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Welcome to the BBNBA: Kentucky rookies could join former Wildcats through draft

Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns and Aaron Harrison declared for the NBA Draft April 9. (Photo by UK Athletics)

Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns and Aaron Harrison declared for the NBA Draft April 9. (Photo by UK Athletics)

By Jonathan Coffman
KyForward intern

When John Calipari arrived as head coach of Kentucky in 2009, he came with a reputation for quickly developing future NBA superstars. But few expected there would soon be multiple former Wildcats becoming major players on the same teams.

Seven Kentucky players declared for this year’s draft: Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson and the Harrison twins.

Each player will arrive to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Thursday for the NBA Draft with different expectations. The Final Four-tested Wildcats could go everywhere from the No. 1 pick to undrafted free agent. But based on each team’s draft needs, there is a good chance a significant number of Kentucky players will suit up along side other professional Wildcats no matter where they end up.

Towns, the 2014 Gatorade Athlete of the Year, is widely expected to be the top choice, going to the Timberwolves over Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. However, the Timberwolves are the one team that is “genuinely torn” between the two big men, according to ESPN draft expert Chad Ford. If the Timberwolves decide to pass on Towns, it would give the Los Angeles Lakers the chance to fill a sizable young front court with Towns alongside Julius Randle, the power forward from the 2013-14 Wildcats that lost in the NCAA Championship game.

Cauley-Stein is projected to land in a range somewhere between the New York Knicks at four and Charlotte Hornets at nine. If the 2015 NABC Defensive Player of the Year slips to eighth or ninth, he could join Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in Charlotte or bring something new to Detroit’s old-school Wildcat duo of Jodie Meeks and Tayshaun Prince. A couple mock drafts have Cauley-Stein drafted early to the Knicks, but in all likelihood, he may be teaming up with a former fan favorite: DeMarcus Cousins.

DeMarcus Cousins earned his first All-Star appearance in the '14-15 season.(NBA.com photo)

DeMarcus Cousins earned his first All-Star appearance in the ’14-15 season. (Photo by NBA.com)

The Sacramento Kings are looking for a versatile big to pair with Cousins for different lineup combinations with their sixth pick, and Cauley-Stein fits the description perfectly. The long armed Cauley-Stein’s ball-hawking defense and soft offensive touch would compliment the dominant rim protector if matched together. If he is available for the Kings pick, all signs point to Calipari’s two most charismatic Wildcats joining forces.

The middle of the draft will offer Booker and Lyles a variety of interesting opportunities.

Kentucky’s former shooting guard and power forward have each been projected as highly as eighth to Detroit, but the general consensus is they could land between 11th and 14th.

The Phoenix Suns at 13th and Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 14 both would offer former Wildcats to pair with the incoming rookies. Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin and Brandon Knight are all currently on the Phoenix roster, but Knight becomes a restricted free agent this summer. Oklahoma City traded for former Kentucky power forward Enes Kanter at the trade deadline last season.

If Booker and Lyles slide past Indiana and Utah at 11 and 12, they could be selected back-to-back. Phoenix has plenty of offense and talented guards, making Booker more of the same, but Lyles could add size while fitting into the fast-paced system. Oklahoma City has found size and now looks to add a competent scorer along side Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, making Booker a potential candidate for the pick.

Once those four players are selected, projections become a crap shoot for the remaining former Wildcats. Andrew and Aaron Harrison have worked to improve their unfavorable stock through numerous pre-draft workouts along with Johnson, who has seldom been projected higher than an early second-rounder.

The Harrison’s futures hang in the balance with the most uncertainty. Andrew is likely to be drafted, but projected all over the second round, while Aaron is often left off the board altogether, making it hard to predict which former Kentucky players the twins could wind up joining.

Despite saying they’re ready to play separately, the best bet on which former teammate each could join is the one they’re all too familiar with. It would not be shocking to see Aaron go undrafted and join training camp with the team taking a chance on his brother.

Coach John Calipari said in a teleconference Thursday that he believes the Harrison twins are being overlooked because of the draft priorities of teams.

“Most guys are worrying about their [first round] pick right now so they’re not zeroed in on as much as, ‘OK, who are we taking at 35 to 45.’ So I haven’t talked to many of those guys yet,” Calipari said. “They’re more concerned with the guys in front of them.”

Johnson, on the other hand, could join plenty of the young professionals from Kentucky. The center has elite size but needs to work on his offensive skills, making him a potential steal for someone in the second round. Memphis, who holds the 25th pick in the first round, seems to be Johnson’s highest projection following a workout for the Grizzlies.

“Dakari is a real student of the game and as conscientious a young man as I have ever encountered in a workout setting,” Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace told The Commercial Appeal.

Dakari Johnson has perhaps the best chance of landing with former Kentucky teammates through the draft.

Dakari Johnson has perhaps the best chance of landing with former Kentucky teammates through the draft. (Photo by UK Athletics)

If Memphis decides not to gamble on Johnson, several teams with former Wildcats could be interested in the center. Los Angeles and Boston hold the 27th and 28th pick, followed by the 33rd and 34th in the second round. Los Angeles has been rumored to be interested in D’Angelo Russell, the Ohio State point guard, and may roll the dice on the big man later in the draft. Boston also needs rim protection badly.

Los Angeles could reunite Johnson with Randle if the Lakers miss out on Towns in the first round. Boston also has another former teammate of Johnson’s, James Young, at shooting guard on its roster.

The Philadelphia 76ers hold the 35th pick and have a center dilemma as well, with Joel Embiid potentially facing another lost season due to a foot injury.

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In the second round, teams generally look to fill holes with the best talent still on the board, so Johnson may interest Philadelphia as a serviceable big to pair with Nerlens Noel.

When the NBA season began, the headlines for former Kentucky players focused on the next step in the careers of Cousins, John Wall and Anthony Davis. The three former Kentucky players made the All-Star team this year with several others in strong contention.

As the Golden State Warriors claimed the title and the year drew to a close, the Kentucky story shifted to the offseason and where the former Wildcats will emerge and develop among the newest wave of NBA superstars.

In upcoming years, it will be hard to avoid having several Kentucky players matched together on most teams because of the sheer volume of pros the UK program is producing. This offseason is only the beginning for the BBNBA.

The 2015 NBA Draft will air at 7 p.m. on ESPN Thursday, June 25.

Jonathan Coffman is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky.

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