Vaught’s note:: Benjamin Schodowski is a Centre College graduate who spent some time with me during his college career from 2005-2009 in Danville. He’s a big-time UK fan and aspiring businessman who also loves to travel. Today he shares his thoughts on who are the best players John Calipari has playing in the NBA and the upcoming NBA draft in what I hope will be the start of regular posts by him.
By BENJAMIN SCHODOWSKI
With the NBA draft fast approaching in the next month, a fun exercise for any UK fan would be to stand back and assess the level of talent that Coach Cal has sent to the next level since his arrival in 2009. Cal’s overall success at sending players to next level is well documented, from players like Marcus Camby at Umass in the mid-90s, through the current crop of UK players that are anxiously awaiting draft night.
With that in mind, let’s break down who I feel are the top five guys, in order, to ascend to the next level from Cal’s UK years, as well as take a look at the prospects and possible landing spots for Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere, and Tyler Ulis.
The way I will attempt to break down and rank these guys will be partially dependent on their per 36 minute averages since reaching the NBA, PER (player efficiency rating as defined by basketball-reference.com; the league average is 15), and the almighty eye test.
1. Anthony Davis (No.1 overall pick, 2012 draft). This ranking may seem obvious, but there’s a strong argument to made that Karl Anthony-Towns may soon surpass the level of play Davis has displayed since reaching the NBA. Davis registered one of the stronger rookie campaigns in recent memory, with per 36 averages of 16.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks, as well as a PER of 21.7. Davis has only increased that production, culminating in his best season in 2014-2015, where he was among the league leaders with a PER of 30.8, and per 36 averages of 24.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. The only thing that could hold Davis back from reaching his ceiling at this point are nagging injuries that have cropped up the past few seasons, such as his recent knee surgery and torn labrum. He also lacks the pure shooting range that KAT displayed his rookie season. If we revisit this two years from now, I have a feeling KAT may be in this spot, but for now its the Brow.
2. Karl Anthony-Towns (No. 1, 2015). From a strictly offensive skill standpoint, KAT is the most talented big to enter the league since Tim Duncan in 1997. The fact that there was even a debate about Towns and Jahlil Okafor this time last year is patently laughable now. While Okafor possesses an amazing array of low post scoring moves, KAT, as I mentioned above, has not only that but true scoring range from 15+ feet, which is a great asset in the NBA today from a man his size. His rookie season per 36 averages are extremely strong, with 20.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, as well as an extremely impressive PER of 22.5. KAT and the Brow are the two clear cut “cream of the crop” guys that Cal has sent to the NBA, and if I were starting an NBA franchise today, I’d be inclined to pick KAT over Davis.
3. DeMarcus Cousins (No. 5, 2010). There’s a strong argument to be made that John Wall should be slotted here, especially in lieu of his greater level of team success with the Washington Wizards, but Cousins is undeniably a top five post man in the NBA today, whereas Wall slots just outside the top five in reference to today’s NBA point guards. Cousins has the most punishing finishing moves for a post player in the NBA today, with the ability to step outside the box and finish with a deft touch. The only thing holding Cousins back is his own temperament and the dysfunction that is the Sacramento Kings front office. Actually, dysfunction doesn’t even to begin to describe their front office. Do a quick google search to verify what I mean by this. Regarding his statistics, the guy put together his most dominant season scoring-wise this past season, with per 36 minute averages of 28 points, 12 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, and a PER of 23.6. In addition, he averaged 8 drives to the basket per game, solidifying his presence as a big who drives and finishes like an elite guard. If he’s ever able to play on a contender anytime soon, look out.
4. John Wall (No.1, 2010). And now we arrive at Wall. I may catch some flack for declaring in the above paragraph that Wall slots just outside the top five of NBA point guards, but here are five right off the top of my head that I would take at the moment over Wall: Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, and Kyle Lowry. Wall would slot right at the six spot for me, and has the opportunity to move up fairly quickly when you combine his young age and the declining play of of a guy like Chris Paul. He’s undoubtedly one of the two best point guards Calipari has sent to the NBA, with the other being Derrick Rose in 2008. The per 36 minute averages for Wall last season were solid, with 19.8 points, 10.2 assists and 4.9 rebounds, and a PER of 19.8. He wasn’t quite the triple-double machine that Russell Westbrook is, but he rates as favorably as any young point guard in the league today.
