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Ranking the Top-10 Former Kentucky Wildcats in the NBA

With so many Cats in the NBA, getting this list down to just 10 was no easy task.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - New Orleans Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There are almost enough Kentucky Wildcats for every NBA team to possess at least one.

Of course, there are instead teams with multiple Cats on them, and delineating a ranking of the top-10 former Kentucky Wildcats is, well, challenging, to say the least. While all rankings tend to generate and stir debate, few are likely to do so more than evaluating young players who have yet to reach their proverbial “upsides.”

So much of our analysis is about potential when it comes to evaluating young players, and perhaps Rajon Rondo is the only one in this ranking whose career story has been more or less already written.

That said, I unabashedly put these rankings before you, the reader, to criticize, and I fully expect some negativity given this set of rankings will involve so many readers’ favorite players.

And, of course, in doing any rankings, my own biases are bound to be revealed. If nothing else, we can all agree that Kentucky has changed the landscape of the current NBA with the massive amount of talent injected.

Obviously, no rookies crack this list, because De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk must first play an actual NBA game to crack an NBA list. At least, in my opinion, they do.

New Orleans Pelicans v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

1 Anthony Davis

After an injury plagued 2015-16 campaign, many were quick to anoint another Kentucky Wildcat as the NBA’s most promising young big man. Anthony Davis said “not so fast.” Davis put together an impressive 2016-17 season that reminded the league, including GMs, that he is still the league’s most dominant young big man.

The thing is, that term “young” is beginning to apply less and less to Davis, particularly now that the New Orleans Pelicans have acquired some help in the front court in DeMarcus Cousins. Expectations for Davis and the Pelicans have risen, and now it is time for him to do more than simply to continue to accrue the impressive statistics the way he has thus far in his career.

The onus is now on Davis to become a winner, a pressure that simply comes with experience and the type of dominance he has shown thus far in his NBA career.

Few doubt that Davis has the type of talent required to win an MVP award. But to do that, he will have to help lead the Pelicans to a meaningful season and a playoff berth. Of course, as much of the pressure that can be assigned to Davis will also be heaped on DeMarcus Cousins. The Pelicans are one of a handful of teams highly dependent on multiple UK starters.

2 John Wall

John Wall has done just about everything humanly possible to keep the Washington Wizards relevant. Wall has become one of the league’s top point guards, but simply has not had the help necessary to make Washington into much more than simply a “Good playoff team.” Wall is one of the league’s best ball distributors and has few problems penetrating defenses despite lacking an elite jumpshot.

Wall has now made the All-Star team four times and he ranks No. 4 in minutes per game (36.1). A lot has been asked of the former No. 1 overall pick, but he has largely delivered.

If Washington is to get over the proverbial hump, it will be because they have added some pieces to help Wall. He is at his already-high ceiling most likely, but outside of the inconsistent star that Bradley Beal is, the Wizards do not bolster him with much of a supporting cast.

Wall has averaged a double-double the past three seasons while raising his scoring average to a career-high 22.9 points per game last season. He is a franchise player, and he is also the best guard to hail from Kentucky during the John Calipari era, indisputably so, even.

3 Karl-Anthony Towns

Karl-Anthony Towns is of the new mold of NBA big men. Towns showed in his first two NBA seasons, an ability to step out on the perimeter, and he is also an elite rim protector. He does have room to grow, however, in becoming a more vocal leader and defensive quarterback, of sorts.

The Minnesota Timberwolves largely languished due to the absence of that leadership, particularly on the defensive end where the “Timberpuppies” were flat out horrible, despite being coached by a defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau.

Still, to pick bones with Towns over a lack of leadership would seem silly in light of the talent he has been through just two seasons—and at such a young age. Towns could eventually surpass Davis as the league’s most dominant young big man, but that day has not come yet.

Davis dominated Towns in the regular season, and is still a better defender (despite pundits asserting just the opposite, frequently). Towns’ ability to pass and shoot the triple will keep him relevant through this new era, but he is a throwback talent that could have thrived in any era.

He’s not a lot unlike Tim Duncan, howsoever lofty that comparison may be.

4 DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins has a penchant for being an enigmatic “head case” in the NBA, but those days may be changing. Cousins is never shy on picking up a technical, but how many can change a game the way DeMarcus can? He is gifted offensively and surprisingly lithe for a player of his size.

That said, Cousins has trimmed down this offseason and that could be scary for the rest of the NBA. If he can keep his head in the game and avoid frustration, Cousins has the chance to form one of the most dominant 4/5 tandems in recent league history; paired, of course, with another Kentucky Wildcat in Anthony Davis.

Cousins has rectified many flaws in his game, not the least of which was reducing his high turnover rate—but then again, getting out of Sacramento will only do good things for a players’ game.

The Kings frittered away some of Cousins’ best seasons, but redemption is at the door on a more talented and stable team in the New Orleans Pelicans. The offensive skillset has always been there, and Cousins certainly has the body to matchup against any NBA center. Those things never really were in question, though he did “fall” to No. 5 in his draft class due to the concerns about his mental makeup. Talent has never been the issue with Cousins.

5 Eric Bledsoe

Eric Bledsoe has fallen off a little due to injury, and also due to playing in a very crowded backcourt in Phoenix. But the moniker “baby LeBron” could not be more accurate in describing the style, quality and impact of the dynamic combo guard.

Bledsoe is charged with the duty of sharing the ball with Devin Booker in Phoenix, which is no small task given that both need their touches and shots, to be the effective guards they are.

What gives Bledsoe the (slight) edge over Booker in these rankings is simply that his game is more well-rounded and he can impact a game in more ways than just scoring the ball (and that is not meant to be a major knock on Booker, necessarily).

