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An NBA exec weighs in on the draft prospects of Kentucky's players

Aaron Torres01/21/21

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Article written by:On3 imageAaron Torres
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<small>(via The Athletic)<small>
[caption id="attachment_312385" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] (via The Athletic)[/caption] It's no secret that this has been one of the most frustrating seasons in recent Kentucky basketball history. One which started with so much promise sees the Wildcats sitting at 4-9, with seemingly no idea how to get things fixed. The team is poorly constructed with a roster full of guards who struggle to make players, a lack of shooters and an overabundance of big men. Most importantly, the guys who were projected to NBA players haven't played like it. That isn't a knock on young men trying to figure things out, but instead, just a reality. As John Calipari says "I can't hide you at Kentucky." And while the light is shining on the entire team, the light appears brightest on the freshmen stars which were supposed to save Kentucky. Instead, they've struggled just like everyone else. And because of it, it also raises an interesting question: With so many players struggling, are any of them deemed actual, NBA Draft prospects at this point? It's a question many fans have asked about, so I decided to call up a friend who works in an NBA team's front office to ask him point blank: Do Kentucky's freshmen stars have any actual NBA value left? The answers might surprise you. Below are his scouting reports on each of Kentucky's three projected one-and-done players, as well as a fourth player who has caught the NBA's eye. Obviously out of respect to him (and the fact that he isn't allowed to discuss players publicly) I have left out his name and team affiliation. It's also worth noting that this is solely one person's opinion. It doesn't represent the entire league or even his own individual organization. Still, I wanted honest, unvarnished truth about Kentucky's NBA Draft prospects, and this exec gave it to me. Here are his thoughts on Kentucky's NBA Draft prospects:

How Covid has impacted Kentucky and college basketball as a whole

Before we even began discussing Kentucky specifically, the NBA exec wanted me to pass along the message that he has heard from many people across basketball, and frankly a message that I myself have tried to deliver to all my readers, podcast listeners and followers on Twitter: That this pandemic has made it really hard for young, inexperienced teams. Maybe none more so than Kentucky. To be clear, that's not an excuse for what is happening. But the limitations of this pandemic have hurt the development of a lot of players and college basketball programs who simply were not able to prepare for the season the way they normally do. Not to mention that even with the season underway, there are constant starts, stops and interruptions which impact chemistry and the ability to build momentum throughout the year. It has especially hurt Kentucky, where the roster was essentially brand new, and the only returning player spent a bunch of time early on the sidelines with an injury. "The thing that's being swept under the rug is that a lot of freshmen are going through this," the NBA exec said. "So like, it's not just Kentucky's freshman. It's just that Kentucky is more reliant on freshmen. It's very pandemic driven with no full off-season, no scrimmages, no easy cupcake games and then once you get going, then you have Covid disrupting things. So [some programs have to deal with] a 10-day pause here, games canceled there." Again, that's not to excuse what is to happen at Kentucky. But it does also help explain things. And it's not as though Kentucky is alone. Duke and North Carolina are both struggling to implement talented new pieces, and even a school like Michigan State (which brought back three starters from last year's Big Ten title winning team) is sitting at just 2-4 in Big Ten play. The NBA exec also noted that it wasn't only Kentucky's freshmen specifically who are struggling. Without being overly critical of 18-year-old kids who are all trying to figure things out on the fly, this exec mentioned how someone like North Carolina guard Caleb Love has had trouble adjusting to college, averaging just 10 points per game, but with more assists than turnovers (he is coming off his best game of the season on Wednesday night however). Same with Kansas wing Bryce Thompson, who many saw as a potential one-and-done candidate, but is averaging just five points, in 10 games this season. He has also missed time with injury. Ultimately, it doesn't make things any better or easier at Kentucky. But there are legitimate reasons for the freshmen's struggles. Now, let's get to individual players.

BJ Boston 

BJ Boston has seemingly taken more scorn than anyone at Kentucky this season. To be clear, I'm not implying that some of it isn't warranted, as Calipari continues to roll out Boston even though he is not producing, with Boston's shot selection especially poor. He is averaging a team-best 12 points per game, but it has also come on by far the most field goal attempts on Kentucky (161- the next closest is 113) while shooting just 35 percent from the field and 17 percent from three. The struggles led to the Athletic's Sam Vecenie essentially declaring publicly this weekend, that he no longer views Boston as a viable candidate for the 2021 NBA Draft. https://twitter.com/Sam_Vecenie/status/1350553019675406337 https://twitter.com/Sam_Vecenie/status/1350554444182654981 To Boston's credit, he is coming off maybe his best game in a Kentucky uniform on Wednesday night with 18 points on 9 of 17 shooting from the field. That performance might have been (hopefully) a preview of things to come. It also explains why Boston has continued to play the way he has so far in his time in Lexington. "He takes bad shots, but he's made those tough shots in the past," the exec said. Beyond that though - and I know many people reading will be surprised by this - despite his struggles, Boston still has legitimate NBA Draft stock. Yes, his stock has taken a big hit. But he has skills at his size that you simply can't teach. And in an NBA where there is always going to be a shortage of skilled and athletic, 6'7 and 6'8 wings, someone will take a flier on Boston if (and almost certainly "when") he declares. "As crazy as it sounds, he's still a legitimate NBA prospect for 2021, and not just an NBA Draft prospect, but a first round guy," the exec said. "One, because he's just so talented. And two, the value in guys in his mold and three, there's a lacking depth once you get past the top seven or eight guys in this class." The exec pointed out that even with Boston's stock falling, someone will likely be incentivized to take him in the middle of the first round and hope to develop him for down the road. Yes, the lottery is probably out of the question, at least right now. But once you get out of the lottery, you're dealing with playoff caliber teams who don't need rookies to come in and contribute right away. And someone will likely take a flier and hope to develop him. "If you're picking No. 18, 20, 21, it means you're a playoff contending team," the exec said. "So you add a BJ Boston to a playoff contender who can be a little more patient with him, and hope that in year two, year three, year four, he can be really good." It might not what a Kentucky fan expected to hear, but this exec still believes Boston has value to someone in the league.

