The recruitment of Zion Williamson is one of a string of disappointments for John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats in the world of recruiting. For about a year or so Kentucky was thought to be the heavy favorite for the high school superstar. Kentucky’s success with one and done players and rockstar caliber talents has been second to none.
But with Zion picking the Duke Blue Devils over the Cats, it seems as if Cal’s status as the nation’s number one recruiter has been snatched by Mike Krzyzewski.
Come to find out, at the end of his recruitment, Kentucky wasn’t even an option for Williamson. In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Williamson and his family conveyed that Duke, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Clemson were all factors while Kentucky was more of an afterthought.
Like Duke, Kentucky has built a cottage industry in “one-and-done” players. I asked Williamson why he ultimately picked Duke over Kentucky, and he went back to Krzyzewski.
“It was always more than basketball with Coach K,” Williamson said. “That basketball can stop bouncing for you at any time. If basketball was to end for me tomorrow, I would know I’m in good hands at Duke University.”
Williamson’s mother ran track at Livingstone College in Salisbury and was a former high school sprinting state champion in South Carolina. Sampson is now a middle-school teacher, although she took this year off from teaching. Williamson announced his collegiate choice on his mother’s birthday – a purposeful nod to the woman he called his “rock.”
Williamson’s stepfather, Lee Anderson, coached him off and on for years and once played point guard at Clemson himself. Anderson admitted to some mixed feelings Saturday night after Williamson’s recruitment was over.
Anderson told me that he had told Clemson’s coaches recently: “You all had a mile-and-a-half lead on the situation. I don’t know what happened along the way. ... At first, I thought Clemson was the ideal place for him. And I still believe that. ... I really believe that. But again, it wasn’t me making that decision.”
With Zion, Duke now has the top three players in the class of 2018 (#1 RJ Barrett, #2 Zion Williamson, #3 Cam Reddish). Kentucky whiffed on all three of them.
So what happened? For about six years, Kentucky was the place to go for the best-of-the-best in terms of high school talent. As of now Kentucky doesn’t have a player in the top 10 of the 2018 class. Their highest ranked player is Keldon Johnson at 14. Next is Immanuel Quickley at 15 and then Tyler Herro at 35.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at top 10 players that have committed each year in the Calipari Era:
- 2009: John Wall (#1), DeMarcus Cousins (#2)
- 2010: Enes Kanter (#3), Brandon Knight (#6)
- 2011: Anthony Davis (#2), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (#3), Marquis Teague (#5)
- 2012: Nerlens Noel (#2), Alex Poythress (#8)
- 2013: Julius Randle (#2), Dakari Johnson (#9), Andrew Harrison (#5), Aaron Harrison (#7)
- 2014: Karl-Anthony Towns (#5)
- 2015: Skal Labissiere (#1), Isaiah Briscoe (#10), Jamal Murray (#9)
- 2016: De’Aaron Fox (#6), Malik Monk (#9), Bam Adebayo (#7)
- 2017: Kevin Knox (#10)
Kentucky hasn’t had a top five recruit since 2015 and it is doubtful whether or not Calipari has one in 2018. The 2014 class saw only KAT in the top 10, but that was the year everyone came back and the need for recruits wasn’t as dire.
Now let’s compare Duke’s classes in the same timespan:
2009: No top 10 recruits
2010: Kyrie Irving (#4)
2011: Austin Rivers (#1)
2012: No top 10 recruits
2013: Jabari Parker (#4)
2014: Jahlil Okafor (#1), Tyus Jones (#7)
2015: Brandon Ingram (#4)
2016: Harry Giles (#2), Jayson Tatum (#3)
2017: Marvin Bagley (#2), Trevon Duval (#5), Wendell Carter (#7)
*rankings courtesy of Rivals
As you can see, it has taken some time but Duke has become the go-to place for the top talent in the country. Starting in 2010 they have had at least one recruit in the five of the class and the number of top 10 talent has steadily grown over this 10-year period. As I mentioned before, Duke has the top three players in the class of 2018 and the 10th ranked player as well.
So what happened? Coach K has had elite talent in the past but he also based his program around guys that would stay multiple years. The one and done phenomenon had largely been ignored by Duke and almost every team in the country until Kentucky and Calipari started doing it.
There is one specific hire that turned it all around for Duke: Jeff Capel. Once Capel was hired on at Duke as an assistant and the main recruiter, the Blue Devils started to adopt the one and done philosophy. 2014 is the year that K really went for the fences and it also happened to be the year in which they won their last national title.
What about Kentucky’s decline? That can be traced back to Orlando Antigua leaving for the South Florida job in 2014. In 2014/2015 Barry “Slice” Rohrssen was hired to replace Antigua but only stayed one season and then left to take the same job at St. John’s.
Joel Justus was promoted to assistant coach after Slice left. There’s no way around it, things haven’t been the same since Capel got to Duke and Coach O left Kentucky.
I tweeted this on Sunday in wake of the Williamson to Duke decision:
Big blue madness didn't help, Drake didn't help, coaching Team USA didn't help. Time to think of some new strategies or shake up the coaching staff because what they're doing isn't working as well as whatever the hell Duke is doing.— James Streble (@JStreble82) January 21, 2018
Obviously this tweeted elicited reactions, some that agree and some that disagree, but the point is that there is the possibility that the Kentucky message has become stale.
In reality, Duke and K stole the pitch. Zion Williamson mentioned the “brotherhood” of Duke. The entire “brotherhood” concept was Kentucky’s and nobody did it better. Kentucky players from the NBA still tout Calipari and the Cats. They continue to come back to campus to work camps, go to Big Blue Madness, and basketball games. They mention Kentucky whenever they are interviewed by the media. There are two Kentucky starters in the All Star game. UK is the only college that has more than one representative starting.
Who is the marquee guy for Duke in the NBA? Kyrie Irving is the only guy that comes to mind. When is the last time you heard Kyrie mention Duke? When’s the last time Kyrie went back to Cameron?
Duke is selling Kentucky’s pitch without actual results.
Calipari tried to use Team USA to his advantage much like Coach K did during his run in the Olympics. But Cal’s U19 experience didn’t deliver any recruits. Immanuel Quickley was on the team but he was a lock for Kentucky before the U19 practices began. Cameron Reddish, Romeo Langford, and Bol Bol were all players Cal coveted but all of them opted to not come to Kentucky. Reddish will be a Blue Devil, Bol Bol is a Duck, and Langford is no longer considering Kentucky.
One thing is clear: never count out John Calipari. He’s been ahead of the curve for years in terms of recruiting. The fact that K and Capel stole his entire philosophy has to be eating away at him.
What’s the answer for Cal? Will there be staff shake-ups? Will they change the message?
Whatever it is you know John Calipari is already formulating a plan to take back is crown.