Kentucky had 22 players in the NBA this season, more than any other college program, and is expected to add at least three more names -- possibly four -- by the time Thursday night's draft concludes in Brooklyn, N.Y.
UK head coach John Calipari says he's gotten strong feedback from NBA coaches and general managers on Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere, Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress as they enter the next chapter of their basketball careers.
“It’s an exciting time for these kids and their families," Calipari said during a pre-draft teleconference Tuesday. "I think as this thing all winds down, my hope is they’ve just performed in a way that they put themselves in a great position.
"I’ve talked to a bunch of teams about the kids, and one of the things is they’ve really enjoyed (is) the conversations, the meetings, the interviews that they’ve had with all of the kids. The comment that comes back is, ‘Wow, great guys.' And that includes Isaiah (Briscoe), who they really thought knocked it out of the park with all of the interviews he did."
The other consistent piece of feedback, Calipari noted, is that scouts know UK players come with a mindset to win. The Wildcats won 65 games spanning the last two seasons of college basketball.
"One of the GMs said to me, ‘The great things is your kids come with that attitude that they want to win, and they’re willing to be a great teammate to win.’ That’s what I’m hoping is that last gift they get from us before they walk in that league, that they have an idea of winning and playing to win," Calipari said.
Kentucky has produced 19 first-round picks during Calipari's previous six seasons in Lexington. Murray and Labissiere are expected to make that at least 21. Both freshmen are projected as lottery picks by almost every notable mock draft. Ulis could make it 22, but the All-American point guard's status is a little more clouded due to his 5-foot-9 frame and reports of a lingering hip injury that could drop him into the second round.
Asked about Ulis' health going into the draft, Calipari said: "You watched him all year. Did it look like he had a hip injury? So, there may be something structurally that they’re seeing that I don’t know about, but I just can’t believe it. … The kid played every game, played 38 minutes a game, was defensive player of the year, was the energy of our team, and he went all year with it."
Calipari conceded that he loves his players to be drafted as high as possible, but believes it could actually help Ulis to be taken by a better organization late in the draft. The San Antonio Spurs have been linked to his name this week.
"If he could ever play with the Spurs and that organization, I would do a backflip on draft day," Calipari said. "And the reason is, you’re around true professionals who are teammates that understand, what do we all have to do to win and how winning supersedes everything else. It’s amazing what gets done when no one cares who gets the credit. That saying has the Spurs logo beside it."
Another question mark is Poythress, a 6-foot-8 forward who played his senior season after having major knee surgery, but never quite regained the overall athleticism he had displayed previously. That appears to be changing with recent workouts leading up to the draft. Poythress' stock is reportedly on the rise and has played him in a position to be taken in the second round.
Even at less-than-full strength, he averaged 10.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a senior, highlighted by a 25-point effort against Alabama.
"These teams are calling me back, like, saying he’s gotten healthy, he has leg strength on both sides, which some of that falls on us where he was probably injured more than we thought throughout this year," the UK boss said. "But shooting (well) and all that. All of a sudden, he becomes that solid second round (pick) – maybe he slips late first."
Murray appears to be the surest thing among the Cats' four draft hopefuls. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard, who led UK in scoring at 20.0 points per game this season and broke numerous program and SEC 3-point shooting records, has been widely projected between picks three and seven.
Said Calipari: "I believe that Jamal Murray will be the leading scoring rookie in the NBA. That’s what I believe."
He has previously touted Murray as a player who should receive consideration for the top pick, which belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers. They are expected to go with LSU's Ben Simmons, but have reportedly been impressed with Murray during the scouting process.
Picks two through seven belong to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, the Phoenix Suns, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Denver Nuggets.
Labissiere, a 6-foot-11 center, is being projected toward the end of the lottery, in the 11-14 range.
The native of Haiti had an inconsistent season with UK, averaging 6.6 ponts and 3.1 rebounds per game despite entering the college ranks as the No. 1 prospect in many scouts' eyes, but has impressed the pros with his enormous raw potential.
“People would look at Skal and say, ‘Well, he had a disappointing year,'" Calipari said. "No he didn’t. No, he didn’t. We all had to look at where he started and then where he finished. The best thing that they like about Skal right now: He never gave up. He did not quit. It was extremely hard, and he finished at his best.
"They’re working him out now and they’re looking at Skal saying, ‘He’s 7-foot tall. This kid is a good athlete. He can shoot.’ It’s huge in the NBA that you can make shots now. He can make perimeter shots. They are even calling me saying, ‘You know what? He’s more physical around the basket than we even thought he was.’ Now, you may say he didn’t show a lot of that in the year. A lot of that’s on me. I was trying to use the blueprint of Karl Towns and Anthony Davis. Guess what? That lesson plan didn’t fit him. It took me three months to figure out exactly what he was."
Labissiere had an 18-point, nine-rebound game against LSU and Simmons late in the season. He also had a pair of six-block games in March.