By DeArbea Walker
Many colleges pride themselves on setting up the futures of their students, including those of college athletes.
The University of Kentucky, a dominant Division 1 basketball program that sends players directly to the NBA, has some affiliation with the young talent residing in the Pacific Division.
In the Pacific Division alone, Brandon Knight, DeMarcus Cousins, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Julius Randle are just a few of the most notable Wildcat talent, that has entered the league. The inaugural season to John Calipari’s Big Blue Nation dynasty began with none other than DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings center and Phoenix Suns guard, Eric Bledsoe. While the beginning of this dynasty was developing, an established Kentucky basketball great, Rajon Rondo was one year off of winning his first NBA championship with the Boston Celtics. Rondo made his impact at Kentucky on the defensive end of the ball registering the most steals in school history during the 2004-2005 season.
This is Kentucky were talking about… “The G.O.A.T of Kentucky steals”? During his two seasons at Kentucky, Rondo led the Wildcats to two Elite Eight berths in the NCAA tournament before being upset by Michigan State and UCONN.
Fast forward three seasons later and the next Wildcat Empire was beginning.
Coach Calipari was the Head Coach at the forfront of this upswing. He first received his recognition during his time at UMass and Memphis as he brought two unknown programs into the discussion of the nation’s best. Before his departure from Memphis in 2009, he helped the team make its 5th NCAA tournament appearance in 8 years, but would, unfortunately, lose to top-seeded, Missouri.Embed from Getty Images
“Raise your hands if I ever held you back?” Calipari said. “Without looking DeMarcus Cousins has two hands up.” (via NBA.com, during John Calipari’s Inauguration speech)
Cousins is arguably the best center in the NBA. Last season he averaged a double double, in a league where you don’t see dominant centers. During Kentucky’s run for the national championship during their 2010 season, Cousins averaged a double double, 15 points and 10 rebounds. His dominance night after night is rare especially considering the style he plays. His ability to shoot a fade away jumper and dominate the paint sets him apart.
The Kings’ latest addition, Willie Cauley-Stein, will combine with Cousins to provide a dual threat on Kings’ front line. Cauley-Stein will be the defensive force and Cousins will be the offensive weapon. During Cauley-Stein’s second season as a Wildcat he suffered a leg injury in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Louisville, so he returned for a third season. Taking a quote from the Hall of Fame Coach himself, Coach Calipari, in a system that focuses on “ Making sure, all of your brothers had to eat” Cauley-Stein averaged nine points, six rebounds, and two blocks. His unselfishness has transferred over to his professional game. In the five games he has played during the Kings preseason, Cauley Stein averaged six points, seven rebounds, and one block.
While the Kings have a plethora of former Kentucky basketball standouts, the Suns also have their own former Kentucky superstars.
Brandon Knight was apart of a memorable 2011 Kentucky Class. While he was one year behind the Cousins era and earlier then the memorable Cauley Stein team, the 2011 Wildcat squad had its own superstars. The Wildcats got off to a 12-2 start but would end the regular season 25-8 before entering the NCAA tournament as the fourth seed in the East Region. Knight was an important piece of the Wildcat team during their 2011 Final Four run as the team would beat Ohio State(number one seed) and North Carolina (number two seed) but would eventually end their run in defeat to the UCONN Huskies (number three seed).
Different then his team’s immediate success at the collegiate level, Knight’s teams success has been hard to come by at the professional level. Given the fact Knight is entering his 5th season with his third team, what has happened during his transition period to the NBA? The simple answer would be not the right fit, beginning with the Pistons. The Pistons team were the absolute worst fit. The Bucks was bad timing combined with their need for assets on their team. His new environment in Phoenix, combined with Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin, and Devin Booker will prove to be the ultimate test for the young star. I think this will be his breakout year and it won’t go unnoticed because this has been the best team environment he has been placed into since entering the league. Knight will begin his first full season with the Suns, Wednesday October 28th, at home against the Dallas Mavericks.Embed from Getty Images
The Phoenix Suns backcourt is pure Kentucky bred guards. The latest addition to the Kentucky clan is Devin Booker. Wettest shot and sweetest shooting stroke but occasionally defends positions one through three because of his size at 6’7, Booker was apart of the memorable Kentucky squad that went 38-0 before losing in the NCAA Final Four Semi-Final to Wisconsin 71-64. During his time at Kentucky, Booker was known for his ability to uplift the team coming off the bench with his ability to shoot from long range. Booker shot 41% from three-point range, which is rare, and he is going to a team that struggled in that department last season. His ability to defend the ball was under appreciated but will prove to be a huge asset for the team in a offensive loaded Conference.
Kentucky basketball is the “Now” program…The program that everyone wants to be apart of …The program to beat…especially when it comes to grooming professional NBA talent. Currently, the Wildcats have 21 players in the NBA, with five drafted in the 2015 NBA draft. The NBA Pacific Division young stars (minus the, Warriors and Clippers) were former Wildcat standouts during their runs to the final four. Devin Booker and Willie Callie Stein are the new wave of Kentucky stars getting their feet wet in a league that is welcoming of Wildcat talent. With no potential of becoming a “bust,” Booker and Callie-Stein have the ability to make an immediate impact on their team.
The Western Conference top six teams are defined and clear but outside of those spots the door is wide open for the Kings and Suns to make the postseason this year. These young stars are going to teams that were last place in their respective specialties, shooting and defense. This will be a season to watch for the Suns and Kings as Big Blue Nation will be front and center.