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Kentucky Basketball: Are UK Players Poorly Prepared for the NBA?

For a guy going through a "smoke and mirrors" system, Josh Harrellson seems remarkably NBA-ready.
For a guy going through a "smoke and mirrors" system, Josh Harrellson seems remarkably NBA-ready.

Today, Larry Vaught had this quote an NBA scout, and the scout in question desired to remain anonymous:

"In reality, the Kentucky system is smoke and mirrors. I remember being out in Vegas for a Summer League and I was sitting and watching games with a long-time Director of Scouting in the league. He said he was stunned at how unprepared Kentucky players were for the NBA, and he had drafted one of them," the scout said.

Sounds pretty bad, right? Well, Mike DeCourcy had this to say in response to the scout's comments:

Larry Vaught, as is typical of this outstanding reporter, decided to solicit a second opinion from another anonymous scout, which was a little bit different:

"Heck, look at how he let Davis expand his game late in the season. But he was a center for Kentucky and Cal had to keep him in the paint on offense. Cal puts his players in the best positions to help his team win, but to say he doesn’t get them more prepared for the NBA is a little bit ridiculous. You don’t have the first-round picks he’s had, or the success his players have had in the league, without teaching those guys how to play at the highest level. This doesn’t mean Kentucky guys are sure to be a success in the league, but I know our team certainly likes the chances of a player Calipari had turning out well."

Okay, so the question before the Big Blue Nation is this -- Who is right, and does it matter?

My take is this: In the first place, it isn't Calipari's job to prepare players for the NBA. That's the job of NBA people after the players come out and make themselves eligible for the draft. Calipari's job is to prepare Kentucky's players for college basketball, and win college basketball games, contrary to many who believe he simply runs a prep school for NBA draft picks.

Second, the "smoke and mirrors" comment was just unfortunately bad judgment on the part of the first scout. I'm not going to tell you this guy doesn't know what he's talking about, because I don't know who it is. Larry Vaught respects that particular scout, so don't be too quick to dismiss his knowledge:

However, "smoke and mirrors" does not win NCAA Tournament titles, or get teams to the Final Four. Those are facts, and facts are stubborn things. Perhaps the first scout didn't mean it the way it came off, but if he did mean it as a value judgment on the worth of Calipari's system in a basketball sense, he's going to have a hard time defending that against reality.

Third, if Calipari's system is "smoke and mirrors," how do you explain Josh Harrellson and Eric Bledsoe, as the second scout pointed out? It's fairly facile to say that UK players can just get by on their talent, although to a certain extent, that's true. On the other hand, how do you explain Eric Bledsoe, who nobody thought was NBA material right away? And for a guy who played in a "smoke and mirrors" system, Josh Harrellson is doing mighty well.

Fourth, most of the players in question are only one or two years removed from AAU ball. The biggest component of preparedness for the NBA is physical maturity, and you rarely see physically mature players at 19 and 20 years old.

Finally, the NBA is an entirely different game. Despite the fact that it is still basketball, the NBA is mostly a pick-and-roll league, and notwithstanding the recent conversion of Calipari to running quite a bit of pick-and-roll at Kentucky, you can't get extremely good at that system unless you run it constantly, and Kentucky does not do that. Also, pick-and-roll defense takes a lot of time even for the pros to master, and expecting UK players to come out ready for that is absurd.

Given the success of Calipari's players in the NBA, it's really hard to fathom where that first scout was coming from. No matter what one thinks of an initial viewing of players, the fact that most of Calipari's players are seeing significant minutes right away in the NBA belies the comment about Coach Cal's system not preparing them.

I suppose the scout could have meant his comment in a relative sense, and perhaps was trying to explain that players coming from Calipari's system aren't as prepared as many people think they should be. I confess, this is one of those "to be fair" exercises where I'm trying to excuse an apparent nonsequitur by an attempt at mind-reading.

I should probably just offer something straightforward like DeCourcy, I guess.