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Kentucky has officially thrown its hat in the ring regarding NIL laws, as Gov. Andy Beshear announced Thursday he has issued an executive order that will require all colleges in the state to allow athletes to capitalize off their name, image and likeness starting July 1.
It's a ruling that undoubtedly helps the University of Kentucky in terms of future recruiting efforts across all sports, but more specifically, it's an immediate game-changer for the basketball program this summer. You truly couldn't ask for better timing, honestly.
Kentucky is set to host 2022 five-star center Jalen Duren, arguably the most sought-after player in all of high school basketball, on an official visit next week. Standing 6-10, 235 pounds, the nation's No. 1 overall prospect is ready to step on a college basketball floor and make an impact right away, leading to strong speculation that a reclassification is not only on the table, but the expectation. The standout big recently told KSR he had three official visits scheduled to Miami (FL), Memphis and Kentucky and was planning to announce his decision at the end of the summer, another indication that a jump to 2021 is in the works.
His trip to Miami took place back on June 14-15 and he's currently in the process of wrapping up his official visit to Memphis. His trip to Kentucky is scheduled for next week, the last college visit Duren has planned at this time.
Conveniently enough, the five-star center's trip to Lexington comes right in the midst of NIL rules being implemented, meaning Duren would be able to legally make money on a college campus next season. The professional option is no longer his only path to making a profit while playing basketball. And now that it isn't, Kentucky now has the strongest pitch among all remaining options on Duren's list.
The 6-10 center is officially down to 11 options, with Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Miami (FL), Memphis, Michigan, Penn State, UCLA and Villanova left standing among college programs, along with the G League and National Basketball League (NBL) being included among professional options. Sources have told KSR throughout the month of June, though, that Kentucky, Miami and Memphis have firmly solidified themselves as the top college options in his recruitment, while the G League and NBL continue to make pushes with offers in excess of $1 million for the projected top draft selection.
When it comes to his final decision, though, Duren isn't prioritizing money the way other high-profile recruits have in the past. Instead, he values player development.
"I don’t really look at the money too much, I’m not really a flashy guy who really needs the money," Duren told KSR. "People automatically think, ‘oh, they’re going to offer money, so he’s going to go there.’ I don’t think like that. It’s really about development for me, I try to preach that a lot. ... When I look at the money aspect, it’s not really about that for me. I don’t care too much about it. I mean, it’s good to have, but it’s not going to make the decision for me."
With NIL rules now set to go through starting July 1, Kentucky is now able to offer both money opportunities and player development, immediately pushing John Calipari's pitch to the top of the list among competitors. And the UK head coach knows it.
"No one should be able to do it better for men’s basketball than our program," Calipari said back in May. "Two years ago, TV-wise, our ratings before the pandemic would have ranked fourth in the NBA – Golden State, the Lakers, Cleveland with LeBron (James) – would have been above our ratings. So, all the social media stuff and all the stuff we do, and we can do, in my mind it should be the best in the country."
Calipari's top assistants are aware of how significant new NIL opportunities can and will be for the program. It will allow student-athletes to market themselves on college basketball's greatest stage.
“For us at Kentucky, we understand how big a platform and how big of a brand we have, especially in college basketball," assistant coach Jai Lucas told KSR. "So for someone who really wants the opportunity to enhance their brand on the biggest market, we feel that’s what we are and what we have to offer. ... We feel like with what we have and how many times we’re on TV and stuff like that, it’s something we should really be able to use.”
“We talk about it every day as a staff and I can tell you right now, there is no one on top of it more than Coach Cal. No one, I promise you,” assistant coach Chin Coleman added. "He’s spending 27 hours a day on trying to understand all of the NIL stuff, whatever it relates to; crypto, NFTs, and all of that stuff.”
While he didn't name specific programs, Duren told KSR that schools are already laying out the blueprint in their respective pitches factoring in NIL, with branding and marketing being a key topic of conversation. Again, though, it's not just about the money he can make in one year at any one school or professional pathway, this is a 10- to 15-year decision.
