Posted May 8 2011 10:31AM
The beauty of the game of basketball, at any level, is that there are so many ways to arrive at the same result.
Consider two college programs -- Kentucky and Pittsburgh -- both at the pinnacle of the sport, but polar opposites in the way they go about their business, as the upcoming NBA Draft clearly illustrates.
This week, Kentucky made news by conducting its own mini combine, designed to give the NBA a better look at its four draft-worthy players, not counting big man Enes Kanter, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA and didn't play this season. He's been working out at ATTACK Athletics in Chicago. Underclassmen who declare for the draft have until May 8 to decide whether to stay in or return to school, but they aren't allowed to travel and work out for NBA teams.
Thus, the NBA came to Kentucky, 20 teams in all. And those teams weren't represented by scouts, but by general managers and directors of player personnel -- the decision makers. The star attractions in Lexington were point guard Brandon Knight and forward Terrence Jones, both projected to be lottery picks. Based on the feedback he received, Knight announced Friday morning he would remain in the draft. That was hardly a shocker. Jones' decision to stay in school, announced Saturday, was a bit surprising, but his intentions are good. "I've decided to come back and help us get back to the Final Four and bring the Big Blue Nation a national championship," he said.
In just two seasons -- and three full recruiting classes, all ranked No. 1 in the country by Rivals.com -- Kentucky coach John Calipari has established a pattern. He's going to recruit the best players in the country, and if they leave after one season -- Kentucky has seen five one-and-doners breeze through campus the last two years -- so be it. There are plenty of great players waiting behind them. The Wildcats' incoming class includes four five-star prospects, including power forward Anthony Davis, who some believe would be the top pick in the 2011 draft if he were allowed to be included.
"We're a little bit of the color of the month right now," Calipari said last fall when I interviewed him for Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook's preseason profile on Kentucky. "And I'm telling my staff to run with it. It's not going to be like this forever."
Calipari laughed after he said that, then told me how Gonzaga coach Mark Few responded to the same comment.
"I don't know," Few told Cal. "You're at Kentucky. Maybe it will [last forever]."
The contrast between Kentucky's annual influx and outflow of NBA talent and the way Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon runs his program is compelling and worthy of closer analysis. Like Kentucky, Pitt has several players vying for possible inclusion in the June draft. But the Panthers didn't conduct an on-campus combine, because they had only one underclassman, guard Ashton Gibbs, declare for the draft, and he will probably be advised to head back to school.
Neither will Pitt players have to worry about trekking to New York on draft night to be interviewed live, proudly wearing the cap of their new NBA teams. Departing seniors Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee all played at the Portsmouth Invitational and will try to earn their way into the draft -- as second-round picks -- through workouts with individual teams.
It's interesting to note that Pitt has signed only two McDonald's All-Americans since 1987, and both of those came in the last two years, Dante Taylor (2009) and Khem Birch (2011). Yet, in Dixon's eight years as head coach after previously serving Ben Howland as an assistant, he has set NCAA Division I records for most victories after eight (216), seven (188) and six (163) seasons, won three championships in the deepest conference in the country, the Big East, and led the Panthers to at least one NCAA Tournament victory in each of the last six seasons, a feat unmatched by any team in the country.
Few if any college basketball programs reflect the personality of the city in which they are located as much as Pitt. In Dixon's system, players are often redshirted, and they earn their playing time incrementally, year by year, through hard work. It's a blue-collar system in the Steel City. How perfect is that?
None of this is to suggest Calipari doesn't make his players work hard, and with good results, too. During the last five years, including three at Memphis, Cal has made a little NCAA history of his own. He's the only coach to win 30 or more games five straight seasons. In two years at Kentucky, relying heavily on blue-chip freshmen, Calipari has led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight and the Final Four.
I spoke with Dixon this week, and he acknowledged how unusual it is for Pitt to have so many potential draft picks in the same season.
"I don't know that we've had a group like this," Dixon said. "No one's a guarantee to make it [to the NBA], but I wouldn't be surprised if any one of them, or all three of them, made it. They all bring something to the table. And they all have a position, a spot to fill. They're unique guys."
While Kanter, Knight and Jones are likely to hear their names called early in the draft process, the Pitt players may have to sweat a bit. But then again, the next few weeks may give them a chance to earn their way into the league, just like they earned playing time in college.
At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, Brown has the requisite size and explosive athletic ability to hold his own in the NBA. He's a potential lockdown defender who can guard three positions. "Gilbert Brown can defend anyone at any level of basketball," said University of Washington assistant coach Raphael Chillious, who coached Brown at South Kent Prep in Connecticut. "He's a junkyard dog."
Dixon thinks Brown will make an impression on the NBA teams that work him out.
"They're going to be surprised," Dixon said. "He's a better shooter and more skilled -- a pretty good passer and ball handler -- than people realize."
Though Wanamaker struggled with his shot down the stretch of the college season and at Portsmouth, where he made just 8-of-25 from the field, he's on my All-Khaki team (as in, more versatile than a pair of khaki pants). Wanamaker can do a bit of everything, including play the point. "He's got that mentality," Dixon said. "And he makes plays."
The hulking McGhee, who was measured at a shade under 6-9 and 262 pounds at Portsmouth, has a 7-foot-2 wingspan that allows him to play even taller and the inclination to bang around in the paint.
"Defensively, he's more than equipped to hold his own in the NBA," Dixon said. "There are very few guys with his size and width and athleticism."
And these days, there are very few upper echelon programs that don't deal in one-and-done recruits. What coach wouldn't if given the chance? Ask Syracuse's Jim Boeheim if his 2003 national championship was worth having Carmelo Anthony for just one season.
Still, there's something refreshing about the way Dixon runs his program. The system is greater than the sum of its parts, but those parts can be pretty good, too. Which is why it wouldn't surprise me next season if Gilbert Brown, Brad Wanamaker and Gary McGhee all wind up on NBA rosters.
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