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Kentucky Basketball: Dissecting Coach Cal’s history of developing 5-star recruits

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Do the numbers walk the same talk as the tradition?

Auburn v Kentucky Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Kentucky Wildcats famed basketball development program wasn’t always among the best in the entire country.

Prior to the hiring of Coach John Calipari in 2009, Kentucky had lost 10-plus games in the last four straight seasons and in seven of the previous 10. Calipari’s arrival immediately changed all that.

It seemed like overnight that the Wildcats jumped from a 10-loss team to a three-loss team.

Add in the fact that the team lost in the Elite Eight not the Round of 32 or 64 like the university had grown accustomed to, and it was a clear a new era of Wildcat basketball was on the horizon.

What changed?

Well, that’s a simple answer really: the recruiting.

Kentucky, with Calipari at the helm, was among the college hotspots for recruits. Immediately upon his arrival, Calipari started building the Kentucky brand.

His first season, he secured two of the nation’s top three recruits.

He made DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall superstars in Lexington, priming them for the sport’s brightest stage. Kentucky ended with three five-star recruits that helped lead them to a No. 1 seed in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

The next season, Calipari outdid his 2009 efforts, securing three top-10 recruits: Enes Kanter, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight. This team, losing nine games, wasn’t quite as dominant, and it showed it.

However, just one year later, the 2011 class that was ushered in may have put together the best Kentucky basketball team of all time. Not 1 or 2 or even 3 five-star recruits joined the Wildcats.

Kentucky boasted an unprecedented four five-star recruits with future All-NBA player Anthony Davis leading the way as the nation’s top player. Joining him was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer.

That team lost two games, cruising to the NCAA Championship.

Through just three years at UK, Calipari had already amassed seven former five-star players that would go on to have notable NBA careers. Seven of 10 is pretty high odds for a young player looking for a quality program to develop his skills.

Again in 2012, Kentucky secured the top overall player in the class. Nerlens Noel joined Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress as the three five-star recruits from 2012. Another stellar recruiting yet only Noel really turned out to have a solid career at the next level.

To date, 2013 was arguably the climax of recruiting for John Calipari.

Although the team and many of the players didn’t find high-level success, the Wildcats got commitments from SIX of the nation’s 24 five-star recruits. Only one, Julius Randle, the No. 2 overall prospect, went on to have a stellar NBA career.

Now, we’re five seasons in and the one unparalleled ratio of NBA success has been diminished every so slightly. 9 of 19 five-star recruits to come through Lexington in Calipari’s first half a decade coaching have found success at the highest level.

In 2014, the Wildcats, with a few recruits have stayed from the 2013 class, put together the most dominant NCAA roster of the modern era. Four five-star recruits teamed up with numerous top-level recruits, most notable the Harrison brothers and Willie Cauley-Stein, that stayed, creating a team that’d end up defining Calipari’s time at UK.

Imagine following the NBA and thinking that Devin Booker, who has, for the Phoenix Suns, averaged 26.6 points per game last season and is set to make over $35 million in a few seasons, never started a collegiate game. He didn’t start a single of the nearly 40 games the team played that season.

That’s the talent UK had on this roster. UK basketball has never had a team as talented as the one that took the court the 2014-2015 season.

That’s what happens when these five-star recruits get additional time at the collegiate level. They blossom, and under coach Calipari, they take their game to the next level.

In 2015, the Wildcats secured three more five-star recruits, but they had to deal with the hangover that seeing the bulk of the experienced players leave for the NBA created. Isaiah Briscoe, Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere were the three new high-profile recruits in Lexington.

They put together a rather disappoint 27-9 season. That said, after Cal’s seventh season, we’re at 14 of Calipari’s 26 five-star recruits have had at least some form of success in the NBA, a few going on to earn numerous All-Star appearance.

However, there’s still three seasons left before getting to the 2019-2020 one and even a few more before we see the most recently committed five-star recruit Devin Askew in Lexington.

Some of these names will now be far more familiar. Players like De’Aaron Fox, who was just voted in the NBA’s GM Survey as the player with the best chance to have a breakout season, know the tradition and the development at UK.

Fox along with Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk combined to make three of the college’s five five-star recruits. The three mentioned have been successful after solid collegiate careers, but Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones, who transferred away, are still working to improve their game. Gabriel is currently on a two-way deal after going undrafted in 2018.

At this point, we’re going to cut off the running total of successful UK recruits and end with 17 of 31, meaning over half of Calipari’s five-star recruits have made it at the next level.

However, that doesn’t mean he was done recruiting. In 2017, the university, now known for having a prestigious developmental program, secured six five-star recruits yet turned it into a depleting eleven-loss season after starting off as a top-five ranked team.

That said, this past season, although the team boasted four five-star recruits, it was four-star guard Tyler Herro that thrived under Calipari’s leadership, and Herro already looks like a budding star in the NBA.

This upcoming season, Big Blue Nation will greet three five-star recruits, which if history stands correct, tells us at least one will succeed at the next level. Hopefully, the recently-committed Askew is one of the what will eventually be 20-plus successful NBA players to come through Coach Cal in the last decade.