John Calipari has built the Kentucky program into the HOV lane for high school prospects. To avoid the traffic jam that the one-and-done rule has turned college basketball into on their road to the NBA, those that are good enough simply take Coach Cal up on his offer. Spend one season in his hardcore, high-intensity training program disguised as two semesters as a “student-athlete” and you’ll be shaking David Stern’s hand in no time.
Kentucky is the place to go if the only thing standing between you and the first round is that pesky age limit.
But along those same lines, Cal’s greatest skill is as a salesman. He convinces these kids to play for Kentucky, and he gets them to buy in to a team concept for seven months and some 30-odd games. And while there’s no doubt that those superstar freshmen have gotten better under his watch, let’s be honest: I could have coached Anthony Davis or John Wall for a year and they still would have been the top pick in their respective drafts. Cal’s most impressive feat coaching Demarcus Cousins was controlling him between the ears, not between the lines.
Kentucky has become a factory for first round picks because of the brand that they’ve built more than as a result of the program’s ability to develop talent. In other words, they’re the nation’s best NBA holding tank; they’re not the nation’s best NBA breeding grounds.
That title belongs to Kansas and Bill Self.
Since 2007, Kansas has had 13 players drafted, eight of whom have gone in the first round. That’s before you factor in Ben McLemore, who is projected to be taken as high as No. 2 this year, and Jeff Withey, whom Draft Express currently has going late in the first round. Two more players — Sherron Collins and Russell Robinson — have spent time playing in the NBA despite going undrafted. Do the math, and 17 players from Self’s first nine recruiting classes have played in the NBA.
Not impressed yet? How about this for a stat: since Bill Self’s first recruiting class in 2004, there have only been five rotation players that he’s brought into the program that didn’t play in the NBA and that didn’t transfer out of Kansas — Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed, Mario Little, Rodrick Stewart and Connor Teahan.
Now, Self hasn’t exactly been recruiting D-III athletes and magically turning them into first round picks. He’s landed 10 players that Rivals has rated as five-star recruits, and Kansas always ranks near the top of the annual recruiting class rankings. Hell, he’d have the best recruiting class in the country this season — headlined by Andrew Wiggins, who will be flanked by two other five-star recruits — if it wasn’t for Kentucky.
But when you look at the numbers a little closer, six of those 10 five-star recruits entered the program between 2004 and 2006. Only two of those ten were considered one-and-done locks, and both of them — Josh Selby and Xavier Henry — ended up having disappointing seasons in Lawrence.
If Kentucky has built their brand around being the NBA’s premier layover destination, Kansas has become defined by its ability to turn those that are overlooked and underhyped into NBA players; the top 50 and top 100 recruits that don’t get at much attention nationally until they have spent a year or two in Lawrence. The Cole Aldrichs, the Morris twins, the Thomas Robinsons, the McLemores and the Witheys.
“That’s something that we take great pride in, our individual development,” Self told NBCSports.com by phone this week. “We base everything off of what NBA teams are looking for and the things that they put their players through, and our assistant coaches do an unbelievable job with that program.”
The way Self sees it, all of this success can be traced back to one, simple fact: that he’s looking out for himself?
“I’m a very selfish coach and a very selfish person in that I want to win, just like all coaches out there want to win,” he explained. “The best way you win is to put the best team on the floor, and in order to put the best team on the floor, your players have to get better.”
“The biggest thing with our program, when guys get here, they’re not good enough. They’ve gotta get better. No matter how fast you are, you’re not fast enough. No matter how quick you are, you’re not quick enough. No matter how high you jump, you don’t jump high enough. No matter what you shoot, you’ve gotta get better. The whole deal is getting better.”
Self is arguably the best coach in all of college basketball. His staff is as good as any staff in the country, and that includes a world class strength and conditioning coach. All of that makes a difference. It gives his players the best tools to develop their craft and the best teachers to learn from. But in the end, it’s really not all that different than what every program in the country is doing. There’s only so many variations of squats; how many different drills do you really need to learn how to shoot a pull-up jumper going left?
What sets Kansas apart is that the players in the program have bought into what Self is selling them.
“I would say coming from high school into Kansas, I didn’t really expect myself to be in this position of being a lottery pick, a top five pick,” McLemore told NBCSports.com this week. He was in a unique position, however. A top 50 recruit, McLemore had good enough grades to get admitted into Kansas but he didn’t qualify to play as a freshman. That meant that the entirety of his first year in Lawrence would be spent hitting the books and hitting the gym, all without the reward of playing in front of a packed Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
McLemore credited his “stick-to-it-iveness and hard work” for his success, saying that the Kansas staff not only taught him what skills he needed to work on to improve, they taught him how hard he had to work to do it. “They helped me mature a lot,” he said, “helped me better my game, each and every day. You want to learn so much in Coach Self’s system and the Kansas system. That’s what I did, I wanted to learn so much. It helps a lot, on and off the court.”
More than anything, work ethic is what is valued at Kansas. But to hear Self tell it, work ethic is one of the hardest things for him to evaluate on the recruiting trail. “When you put kids in certain environments,” he said, “then their competitive spirit will start to shine. When you put them around other people that enjoy doing the things that they’re being asked to do, it becomes more of a habit.”
It’s that environment, as much as Self’s coaching, that has fostered the development of so many Jayhawks over the years. “The names change,” he said, “but the expectations don’t.” And those expectations are what fuels the program’s fire.
Kansas has won at least a share of nine straight Big 12 regular season titles. They’ve won six Big 12 tournament titles during that stretch. There’s not a single player in the Kansas program that wants to be associated with the infamy of being on the team that snaps that streak. It’s the perfect motivational tool.
“There’s never a lackadaisical day,” Self said. “The attitude is, ‘Hey, let’s get to work’, whether it’s for 20 minutes or three hours, it makes no difference. We’ve gotta get better during that time.”
It’s a perfect storm, really.
The best coaching, the best training and a culture that’s defined by a ‘you only get out what you put in’ mentality.
That’s the secret to Kansas’ success in player development.
And to think, it all stems from a selfish head coach.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.