Several prominent recent Wildcat hoopsters are showing the value of a Tubby Smith-coached career in the various NBA summer leagues.
It should be noted, of course, that the summer leagues do not auger regular season success, nor for that matter -- at least for a few -- even a job come November. However, it does show that once the playing field is even (no homer refs, no college systems, no ESPN yammering talking heads) that the Cats produce some serious players.
Here are a few samples of what the Cats in the NBA summer school have done thus far ...
Kelenna Azubuike (G, Draft class of 05, undrafted): The Gun Show left UK after his junior year, despite no real interest in his skills, and the culprit has been alternately said to be his father's legal/financial woes and/or some shady promises from his former agent. Whatever the reason, KA was not drafted in the 06 Draft, and since has played NBADL ball for a year. Picked up by the Nuggets for the Vegas summer session, the muscle-bound Azubuike started slowly, but erupted for 25 points on 6-of-9 shooting (13-17 FT), 6 Rebounds and a steal in his best game, last Tuesday. He followed that up with a 21 point effort, with 8 boards, the next night. With Carmelo Anthony and Julius Hodge, among many others, on the roster, I'm not sure how likely it is that Bookie will be a Nugget this fall, but he certainly has shown a penchant for getting to the line, and the NBA-level athletic ability is still there. It would be nice to see KA get a shot with an NBA team.
Rajon Rondo (PG, Draft class of 06, #21 overall): Rondo, the lightning-quick point guard who led the 05-06 Cats in scoring, rebounding, steals and assists for the entire season, has gotten off to a fast start for the Celtics, the team that made him the first point guard taken in the 06 Draft. Rondo began by teaming up with Sebastian Telfair -- acquired by the Celts on draft night -- in a semi-audition to see who will suit up alongside Delonte West. After a quiet first game, Rondo has picked up his play, tallying a thus-far career-best 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting (3-4 FT), with 6 assists, a steal and a block in a Tuesday game. On Wednesday, he outdid himself, posting a double double (11 assists, 2 TOs, 11 points) and by all accounts running his team with a veteran's cool. Several NBA sources have said that, at this early stage, Rondo may be the steal of the draft.
Chuck Hayes (PF, Draft class of 05, undrafted): Too short, can't shoot from the outside, a 'tweener. All of these assessments have been made of Hayes since his freshman year at Kentucky, when he played his way into a starting forward spot on an upperclass-dominated UK team. But there's no way to measure heart, and Hayes has it in droves. Battling his way into a contract from the Rockets, the burly forward has stuck to what he does best in the summer session, tallying games of 11 rebounds twice and a stunning 19 on one occasion. Houston, a Jeff Van Gundy-coached defensive unit, and its fans have found Hayes' selfless and tireless style refreshing and useful, much as Cats fans and Coach Smith did for four years.
Erik Daniels (F, Draft class of 04, undrafted): After spending a year tied to Sacramento's bench, Wildcats fans' favorite 'fro has been working his way back from the NBADL as well, averaging a double-double without sniffing the Big Dance again. Playing for Orlando's summer team in the Orlando Summer League, the silky southpaw has come on of late, tallying a team-high 16 points in one game and filling the stat sheet with assists and steals. It remains to be seen (a) if ED will latch on as an undersized and less athletic point forward -- call him a homeless man's Antoine Walker -- but he's a veteran, and he's always been proving folks wrong.
As the adage goes, 'Once a Cat, always a Cat', and I believe that. With the possible exception of those who brought shame or bad mojo onto the team (I'm looking in your direction, Chris Mills and Rashaad Carruth), it's good to root for former Wildcats, as it helps recruiting and generally fills the program with positive vibes.
Rondo's success will not surprise me, but even I'll admit that Hayes' tenacity has impressed this observer again. It's one thing to box out SEC forwards, even good ones, but quite another to do it effectively against NBA-sized big men.
Antowain Barbour has been floating around out there as well, and Cliff Hawkins, too. But for now, we'll just cross our fingers that Azubuike and Daniels can earn themselves some NBA money, and further cement Kentucky's NBA bonafides in the process.
Bogans returns to Magic
Another former Wildcat looks to be staying in the NBA as well, as former UK shooting guard Keith Bogans has inked a new contract with the Orlando Magic. Terms were not disclosed.