For a dozen consecutive seasons, one of John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski has had a top six-pick in the NBA Draft. It began back in 2008 when Derrick Rose was selected No. 1 overall and has continued through last June when Zion Williamson went first and R.J. Barrett third.
The Streak is in serious jeopardy.
Cal and K have owned college basketball, especially when it comes to high-end talent. Sure, they have missed on guys (they can’t get them all) like Andrew Wiggins (2013), Ben Simmons (2015), Markelle Fultz (2016) and freshman James Wiseman, who opted for Memphis over UK.
However, there have been nine times in the past 12 years (Duke didn’t have one in 2008, ’10 and ’13) both coaches boasted at least one lottery pick. In four of the past five years, both Cal and K have each had multiple lottery selections. From 2008-19, Calipari coached 22 lottery selections and K produced 14.
When you get a first glimpse at both teams Tuesday night in the Champions Classic, they’ll still have their fair share of McDonald’s All-Americans and no shortage of overall talent. Kentucky has five; Duke boasts four. But the high-end NBA talent just isn’t on either roster as has been the case in the past.
There’s no D-Rose, no John Wall, Boogie or AD for Kentucky. There’s no Kyrie, no Jayson Tatum, no Marvin Bagley or Zion on this Duke roster.
These two teams look more like teams.
This could be the first time in a dozen years that neither Cal or K has a lottery pick.
“If the draft were today, which it obviously isn’t, I don’t think I’d take anyone on either roster in the lottery,” one high-level NBA executive told me. “And I’d be shocked if anyone from either team goes in the top five or six.”
“It’s fluid, but if had to answer today, I’d say no,” added another NBA exec said when asked whether there’s a lottery pick on either team.
That’s not to say there might not be a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on one of the rosters, a guy who wasn’t considered a one-and-done, yet shot up team draft boards throughout the season and wound up being taken in the back end of the lottery. No one expected Luke Kennard to be selected with the 12th pick after just two seasons.
But the NBA folks who have made their way through Lexington and Durham have come away unimpressed thus far.
“It’s just not the same,” one scout told me.
“Doesn’t look like Duke and Kentucky,” another said.
That doesn’t mean someone won’t play their way into the lottery, but the NBA guys are desperately trying to figure out which player will shoot up their board.
Ask a handful of guys, and you’ll get five different answers as to who the top prospect is on either roster: Duke’s skilled freshman forward Matthew Hurt (Scout: “He can shoot it, but he needs to get stronger and he can’t guard anyone.”), Kentucky’s athletic wing Khalil Whitney (Scout: “He plays hard, but isn’t the most skilled guy.”), the Wildcats’ freshman combo guard Tyrese Maxey (Scout: “He can score, but can he shoot? If he can’t, what is he?”), Duke’s versatile wing Wendell Moore (Scout: “We love guys who do one thing great. He’s a good all-around player, but doesn’t do anything great.”), maybe even Duke’s athletic forward Cassius Stanley (“Scout: I’ve seen him multiple times and he’s looked great at times, and he’s been bad other times. I don’t know what to think of him.”).
None of the NBA guys show any optimism for UK’s frontline duo of E.J. Montgomery or Nick Richards. In fact, they talk more about Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina due to his ability to stretch the floor and run the court. Duke’s Vernon Carey was a big-time recruit, but he’s a below-the-rim big man who might have been a lottery pick a decade ago and will be fortunate to be a first-rounder in 2020.
“Neither have good top-end classes … as of today,” one NBA general manager said. “And I just don’t see either team having a guy go in the top half of the lottery. Maybe they can get a guy into the lottery, but I’m not even sure who that is right now. None of them look the part.”
But let’s face it: The best players on Duke and Kentucky will get no shortage of hype.
The good news for Duke fans? The last Blue Devils team that didn’t have a lottery pick was the one with five guys in double-figures back in 2012-13 that went 30-6 and lost to eventual national champion Louisville in the Elite Eight. That team had just one first-round pick in Mason Plumlee, but Seth Curry and Quinn Cook have carved out NBA careers after going undrafted.
That was the same season when Calipari and the ‘Cats went to the NIT with his least-talented roster since coming to Lexington a decade ago. Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury after 24 games, but Kentucky was struggling with the defensive-minded big man. It was a team that had Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays in the backcourt, and one on which Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress were the team’s leading scorers.
Duke’s recruiting class this year still checked in at No. 1 overall and Kentucky’s was third in the country, according to ESPN. Calipari has been in the top three in recruiting rankings every single year he’s been at Kentucky and Duke’s class has been ranked either first or second for the past seven seasons.
But these two programs and these two coaches are measured by Final Four appearances and ultimately by national championships. K won the national title in 2015, but that’s also the only Final Four appearance he’s made since 2010. Calipari won it all in 2012, but hasn’t gone to the Final Four each of the past four seasons.
UK and Duke will have a different look and feel this season, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing for Big Blue Nation and the Cameron Crazies that are hoping to raise another banner instead of churning out lottery picks.