Mar 15, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) and Kentucky Wildcats center Dakari Johnson (44) celebrate against the Georgia Bulldogs in the semifinals of the SEC college basketball tournament at Georgia Dome. Kentucky won 70-58. Mandatory Credit: Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Players Skipping the NBA Draft, Making the Right Choice?


Springtime in Lexington! The flowers are blooming, the grass is greener, and the past season’s Kentucky Wildcats basketball team is saying goodbye to an onslaught of its players, who are vying for their careers by entering their names in the NBA Draft.

While we’re still awaiting decisions from the Harrison brothers, however, this Spring has been a little different for John Calipari’s team.

We all knew that James Young and Julius Randle – both likely lottery picks, Randle more than likely in the top-5 – would bolt as soon as they were eligible, but what we didn’t expect is that four (at least) of UK’s prospects would be returning to school.

Over the past week we’ve seen freshmen Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, as well as sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress announce that they’d be returning to Kentucky in the Fall, and the only thing I can wonder is, why?

Human being Jared thinks it’s great that these kids are coming back and getting in another year of college, but basketball-minded Jared doesn’t see how this particularly benefits the players coming back.

I think that Poythress and Cauley-Stein serve as great examples to look at for the potential for these players next season. After averaging 11.2 points and 6 rebounds in 25 minutes per game his freshman season, Poythress only saw the court for 18 minutes per game, and saw his averages drop down to 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds. Cauley-Stein, however, remained a more vital part of Calipari’s rotation this season, seeing similar playing time from his freshman year, and posting relatively similar numbers.

I’m less concerned about these two – although I can’t imagine that Cauley-Stein’s draft stock won’t lower, we’ve seen his strengths and they’re far more valuable to an NBA franchise trying to mold him – than I am about Johnson and Lee.

After averaging 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in just 14.1 minutes per game this season, the 7-foot Johnson had a decent NCAA Tournament, going for 15 and 6 against Louisville, and 10 and 7 against Wisconsin. More than anything, Johnson showed that he’s slightly more than just a big body (but not by much), but the ability for him to turn into Shaq his sophomore year is non-existent.

Lee wanting to come back makes slightly more sense, as the first-year player only saw 6.3 minutes per game, including 15 DNP-CD’s. I know that one impressive game does not a lottery pick make, but when Cauley-Stein got injured during the tournament, it was Lee who stepped up and had a huge game against Michigan, putting up career-highs with 10 points and 8 rebounds, and displaying how athletic and long he truly is.

Now for most programs it would make sense for four once highly-touted prospects to come back and work on their games to better prepare for the next level, but as we saw with Poythress, there isn’t always that opportunity to get better at Kentucky.

And for players like Johnson and Lee who didn’t see the minutes last year, what makes them think there will be minutes for them this year with the arrival of more big-time big men prospects Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. (as well as possibly, gasp, Myles Turner)?

I don’t know if the 2015 NBA Draft is expected to be significantly weaker than the 2014 version, but I think all four of these players would’ve gotten picked up had they come out, with Cauley-Stein still more than likely being a lottery pick.

Not only is the future of these players at the next level in more of an unsure state, but with Cal’s typical class of top of the line big man talent arriving on campus in the next few months, their future playing in Rupp Arena isn’t guaranteed to be any brighter than their past.

I hope I’m wrong about all four of these talented players, and maybe Poythress really emerges as the wing player Cal’s wanted him to be his first two seasons, but history has proven the longer you wait, the lesser the reward.

Good luck, young cats.

Tags: Alex Poythress Dakari Johnson Featured Kentucky Marcus Lee Nba Draft Popular Willie Cauley-stein

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