Everyone knows Kentucky is a place where guys that only want to be around for one year go. This is not a program built like this year’s champion North Carolina, or last year’s champion Villanova. It is rare to see a senior on this team being anything other than a role-playing bench guy. The freshman are the superstars, they are what the program is built on. Other than Coach K, who previously vilified one and done, Cal is the only coach to employ the tactic as his program’s main philosophy.
The class of 2009 was his first recruiting class. In this year, Cal reeled in six freshman and exactly zero of them were ranked below a 90 by ESPN. From there, he has proceeded to have a top 2 recruiting class every single year he has been at Kentucky. Cal is a recruiting savant, and he always has been. It is no secret that recruiting is his best talent as a coach. That recruiting has led to lots and lots of wins.
What I want to know, with players that are truly this good and this young, shouldn’t a secondary goal be to develop players? Wouldn’t you expect the guys that aren’t elite prospects entering college to come out even better? Of course, this is going to disregard the best prospects he has received. John Wall has always been an elite athlete with a knack for running the point. Boogie has always been a somehow (slightly) controlled bull in a china shop. Anthony Davis is Anthony Davis.
Call me crazy, but the only player Cal has ever helped due to his system is Willie Cauley-Stein. Trill (I prefer to refer to Willie by his nickname) thrived in the platoon system where he could showcase his athleticism and get up and down the floor, block shots, and dunk every ball that was lobbed in the same area code as the rim.
That same year, though, the platoon system suffocated two of the best players Cal has ever had. During the combine leading up to the 2015 NBA draft, scouts were absolutely shocked at the versatility of Karl-Anthony Towns’ game. He didn’t really shoot any threes during his lone season at Kentucky. Ball handling wasn’t something often asked of him. He only averaged a few ticks over 20 minutes per game. Devin Booker was the same way. The platoon never let him get in the rhythm we are seeing this year from him at the NBA level.
There are other guys, too. Isaiah Briscoe was the number 12 player in the class of 2015. In his scout recruiting profile, it says that he is good at creating contact and finishing around the rim, and that he is a capable jump shooter, but extremely streaky. If you were to write a scouting report for him now, after he declared for the draft and signed with an agent, would it be any different? The only difference would be that he doesn’t shoot. Maybe he is a capable shooter (depending on your definition of capable), but he simply doesn’t do it. He’s less willing to shoot than incompetent bigs from outside of fifteen feet.
Maybe the best example comes from that same class, Skal Labissiere. Coming out of high school as the number two overall recruit, his stock was incredibly high. His recruiting tapes showed a shocking mix of speed, athleticism, and power around the rim. Pair that with a soft shooting touch and solid ball-handling ability, and Skal looked like one of the best recruits Cal had ever reeled in. Their names even rhymed! It was perfect. Instead, he was eaten alive at Kentucky and looked like an incompetent basketball player. He struggled with foul trouble, lost his shooting touch, and was entirely devoid of confidence. Now, after being chosen in the first round by the Kings, he has shown his talent again within the season. On March 15 against the Suns, he dropped 32 points on 11-15 shooting. That is good. Skal is good.
Call me a traditionalist, but I think part of a coach’s job is to develop the talent he has. This is especially important at the college level. This is especially especially important at a program like Kentucky where all the players are young, raw athletes. I have never spoken to Coach Cal about his coaching philosophy, but based on his teams and players, he would probably disagree with me. It is easy to say that player development probably isn’t in Cal’s top three priorities. Instead, he replaces this aspect of “good” coaching with a versatile philosophy and an ability to change how he runs a team in favor of the team he currently has. It is arguably more important on a team with the amount of turnover every year that Kentucky has.
This is something Cal has shown his ability with over and over again. Some years, it was easy for him. His first year at Kentucky was a recruiting class with Demarcus Cousins, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. That season, they won their preseason tournament, conference tournament, and made it to the Elite 8. Not too much had to be done coaching-wise to make that team go because John Wall was on the court.
The 2013 class was his largest ever and he molded them into a National Runner-Up throughout a very o.k. season. The year after that was the infamous platoon year where he was blessed with his most returning talent ever. He made a platoon system that was good for almost nothing but winning. It didn’t make any player better in any way, but it led to one of the best seasons in the history of college basketball. Every year, Cal has an entirely new team, and he molds what he has into a winner.
Coach Cal has to win. Do I agree that he is doing it the right way? Not really. Do I think that every kid is getting the most out of the Wildcat program that they can possibly get? Definitely not. But Cal wins games. He has compiled a 249-53 record in his eight years at Kentucky. Based on his general philosophy, his second main goal is to give kids the best chance they can at being NBA players. In his eight recruiting classes, he has produced 26 NBA-level players. That isn’t including Isaiah Briscoe because who knows what his future looks like. Of those guys, three are All-Stars, and two others are Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker. Even Julius Randle looks like a potential All Star. So overall, John Calipari is not a good player developer, but really that couldn’t mean less.