Going into the 2020-21 season, Kentucky freshman guard Brandon Boston Jr. was seen as the team’s can’t-miss, surefire superstar, one that would likely finish the season leading the team on a deep NCAA Tournament run en route to a top-five draft selection.
Unfortunately for both Boston and the Wildcats, the five-star prospect’s freshman campaign has not lived up to the preseason hype, averaging just 12.0 points on 36.0% shooting and 30.3% from three to go with 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.4 steals per contest. He’s had his moments – 21 points vs. South Carolina, 17 points vs. Auburn, 17 points vs. Arkansas, 18 points vs. LSU, 18 points at Georgia, 20 points vs. Richmond, 15 points vs. Morehead State – but Boston’s consistent shooting struggles have resulted in the former potential top-five draft selection’s stock to fall well outside the lottery, with a few outlets even dropping him down to the second round of their latest mock drafts.
Even considering the struggles and inconsistencies, most assumed Boston’s original plan to be a one-and-done was still the certainty it once was leading up to his time in Lexington, all the way up until Kentucky’s blowout victory over South Carolina in the regular season finale. Following what many believed to be Boston’s last home game at Rupp Arena as a Wildcat – and it was a good one, too, finishing with 21 points on 7-13 shooting and 6-10 from three to go with four rebounds, three assists and one steal – John Calipari turned heads by hinting that the former five-star prospect may actually be on a two-year plan.
When asked about Boston’s struggles and late-season turnaround, the UK head coach compared his situation to Immanuel Quickley and PJ Washington, players who decided to come back for a second season looking to prove they’re capable of getting better.
“He’s never lost the fight. This stuff has been hard for him. And it’s also eye-opening to know as an individual player, man, physically, this is — I’m not where I need to be physically,” Calipari said. “We’ve had other guys, it’s like Immanuel Quickley. Immanuel Quickley walked in my office and said, ‘Coach I know you said this would be hard.’ This is after his freshman year. ‘This is way harder than I thought and I didn’t have a good year. But I’m coming back and you watch. No one will outwork me.’ Those are the guys that should come back. That mentality. PJ Washington. That mentality. I’m not coming back to do showtime. I’m not coming back to say, ‘Hey, this is my team.’ I am coming back because I’m going to get better and I can accept that I didn’t play the way I needed to play. And this is way harder than I thought.”
He took it a step further by confirming he will encourage his players to test the NBA Draft waters, but may not like what they hear from scouts. And if the feedback isn’t good, they “can’t be delusional” about where they are as players.
“I like when kids go through the process because the teams aren’t going to lie to them. They’re going to tell them the truth. Going through the process is good,” he said. “Whether it’s any of these guys. You can’t be delusional because if you are, it’ll catch you. You have to be real and you can’t blame anybody for your performance. You own it. And then you say, here’s what I can do and how I can get better.”
On the surface, the idea of a player of Boston’s caliber and prior status as a top-ten prospect and potential top-five recruit returning for a sophomore season is difficult to imagine, especially at Kentucky. Over the course of Calipari’s 12 years in Lexington, UK just hasn’t ever brought back those types of players, so why would that change now?
For starters, the difference in money could be substantial, which could be all Boston needs to hear when it comes time for him to make a final decision.
Taking a look back at the 2020 NBA Draft class and the rookie scales for each of the top-10 picks – where Boston was expected to be taken in 2021 going into the season – all first-year salaries were over $4.24 million and four-year salaries flirted with or substantially topped the $20 million range.
- No. 1 pick – $9.75 million first-year salary, $44.27 million four-year salary
- No. 2 pick – $8.73 million first-year salary, $39.62 million four-year salary
- No. 3 pick – $7.84 million first-year salary, $35.59 million four-year salary
- No. 4 pick – $7.07 million first-year salary, $32.10 million four-year salary
- No. 5 pick – $6.40 million first-year salary, $29.08 million four-year salary
- No. 6 pick – $5.81 million first-year salary, $26.42 million four-year salary
- No. 7 pick – $5.31 million first-year salary, $24.13 million four-year salary
- No. 8 pick – $4.86 million first-year salary, $22.12 million four-year salary
- No. 9 pick – $4.47 million first-year salary, $20.34 million four-year salary
- No. 10 pick – $4.24 million first-year salary, $19.33 million four-year salary
Comparing those dollar figures to where Boston is currently ranked on the various prominent mock drafts, the difference is substantial.
- NBC Sports – No. 16 – $3.12 million first-year salary, $15.09 million four-year salary
- NBADraft.net – No. 21 – $2.48 million first-year salary, $12.15 million four-year salary
- Hoopshype – No. 21 – $2.48 million first-year salary, $12.15 million four-year salary
- ESPN – No. 26 – $2.04 million first-year salary, $10.45 million four-year salary
- CBS Sports – No. 27 – $1.97 million first-year salary, $10.15 million four-year salary
- The Athletic – No. 33 – $898,310 first-year salary, $2.4 million two-year salary
- Tankathon – No. 36 – $449,115 one-year salary (two-way contract)
If the difference is, say, the No. 16 pick in 2021 and the No. 10 pick in 2022, the risk of injury and stock taking a hit may not be worth the million-per-year difference over the course of four seasons in the league. Should he slip to the twenties, we’re now talking about a difference of roughly $20 million from the top-five draft selection he was projected to be going into his time at Kentucky.
Guaranteed money is important, but there’s a stark difference between the life-changing money that comes with being selected late in the first round and the generational money that comes with being a top-five pick. And with the 2022 NBA Draft expected to be exponentially weaker than the 2021 class, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility to get back to that top-five status with efficient shooting, improved strength and continued growth as a defender in 2021-22.
If Boston returns to school and averages, say, 18 points on 45% shooting and 35% from three to go with 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 2.0 steals per contest, he’s right back on track. And that’s a difference of 6.0 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.6 steals per game more than he’s averaging now, along with raising his field goal percentage by 9% and 3-point field goal percentage by just under 5%. All doable jumps, and with Boston undeniably oozing confidence – he once said he wanted to be the greatest basketball player of all time – one would think he wouldn’t be afraid to bet on himself.
Beyond the numbers and money – and that’s certainly the most significant part of it – Boston failed to get the Kentucky experience he signed up for when he committed to the program back in July of 2019. He didn’t get the ear-piercing cheers of sold-out Rupp Arena crowds, the warm welcome that comes with Big Blue Madness, the typical spotlight and fanfare that comes with events such as the Champions Classic and CBS Sports Classic, hostile road environments, and packed SEC and NCAA Tournament crowds. Off the floor, he didn’t get to interact with If anything, his experience at Sierra Canyon as a senior playing alongside the likes of Ziaire Williams, Bronny James and Zaire Wade in sold-out arenas with celebrities sitting courtside every time he played was more ‘Kentucky’ than Kentucky was this season. That’s where he thrived and boosted his draft stock the first time around, not listening to the sounds of dribbles, shoe squeaks and coach screams echo through empty venues.
Improving his stats and raising draft stock could go hand-in-hand with things simply going back to normal in the 2021-22 season.
Is it a done-deal that Boston turns down the pro route in favor of returning to Kentucky for one more season? Goodness no. In fact, if it weren’t for Calipari opening the door to that possibility this past weekend, I’m not sure anyone would even be discussing it as a legitimate possibility right now.
But Cal opened that door, and it’s certainly something worth exploring.