ulis would fit in with the Philadelphia 76ers …

“I think he’d be great there. Again, I don’t know how they’re re-working the team, but I would imagine they’re trying to tweak two or three things. They’ve got a lot of draft picks. They may be trying to move in this draft to get that one pick and then try to get another pick down low. You just don’t know. And again, I’m a big fan of (76ers general manager) Bryan Colengelo. I know what he did in Toronto, and they’re still benefiting by it now. What he’ll do there (in Philadelphia), I’m a huge fan of his. But, all I know is, if he’s not a starter in that league initially, and he is your second-unit point guard, he’s going to coach them and he’s going to have those guys happy. They’re going to be juiced about going in games because they’re going to get the ball where they can score. And believe me, they want to win, but they also want to play well. He’ll do that for them. I think he’d be outstanding. He’d be a great, great pick for them.

“Again, I think there’s going to be a ton of trades in this draft. I think a lot of people are going to move, I think they’re going to do two-for-one, ‘you can have these two, give me yours here.’ A lot of times, those late first-rounders and late second-rounders become European players. So it’ll be interesting how this all plays out.”

On Murray saying he didn’t remember ever telling him he had taken a bad shot …

(laughter) “That’s him, though. What a great story if you want to know what he is and how he plays and how his mind works.

“He came in on a drive, lefty, tried to avoid the defender, got kind of tripped and was falling down, and when he was about four feet from the floor, flipped it with his left hand and the ball went in. I looked at him and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘You think that’s a good shot?’ ‘Yeah, I knew it was going in.’ So, there’s not a shot that he doesn’t think he can make. And again, he’s ambidextrous, so he can flip it left, flip it right, he can handle it that way. He’s got a physical body where you can bump him and he can still make shots. So, yeah. And there were times in practice where I would stop and say, ‘Come on, now.’

“As the season went on, if we would’ve advanced a couple games – now I want you to think about these numbers – if we would’ve advanced a couple games, he would have broken Steph Curry’s 3-point record. He also became one of the most efficient scorers that I’ve coached. Now think about that statement of who I’ve coached.

“It’s kind of like what I say with Tyler Ulis. He broke John Wall’s single-season assist record, and he was the shortest consensus first-team All-American since ‘58! And he and Anthony Davis are the only players in the history of the SEC to win both SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Think who he’s teamed with. So, a lot of this stuff that they’ve done, it’s kind of like, ‘Wow.’ And they’ve done it under these lights at Kentucky. And they’ve done it where every game is someone is Super Bowl. Every game is sold out. Anything that’s said within this program is like, ‘What did they mean? What did that mean?’ to where you’re just under a different glow and microscope and still getting it done. I think it talks about who these kids are, what they’re made of.

“Again, these kids, they all finished the term, these four. They all finished the term. We had another 3.0 grade-point average for the year, which means they’re all doing their academic work. It wasn’t Internet or correspondence, these kids are in class. So they know loyalty. They’re going to be loyal to the program before they leave because they know the program’s always going to be loyal to them.

“Again, great kids, all of them. All different. Four different.

“Alex, if there’s a better athlete, a more dominating kind of athlete in this draft, tell me who he is. So, if someone picks this kid, I think they’re going to have a guy and then they’re going to look at me and say, ‘You didn’t do a very good job with this kid because he’s way better than we thought.’ And you know what? That may be the case. But I know this: There’s not a better person – kid’s like a 4.0 student, he graduated in three years, he graduated in three years – than Alex. You don’t go wrong with a pick like that. And I’m proud of these guys and what they were able to do.”

On the potential combination Murray and Towns could produce in Minnesota …

“Thibs (Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau) and I are great friends. He’s a guy who helped my career and helped me basketball-wise and every other way. I’m a big fan of Thibs.

“Jamal, now I’m saying this to you and no one else: Jamal loves Minnesota. Matter of fact, that’s where he’d like to go. And again, when someone asked me earlier, ‘Are you more concerned with where they’re picked?’ well, I’ll be honest, selfishly, I like these kids when they’re the No. 1 pick, because the No. 1 pick should end up coming here. We’ve had four. There’s only been the No. 1 pick and No. 2 pick in the same draft (from the same school) one time with Michael Kidd and Anthony – in any sports league. So, yeah, I liked it, but these kids are also smart. And he looked at that situation and said, ‘They need me and I’d love to be there.’ He’s met Karl and been around Karl and knows what a great kid he is. But I’m not saying that so Thibs has to take him, but I know that’s what Jamal likes, that situation, the young guys and what they have and what he would add to that team.”

On what memories stand out to him at the NBA Draft over the years …

“What stands out is being so nervous that I want to throw up. Like, more nervous than I am to coach a game. More nervous than I am to be in the National Championship game or Final Four games like we have over the years, or a big rivalry game where there’s something at stake, because these families are going to get a chance to breathe for the first time in their lives, and you sit there and it’s hanging over you. Like last year, I was scared to death with Willie Cauley, because everybody said he was going to go in the 20s. Now, I knew who I was talking to and I knew – but until someone says their name, you don’t know.

“I can remember sitting there with Brandon Knight, before he was picked by Detroit, sick because they passed him at four, they passed him at five, they passed him at six. And all of a sudden we’re looking at each other and I’m nauseous. And he goes seven and I literally bang my knees underneath the table coming out.

“I can remember Michael Kidd going No. 2 with Anthony, which again has never been done in any other sports league, one and two (from the same team) – knowing that he took the fifth-most shots on our team. He sacrificed everything for the team to win and he was rewarded more than anyone, which is how you hope this works out.

“I can remember sitting there – well, I left the arena and all of a sudden here goes Eric Bledsoe at 18, and I’m like, ‘What?’ And then I’m sitting in the hotel room and Daniel Orton goes 29 or 30, wherever he went, and I’m like, ‘We just had five guys in the first round,’ which has never happened before or since. I remember that, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what just happened?’

So, you’re dealing with people’s children, you’re dealing with lives changing for the better, and you play a small part of it and you get to live it with them? You become like them. You’re like as nervous and sick as they are until it’s over and you can breathe.

“Now, I’ll say this, the minute my last guy gets picked, like I’m in the lottery (green room) – and right now it appears that Skal and Jamal will be there – when those two are done, I leave. I’m not worried about anybody else. I hope they all get picked. I couldn’t care less about where they go, what team takes what. I’m not there for that. Somebody may say, ‘Why do you go? You’re there to be seen.’ No, it’s their graduation night. I’m not going to go to graduation? I’m not going to go to graduation? Now, you can make an excuse what you want, but I’m going to my sons’ graduation, and I’m going to enjoy it with them and their family, and then I’m leaving and let them enjoy their night together. I don’t go out after with them. Let them be together. But I just want to be there and really experience and be there for them and let them know, it’s a pain in the butt getting to Brooklyn and flying in there and staying, but let me tell you something, I’m here for you.”

From UK Athletics


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