[Moderated by Matt Jones]
“No, it’s okay Nerlens, you can go.”
As Kentucky fans, we’ve grown accustomed to the One-And-Done nature of college basketball more so than any other team in the country. When a team produces 15 draft picks, 2 Final Fours, and a National Title all in the course of 3 seasons, there comes a certain of burden of expectations. That goes double for any incoming freshman to the Kentucky program. It’s supposed to work like a machine, highly rated recruits come to Lexington for 2 reasons, to compete for national championships, and depending on performance, are more then likely bound for the professional ranks after a 9-month stint in the bluegrass. I’m not here to argue the pro’s and con’s of the system as it is, because the topic has been beaten to death by media and we still find ourselves in the same position we were in since the rule was implemented in 2006. While John Calipari has been the main beneficiary of the one-and-done rule, he has been outspoken in the past that he believes that a 2-year rule, at the bare minimum, should be enforced.
This brings me to an interesting quote from John Calipari on Saturday night following the Texas A&M game in which he described the rate in which his freshman are developing. However, rather than aiming toward June’s NBA Draft as a date the freshman needed to be ready for, Cal proclaimed that “hopefully it’s going to take a couple years, and not just one” for this year’s Freshman class to fully develop the way he would like. That is the first known time that I’ve seen Cal publicly allude to holding any of his players back from the NBA Draft because he feels they aren’t ready. I’m sure most Kentucky fans would agree with Cal on this sentiment, after watching any amount of time of the ‘Cats playing it becomes obvious that Nerlens Noel is the only player on the court that I would feel confident in being a instant impact player in the Association right now. Not to say that Archie, Alex, or Willie aren’t capable of reaching that point, but the fact remains there is a lot more tinkering to their games that is necessary for them to succeed at the professional level. So with that being said, the real question to ponder if you’re a Wildcat fan is; will any of this year’s Freshman class be back to make a run at the 2014 National Title? I believe the answer is yes, and I’m going to give you the “Who, What, Where, and When?” on the subject.
When determining who will leave Lexington, you have to also look at it in terms of what next year’s rotation will look like, and with the monster recruiting class coming in next season, there are 2 players who I see that have a greater-than-average chance of returning, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. Next year’s recruiting class as it stands right now is as balanced as can be, with at least one 5-star recruit to occupy every position on the floor, but Alex and Willie stand to make the biggest impact with the way things have been shaking out. Noel is 100% gone, considering that barring any catastrophic situation he will be selected with one of the first 2-3 picks in the Draft. In the case of Archie Goodwin you can argue that he needs to work on his jumpshot before heading off, which is a valid argument, but over the course of the last month Archie has shown a great improvement in his decision-making, which was the major obstacle holding him back over all others. Instead of the wild, out-of-control drives we grew accustomed to, Archie has started to dish out to the perimeter for open 3′s or opted to stop and use his floater when reaching the paint. Even with his lack of outside shooting, he still has a dynamic enough offensive game slashing to the rim that someone in the Top 10 will more then likely take a chance on him, as he has the kind of potential and dominant physical ability to take over a game that reminds me a lot of Russell Westbrook at UCLA. In my opinion, you can take those 2 off the board.
As far as Poythress goes, he has shown a lot of improvement in effort over the course of the season, but a player at his size and with his skill level has the potential to be one of the top players in all of college basketball, which is something that we haven’t yet seen out of the young Wildcat. By coming back for another season and working on his ball handling and ability to slash into the lane from the perimeter, Poythress goes from a catch-and-shoot guy and put-back specialist to a dominant offensive force on the collegiate level. There aren’t a ton of 6’8 230 lb players in the college ranks with the ability to shoot the ball like Alex can (he’s at 45.5% on 3-pointers this season) but he also needs to work on his post game to better utilize his huge frame. Poythress could certainly be a lottery pick after this season, but with another year in college and development in the areas I mentioned he could be be in the running for the top pick in next year’s Draft. As Calipari and opposing coaches have liked to say, Alex has no idea how good he can be, the sky is really the limit for him.
Willie on the other hand would benefit the most from another year in Lexington, and I’d say that odds are that will be the case. Obviously Willie needs to work on his shooting form, so we don’t really have to spend any time on that. However, we have noticed a marked improvement from Willie when it comes to post moves since the season has started. Before his injury, the man we call Mustard was beginning to show promise regarding his future in the offense, and was understanding how to use his big frame to get shots off in the post, shooting an impressive 17-24 (70.8%) over his last 5 games before his knee surgery. With another year in Lexington, Cauley-Stein can improve his shot from the post, and along with incoming freshman Marcus Lee, become a dominant shot-blocker with the added depth of Lee and Dakari Johnson down low to provide the weakside help on rebounding. I have never claimed to know as much about basketball as John Calipari, but I think he sees a similar future for Willie on next year’s team as I do. Willie is currently in the 15-25 range in most mock drafts, but what most don’t realize is that this is Willie’s first season focusing solely on basketball, and with an added year of specialized practice, Willie could be a Top 5-10 pick next season. Also, he’ll hopefully hit at least 50% from the FT line next year, hopefully.
This year’s season is far from over and any number of things could happen to affect the decisions these 4 face at the end of the year, but the idea of Poythress and Willie returning with next year’s team makes me almost giddy. Imagine a starting lineup of Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, Poythress, and Willie depending on how Cal wants to play. Then, remember that this team would also more then likely have Kyle Wiltjer, Ryan Harrow, Marcus Lee, and Dakari Johnson coming off the bench. For those of you counting at home, that’s a team 9-deep with 5-star talent, and the no-questions-asked preseason favorite to cut down the nets in Cowboy Stadium in April 2014. However until then, we can all keep watching the 2012-13 Wildcats continue to improve so that next year’s ‘Cats can chase down a 3-PEAT. I’ll drink to that.
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