There is nothing unusual about Kentucky losing players to the NBA every off-season. It primarily recruits high schoolers who project as one-and-dones, and while those prospects sometimes choose to stay around for more than a year, most of them pick the Wildcats with the expectation that they won’t exhaust their eligibility. Roster turnover is the norm in Lexington: Twenty-eight Kentucky players have been drafted since John Calipari’s first season in charge (2009-10), including nine over the last two years. For Calipari, the team-building process is more about stockpiling talent than developing it.
That process is always harder than it looks, even for a program-coach combination that basically sells itself at this point, but it could prove particularly challenging during the 2017-18 season. Three Wildcats (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo) who played just one year in college could be selected in the first round of the 2017 draft (two of which, Fox and Monk, could go in the lottery), and two others who aren’t likely to hear their names called on Thursday (Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries) also decided to turn pro. Kentucky also will bid farewell to seniors Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis.
That leaves the Wildcats with just one rotation player from last season, and that player, sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel, averaged only 4.6 points in 17.7 minutes per game while using a small portion of the team’s possessions. The decision by mid-year enrollee Hamidou Diallo to return to school rather than stay in the draft pool was a minor victory, but projecting his impact, beyond the strong likelihood of a couple of highlight dunks every game, is tricky because he hasn’t faced college competition yet. What the Wildcats are left with is a unproven group whose success will hinge largely on new faces.
A personnel outflow of this magnitude would cripple most teams for at least one season. For Kentucky, it’s just the cost of doing business. Yet the roster churn has not sapped confidence about the Wildcats’ capacity to suit up one of the nation’s best teams in 2017-18; they’re showing up near the top of way-too-early rankings, including at No. 2 in Sports Illustrated’s latest. Which is totally understandable. Calipari has so mastered the art of the reload that we should expect his teams to win at least 25 games, compete for a conference championship and advance deep into the NCAA tournament every year.
But a review of the Wildcats’ run under Calipari suggests this season could be atypically rocky. I used John Gasaway’s possession-minutes, which weigh players’ on-court time and the share of possessions they use, to measure the returning experience of every Kentucky team since Calipari took over. In 2017-18, with every major contributor from 2016-17 gone, the Wildcats will bring back 6.59% of their possession-minutes, the lowest percentage since 2012-13 (6.06), when they posted only 21 wins, watched Nerlens Noel go down with an ACL tear in February and lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.
On the other hand, in 2014-15 Kentucky went 38-1; rung up its largest point differential, when adjusted for strength of schedule, since the 1997 national runner-up squad; and reached the Final Four after returning more than half (59.54%) of its possession-minutes. That team blended a stacked recruiting class led by Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles with valuable returnees like the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein. When assessed in full, the data makes plain that the Wildcats have been at their best when sophomores, juniors or seniors are around to complement esteemed newbies.
The rejoinder from Kentucky fans convinced their favorite program’s next team will be awesome despite its absence of players with a year or more on their college resumes? Look at this recruiting class! Yup, it’s really good: a seven-man haul highlighted by a trio of versatile forwards (Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and P.J. Washington), a rim-protecting big man (Nick Richards) and a shifty, creative lead guard (Quade Green). But this class may not have as big an immediate impact as its remarkable accumulation of star ratings (five five-stars, two four-stars) suggests. What it offers in quality and depth, it may lack in sheer starpower.
I devised a point system based on the preseason projection model created by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn and Dan Hanner, which found entering 2016-17 that over the previous 14 seasons, prospects ranked in the top 10 of the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, a composite incorporating data from several services, became “efficient starters” 76% of the time. The percentage drops off precipitously for freshmen ranked lower in the RSCI. The point total* for Kentucky’s 2017 class accounts for two top-10 recruits: Knox and Diallo, who’ll be a redshirt freshman this season after matriculating for the spring semester.
Even with Diallo lumped in, the 2017 haul falls just short of Kentucky’s 2013 crop (31 points), which was headlined by the Harrison twins and Julius Randle and arrived on campus bathing in “best recruiting class ever” hype. Those prospects were the driving force behind a No. 8 seed surging to the national title game, but by way of comparison, that team also had more help from returnees (Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress) than this one will and it wasn’t nearly as dominant in the regular season as the aforementioned 2014-15 squad, posting a much smaller adjusted point differential and ranking 19 spots lower on Kenpom.com pre-NCAAs.
*When there was insufficient data in the RSCI, the 247Sports Composite was used instead.
Put all of this together, and there’s good reason to at least consider revising downward our projections of what Kentucky can accomplish in 2017-18. Its infusion of freshmen, while undoubtedly promising, probably won’t be enough to override its dearth of battle-tested collegians. What that actually means for the Wildcats, however, is a different conversation. For one, the recruits could outperform SI’s model; perhaps Diallo, in particular, should be appraised more favorably considering he already spent a semester working with the program. Maybe Gabriel or fellow 2016 classmate Sacha Killeya-Jones will make a huge sophomore leap.
Even if none of those things, or nothing else that would elevate Kentucky to a higher level than expected based on talent and experience, it probably won’t fall too far from the winning standard established under Calipari. Another deep tourney run is in play, and the Wildcats should be viewed as the odds-on favorite in the SEC, with Florida needing to replace three of its top four scorers from an Elite Eight outfit and secondary challengers like Alabama and Missouri unequipped to seriously push Kentucky despite the Tigers’ addition of potential top-five draft pick Michael Porter Jr. and the Crimson Tide’s duo of elite recruits (Collin Sexton and John Petty).
The Wildcats will have a clutch of long, rangy forwards to throw at opponents (Vanderbilt, Washington, Gabriel, Knox), an attack-minded off-guard with peerless run-and-jump athleticism (Diallo), a backline eraser to anchor their defense (Richards) and a gifted playmaker and scorer running the show (Green). What may doom Kentucky is an inability to space the floor with three-point threats. Whiffing on Pittsburgh graduate transfer Cameron Johnson (who picked North Carolina instead) hurts in this regard, but Green and incoming four-star guard Jemarl Baker are highly regarded for their deep range, and Killeya-Jones has upside as a shooter.
Set aside the youth, focus on the staggering collection of talent, and it’s easy to buy into Kentucky as a national championship contender. But its recent track record suggests that would be misplaced optimism. The Wildcats will be good. They just probably won’t be that good.