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Kentucky's 'brilliant relationship' with the NBA isn't going anywhere under Mark Pope

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim06/18/24

There was a love-hate relationship between Kentucky fans and the NBA under John Calipari, certainly by the end of his 15-year run in Lexington. When things were rolling, Big Blue Nation loved watching Wildcat stars ‘succeed and proceed’ to the league, turning those brilliant one-and-done memories into career-long support. Things got tricky, though, when the NBA factory kept churning forward as postseason success stalled. Was it more important to count draft picks and pro salaries or hang banners? It’s fun to do both, not so much when there’s a heavy emphasis on the former and none on the latter.

How will things look moving forward under new head coach Mark Pope, who has said from day one there is nothing more important than bringing No. 9 to Lexington? Ideally, nothing will change in terms of pro production — that level of talent helps you win games. What is done with that talent, though, is what Pope will help decide.

If done correctly, Kentucky’s relationship with the NBA will remain strong.

“That’s been a mainstay of Kentucky basketball since the beginning of time,” Pope said of the NBA. “My senior season when we won the national championship, we had nine guys on that team go on and play at least seven years in the NBA. Nine! That’s 75 percent if my math is right.

“This brilliant relationship between Kentucky basketball and the NBA is something that has been really, really longstanding and it’s a vital, important part. It’s the manifestation of the success we have here.”

Pope’s debut roster at Kentucky may not be loaded with one-and-dones — unless you want to count the seven super seniors with one final season of eligibility remaining. Moving forward, though, he has made it clear he plans to bring in “one-and-done burger boys, for sure” to play alongside multi-year prospects and incoming transfers. He’s stuck with that promise by offering and recruiting some of the best players in high school basketball, starting all the way at the top in 2025 No. 1 overall prospect AJ Dybantsa, who will be visiting Kentucky later this fall.

Seasons won’t be won and lost when the final team recruiting rankings are released each offseason, but the plan is to continue using the endless resources made available in Lexington to bring in the nation’s best talent, players who fit together under Pope.

If you can help the Wildcats win games, you have a spot waiting for you in blue and white.

“When you see teams win and win at the highest level, it’s because they have great players and it’s because their players become great. Great players, players who become great, they have a chance to go on and continue to play (in the NBA),” Pope said. “Our relationship with the NBA, if we do our job well and our guys do their jobs well, it’s going to continue in massive earnest just like it did with (Coach) Cal and Tubby (Smith) and Coach (Rick Pitino) and Joe B. (Hall).

“Hopefully we’ll continue that, it’s a really important part of what we do.”

The NBA Draft may not be “the biggest day in Kentucky basketball history” any longer, but it’s still going to be an important event for the program under Pope year after year.

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