Terrence Clarke

Next up is Terrence Clarke, who at certain points in his high school career was ranked as both the highest-rated recruit in Kentucky's current class, and also, their best long-term NBA Draft prospect. Now however, his NBA Draft prospects are a bit more volatile than Boston's for a few different reasons. The first is the mysterious ankle injury that has kept Clarke out of Kentucky's last six games. Because Kentucky keeps injuries close to the vest, no one is quite sure what to make of it. Is the injury - which has sidelined Clarke since before Christmas - that bad? Why is it taking so long to heal? Meanwhile, some are asking the opposite: Is Clarke milking it, because he (or his inner circle) is afraid his draft stock is slipping, and didn't want to be exposed further at the college level? To be clear, neither myself or the NBA exec is saying that is definitely what has happened, or is accusing Clarke of anything malicious. But these are questions that are being asked.  Couple that with some shaky high school intel on Clarke's work ethic and attitude and it's leading to again, very volatile draft positioning for Clarke. "Is that a legitimate injury, or is there something more to it?" the exec wondered. "And he already didn't start off on solid footing because of some shaky intel. And you have potentially those same issues popping up at Kentucky. Now, if it is a serious ankle injury [that's a different conversation]." Still, what can't be denied is that the talent is there. In Clarke's defense, he was actually more productive than Boston when he was on the court and also showed the most diverse skill-set on the team. While he wasn't great when asked to handle the ball, John Calipari still trusted him to run the point. And he was hitting nearly 43 percent from behind the three-point line when he played. Ultimately however, there is no real way to evaluate Clarke, or his NBA Draft prospects, until we see him back in action. "When he returns, how does he look?" the exec said. "And how he looks is definitely going either enhance or hurt his draft standing, as a lottery potential guy, or someone who might fall out of the first round."

Isaiah Jackson 

Man, oh man. What can you say about Isaiah Jackson that already hasn't been said? Early on he was the guy that seemed to be vastly underrated in the NBA's eyes, someone who at 6'9 or 6'10 had elite athleticism and an uncanny knack for blocking shots on the defensive end. https://twitter.com/KySportsRadio/status/1330001059511742467 Then the season started, and he quickly came back down to Earth. That size and athleticism is still there, but his basketball savvy seems to be lacking. He's shooting just 43 percent from the floor (a relatively low number for a guy who spends so much time close to the basket) and hasn't attempted a three-pointer all season. In a world where basketball is becoming more "position-less" by the year, that's not ideal. Nor is his knack for picking up bad fouls, which is limiting him to just 20 minutes played per game. It's something the NBA folks have noticed as well. "He's been up and down," the exec said. "He's the guy who drew all the rave reviews in the lead-up to the season. And he had two or three games this year where he looks like a potential Top 10 draft pick, and other games where he looks like he needs to go back to college for another two or three years." He continued. "So it's about finding that middle ground with him. It's also about figuring out the intel on him, but he's 6'9, 6'10, run and jump athletes that can block shots like that and defend all over the floor, they're hard to come by."

What's next?

If you've read the previous 1,500 words (or actually watched any Kentucky games) it's clear that none of these guys have cemented themselves in the eyes of NBA scouts. Which is what makes the next few weeks so interesting for all three. They all have NBA aspirations, and right now, they're largely not doing anything to help them. Still, that doesn't mean they can't help themselves over the remainder of the college hoops season. Not just by actually playing better (which would certainly help) but by doing the little things needed to help turn the team around. "One, is effort," the exec said. "You can't let your lack of production statistically impact how hard you play. But the next part is, run your own race. It takes some guys much longer to come into your own as a college basketball player and as an NBA prospect." The exec pointed out a number of current college players (most notably Florida's Tre Mann) who did not have the freshman year they expected last year, decided to return, and helped their draft prospects in the process. That's not to say that the players can or will decide to return. But depending on the player, and how the next few weeks go, it's something that all three should consider.

Finally, it's not all bad news

Let's end this article on a positive note, and there was one when I asked the exec one final question: We knew that Boston, Clarke and Jackson were deemed the team's best NBA Draft prospects coming into the season. But has anyone else played themselves into consideration? The answer was "yes" and that player was Jacob Toppin. To be clear, we're talking about Toppin as a long-term NBA prospect. No one is saying that he should declare this year, or would get drafted if he did. But considering that most believed he wouldn't even play this season at all, he has impressed with his energy and elite athleticism. It doesn't hurt that his older brother was a late bloomer who - much like Jacob - went from vastly underrecruited in high school to an NBA lottery pick this fall. "Think about it, this is a guy who wasn't even supposed to be playing right now," the exec said. "So what does he look like with an off-season, when he returns next year. Especially if, Isaiah Jackson, BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke are no longer there, along with Olivier Sarr and Davion Mintz. He's definitely going to have a chance to reassert himself as 'the guy.'" That's a long way down the road, but hey, in a season like this, we need any positivity we can get, right?

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2022-10-03