"As people learn more and more about it, coaches are starting to show me their plan about how they’d be able to market me and brand me," said Duren. "Like I said, the money is cool, but it’s not really a big thing for me. If someone offered me this much and someone else offered me a different amount, it’s not like I’m just going to go here because it was more money.
"... Everyone I talk to whether it’s pro or college, it’s about how they’re going to develop me."
If player development is the biggest priority, how do you look at Calipari's track record with big men and pass on that opportunity? Between the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns, Bam Adebayo, PJ Washington and Nick Richards, there's not another program in college basketball that comes close to Kentucky's track record. No offense to Memphis, Miami (FL) and the other college programs on Duren's list, but the proof is in the pudding. Davis, Cousins, Towns, Randle and Adebayo alone have combined for 16 All-Star appearances and eight All-NBA selections, and that's not even accounting for the $842 million combined career (and future) earnings between the five of them.
Is the current roster the most appealing for Duren? On paper, certainly not. Kentucky has Oscar Tshiebwe, Keion Brooks Jr., Jacob Toppin, Daimion Collins, Lance Ware and Bryce Hopkins filling the frontcourt as things stand now. Adding the five-star center would give UK seven scholarship players to fill two positions, making minutes and shots incredibly difficult to spread evenly. On the surface, it'd be much easier for Duren to go to Memphis or Miami and put up monster numbers in 35-plus minutes per game en route to a top-five draft selection in 2022.
This is, however, assuming Duren is scared off by competition or cares about inflating his numbers in a one-and-done season before making the quick jump to the NBA. Thing is, that's not how he operates, and it's why there's growing optimism inside the Kentucky basketball program that they can pull off the late surprise.
Quickly establishing himself as the most physically imposing prospect in the nation - he's looked like he was built in a factory since he entered the high school ranks - Duren has put it upon himself to expand his game as a shooter, passer, ball handler and defender. He's not just a lob-catcher and shot-blocker anymore, the 6-10 center is working to have an all-around game that will allow him to dominate all over the floor, not just inside the paint. That's why development is so important in his recruiting pitch and why the short-term money isn't a significant worry for him when it comes to making his next move.
"I’m just talking with everyone and seeing what’s best for me, seeing where my game will develop and where I can grow as a person, too," Duren told KSR. "It’s not just about basketball, it’s about who I am as a person and getting better all around."
Interestingly enough, personal growth of student-athletes was the focus of Calipari's statement following the announcement of Beshear's executive order on Thursday. It won't just be about earning money with NIL opportunities, practicing and developing against elite competition or playing on college basketball's biggest stage, it'll be about growing as a person, as well.
“We are entering into an exciting age in college athletics. At the University of Kentucky, we have always put student-athletes first and today’s executive order by Gov. Andy Beshear – who I want to thank for making this a priority – will empower universities across the state to support their young men and women better than ever," Calipari said. "Whether we are talking about name, image and likeness, lifetime scholarships, financial literacy, health and wellness, or player welfare, student-athletes have been at the center of every decision at Kentucky.
"With today’s announcement, we continue to take positive steps forward in supporting our student-athletes to an even greater degree statewide. They deserve our time, effort and resources in making sure they have the opportunities to benefit from the hard work they put into their athletic and educational careers. As we wait on federal legislation, our program will continue to support, elevate and educate our kids.”
Duren is aiming for an announcement before the end of summer, but doesn't have a specific timeline or target date as of now. He'll know where he wants to play at the next level when the time comes, and when that feeling hits, he'll go public with his decision.
"For me, I’m not one of those guys who is going to wait just to wait," he told KSR. "If I know where I want to go, I’m going to announce it. I’m just weighing all my options and figuring out what’s best for me."
Kentucky will have its shot to convince him when he heads to Lexington next week.