Remaining player decisions a reckoning for Calipari's system

Mrs. Tyler Thompsonover 3 years

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It’s been nine years since John Calipari took the job at Kentucky, and for the first time, fans have a legitimate reason to question his system. Oddly enough, the concerns don’t center around one-and-dones, but rather the players who aren’t successful enough to get drafted after one year and feel the need to leave Lexington anyways. For a fanbase that bought in to Calipari’s methods even though it meant saying goodbye to its biggest and brightest stars so soon, having to watch guys leave that should stay is a very tough pill to swallow.

This reckoning lies in the balance of four players’ decisions: Quade Green, PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel, and Jarred Vanderbilt. Let’s start with Quade, who is reportedly considering transferring after losing his starting spot to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander this past season. Yesterday, Calipari met with Quade to encourage him to stay at Kentucky and assure him he’s not being pushed out, but you can see how Quade might think that. Not only did Quade get moved to the two guard midseason — not his natural spot — Calipari suddenly started going after a bunch of five-star guards who could reclassify to join an already guard-heavy roster this fall. It’s only natural that Quade would be concerned; in fact, a good segment of the fanbase has been blasting Cal for pushing him out. Fortunately, as Calipari told Quade yesterday, that doesn’t seem to be the case, but for a coach who is incredibly loyal to his players (remember how loyal he was to the Harrison Twins during the platoon year?), it required some damage control.

The decision that faces Quade is a big one: stay at Kentucky, fight for playing time, and likely end up playing the two guard if Ashton Haggans and/or Tyrese Maxey reclassifies, or transfer, sit out a year, and get a fresh start somewhere else. To a lesser extent, Sacha Killeya-Jones faced the same dilemma and decided to cut bait. Kentucky needs a veteran guard next year (we saw how much it hurt not to have one this year); Quade can fill that void, but could very well decide not to, making this a crucial crossroads for the program.

Similarly, there are rumblings that PJ Washington is leaning towards staying in the draft in lieu of a sophomore year, which would be a mistake. Right now, Washington is a second round pick — maybe first round with a monster performance at the combine — but with another year at Kentucky, he could be a first round pick, especially in what will be a weak draft. Washington and his family know that, but the dream of the NBA is hard to pass up, especially when three of your teammates are on their way. If PJ really is leaning towards staying in the draft, it only furthers my concerns that guys who don’t get drafted after one year feel like failures, which sometimes leads to poor decisions. If PJ comes back, he would be an integral piece to what could be a national championship contending roster. No one else brings to the table what he does in terms of bullying his way to the basket, and his competitive nature and toughness could be the backbone the team needs to make a run. Hopefully, Washington will take the advice he gets at the combine to heart. Knowing him and his family, I believe he will.

Wenyen Gabriel also declared for the draft, and the fact that he hasn’t signed with an agent yet was the best news we could get yesterday. Unlike PJ, Wenyen wouldn’t be drafted this year, but is prepared to explore a pro career in the G-League or overseas regardless. Like PJ, Kentucky would be much better if Wenyen was on the roster. Not only do you have a rare contributing junior, you have an experienced energy guy to come off the bench and pick up the freshmen when they inevitably revert. The question for Wenyen is, how much better could he get with one more year at Kentucky? Calipari obviously feels he can help Wenyen’s game more, but is it worth risking injury and being able to immediately help your family? Basically, can Calipari get Wenyen drafted if he stays one more year?

The mystery piece in all of this is Jarred Vanderbilt, who will likely have surgery for the foot/ankle issue that held him out at the end of the season. Because of that, Vanderbilt wouldn’t be able to participate in the combine, making his chances of getting drafted even slimmer. Because of that, he will likely be back, but we haven’t heard anything from Vanderbilt or Kentucky about it, not even whispers. Maybe he and his family don’t even feel the need to confirm he’s coming back, but given the unsettled landscape, it’s natural to worry.

In Jarred’s case, we’ll know by Sunday night, the deadline for players to declare for the draft. Assuming he doesn’t, PJ and Wenyen will have until May 30 to decide whether to stay in the draft or return to school, meaning we’ve got another month of speculating and worrying ahead. Quade’s decision could come much sooner, but if Ashton Hagans truly won’t know whether he can reclassify or not until July or August, we may not know until the Bahamas trip who will be on this team and who won’t.

John Calipari’s one-and-done system has produced some of the best basketball in Kentucky’s long and storied history; however, if the kids who should stay don’t, it shows its first signs of failure.

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2021-09-17

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