5. Nerlens Noel (No. 6, 2013). I had a couple players in mind for this fitth spot, including Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, but ultimately, Noel’s defensive metrics won me over. The guy may be limited offensively, but his defensive play is absolutely eye-popping, especially while anchoring the post for the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. I will direct you to an article written in Grantland during Noel’s rookie season, where Ben Detrick stated, “The Sixers’ 20-year-old rookie is a lanky strand of sinew with a Big Daddy Kane flattop, a limited offensive game, and some of the most stunning defensive numbers ever posted by someone of his tender age. Not only does Noel lead all rookies in rebounds, blocks, and steals, he’s also the only NBA player in the top 10 in both blocks (eighth) and steals (10th). That’s not, you know, normal.”
His fit with the 76ers going forward is questionable, as they have a glut of young big men between himself, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid and presumably Ben Simmons. That being said, he is an extremely talented big with much untapped potential. His per 36 minutes averages were a strong improvement over his rookie season, with 13.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, along with a PER of 16.2.
Time for a few breakdowns of Murray, Labissiere, and Ulis…
Jamal Murray (Potential draft position: 3-6). Murray is the epitome of what is useful from a wing in the NBA today. The ability to play both wing positions and be a primary ball handler at times makes him extremely valuable in this draft for the teams drafting 4th (Phoenix Suns), 5th (Minnesota Timberwolves), and 6th (New Orleans Pelicans). The Suns could find Murray useful in a what would amount to a Wildcats foursome in the back court (Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Devin Booker, Murray). This would make them extremely potent in “small ball” sets, with all players versatility being a key attribute. The ability to play the point would also give him heavy minutes in both Minnesota and New Orleans. One potential sleeper to keep an eye on: the Philadelphia 76ers. If the Sixers do as expected and unload one of their big men, one potential trade could be with the Boston Celtics for the 3rd pick. The Celtics have a glut of wing players, including Isiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart, and have no need for a player like Murray. Philadelphia will presumably pick Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram with the 1st pick, yet according to CSN Philly, they covet another top 5 pick to secure a point guard. With Murray’s versatility, he may be the best fit for them going forward.
Skal Labissiere (Potential draft position: 9-19). Labissiere’s draft position may be the hardest to pin down of anyone in this draft. Obviously, the expectations for him coming into the beginning of last season were extremely high. At that point, most mock drafts had pegged him as a top 3 pick. He was considered in the same vein as KAT and Davis. As most UK fans know, his ability to defend 4s and 5s in the league will be limited early on. He faces the conundrum of trying to put on muscle mass while validating a team’s faith in him early on. Looking at most mock drafts, the earliest I’ve seen him at this moment is going 9th overall to the Toronto Raptors. That would be an excellent situation for him, with the ability to learn and grow behind proven NBA veterans such as Jonas Valančiūnas and Bismack Biyombo. I expect him to be a late lottery pick, but it is not out of the question that he could fall into the late teens.
Tyler Ulis (Potential draft position: 21-29). Ulis is, in my estimation, the best pure point guard this draft has to offer, even ahead of a guy such as Kris Dunn from Providence. The biggest issue for Ulis will always be his size. In that respect, a few guys he could model his career after would be Mugsy Bogues, Spud Webb, or even Nate Robinson. His play-making ability is unparalleled, but the size will drop him into the 20s. One great potential fit: the Philadelphia 76ers. In addition to the #1 pick, the 76ers also have the 24th and 26th overall picks, giving them perhaps two opportunities to select Ulis. Picture this for a moment: the Sixers do as I prescribed above and trade, say Jahlil Okafor, for the #3 overall pick. They use that pick to grab Murray, then select Ulis at 24 or 26. Between Nerlens Noel, Jamal Murray, and Tyler Ulis, the Philadelphia 76ers could soon become the professional hotspot for the Kentucky Wildcats.”