Bledsoe has the occasional surprising block, and he is a good passer when he puts his mind to dropping dimes. The Suns have a pure-Wildcat backcourt, and both of those guards arrive high in the Kentucky rankings, a testament to how well Coach Cal’s guards have done in transitioning to the NBA game.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

6 Devin Booker

Much of the hoopla surrounding Devin Booker is of the “OMG! He scored 70 points in an NBA game!” variety, but Booker is much more than a one-night wonder who lit the Boston Celtics up like an overpriced firework display. He is one of the league’s best young offensive 2-guards, and while he may have garnered some overhyped attention for his 70-point exploit, it should not overshadow his consistency as an NBA scorer, particularly one who has played just two NBA seasons.

Booker is known as an elite shooter, but the truth is that his percentages do not really support that fully, not yet anyway. He knocked down a passable 36 percent from three-point range last season, while hitting 42.3 percent from the field overall. That leaves (plenty of) room for improvement.

The Phoenix Suns instability has played a role, as has the team stuffing its roster full of young, unproven talents. Booker has seemed to play with the experience and poise of a veteran, despite having few actual veterans around him at all.

A Twitter poll asked, “Who will be the better player between Booker and Klay Thompson?” and about two-thirds of voters selected Thompson. So, the bar is set for young Devin, and the target should be clear: He can become a top shooting guard, but people are not ready to crown him as that yet. None other than Kobe Bryant gave Booker a ringing endorsement, and the Mamba does not just hand out praise. The thing is, Thompson has thrived for a two-time champion Golden State Warriors team, while Booker has shined bright in the Valley of the Losing Suns.

7 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

This is an easy one to mock. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has an ugly jumpshot. He is not an effective scorer. There is almost nothing pretty about his game. But pretty does not win basketball games, and MKG does win them. The Charlotte Hornets are a better team with their defensive swingman on the court, and while he may never be a guy who contributes gaudy and sexy stat lines, he most certainly does leave his mark on the court.

It is eerily reminiscent of what Shane Battier did during his NBA career: Won games in such a manner that only the most astute purists were able to discern just how great his impact was.

And so, you see Kidd-Gilchrist with his unorthodox (and flat out ugly) jumper, and it is easy to simply say “He cannot be that good, not if he shoots like that,” but in doing so it is at the peril of ignoring his elite one-on-one defense, his board crashing, and his work ethic, effort—you know, all those things that can make one a great basketball player without necessarily having great basketball skills.

MKG is a bit of an enigma, but he is a very solid player and not undeserving of his spot in these rankings, because, they are based on more than simply scoring and the flashier aspects—which Kidd-Gilchrist’s game could be said to be deficient in. While he may not be a highlight reel, the Hornets know his value.

8 Julius Randle

Julius Randle has continued to come along in an L.A. Lakers uniform despite the team being fairly horrible both of his first two pro seasons. Randle takes the knock for being an undersized-4, but he has made up for it with his skills and effort, at least thus far.

Where the real problems begin is on the defensive end, an area that the Lakers were abysmal in, and Randle was certainly part of the reason why.

While Randle does stand tall enough to play power forward, his short arms and lack of standing reach inhibit his ability to cover a lot of opposing power forwards. He is not anywhere near quick enough to play the small forward position.

All this notwithstanding, he is a very strong and powerful forward on the offensive end, and he trusts his ball handling enough to be a creator in the Lakers’ offense.

Whether these positives are enough to overcome his limitations on defense is unknown: It will be the story of Randle’s career, in fact. If he can become just an average defender, his offensive skills render him a valuable NBA starter.

It is hard to say just how poor his defense is, though, because the Lakers’ help-defense was so poor and there was no one there to cover any blunders by Randle or anyone else.

NBA: Playoffs-Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

9 Rajon Rondo

If this were 2008, Rajon Rondo would top this list and all the talk would be about what the rookie could do to secure a spot in the Hall of Fame. Oh, how nine years have changed things. Since beginning his career so brightly with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and a championship ring— things have gone less swimmingly for Rondo. His poor shooting ability is most of why, but he is still a supremely talented basketball player who can befuddle even good defenders with his array of skilled fakes and his deft ball handling.

Unfortunately, basketball is a game predicated largely upon making shots, and that means shooting. It just never came for Rondo. His shot is awkward, his hands are huge, and he was never able to get defenses to respect his perimeter shot.

It became a limiting factor in his career, because in 2008, we were all mostly saying, “Just wait till this guy gets a shot!” That loud clamor arises frequently with young players, and many are simply hoping that De’Aaron Fox can overcome it in the way John Wall did, rather than succumb like Rondo has. That said, Wall shoots the ball a lot better than Rondo, so it is a bit of an extreme example that a guard as talented as Rajon comes along with virtually no jumper to render the rest of his game so much less effective than it would have been.

10 Willie Cauley-Stein

The competition for this final spot in the slideshow is fierce. It is hard to hand it to Willie Cauley-Stein, except perhaps on the basis that this writer simply projects him to continue to evolve as an NBA player.

Certainly, there are those with higher upsides who do not crack this slideshow, but WCS is entering his third season and the Kings have cleared out its frontcourt somewhat for Cauley-Stein to get more minutes. He will have Zach Randolph there with him this season, but Z-Bo has become something more of a valuable bench contributor than the big minutes player he was prior to last season.

Cauley-Stein’s defensive abilities are what earns him this spot, though, simply. WCS can step out on pick and roll switches and effectively cover guards, he can block shots, he can board— these were all things Kentucky fans already knew.

What is unknown is whether Willie can become a decent offensive player, perhaps on the level of a Tyson Chandler. He is not going to turn head and WOW anyone on the offensive end of the court, but merely being a competent offensive player and good finisher would augment his defense well enough to warrant this No. 10 spot.