In John Calipari's first three years at Kentucky, he led the Wildcats to an Elite Eight, Final Four and a national title with three different freshman classes that contained an astounding nine future first-round picks. This year's group -- Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein -- came in with as much recruiting hype as their predecessors, but they've struggled with injuries and inconsistency. As a result, Kentucky, a preseason top-5 team, has spent most of the season on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
All four have shown glimpses of high-level talent, but none appears ready to be an NBA contributor. Noel might have been able to step in as a shot-blocking center, but he tore his ACL in mid-February and will likely spend most of his rookie season rehabilitating. He can't afford the risk of another injury if he stays, but the other three will have a difficult decision to make once the season ends. There's no better examples of the pros and cons for declaring "too early" than Calipari's first group of freshmen at Kentucky, who are now finishing their third season in the NBA.
Five Wildcats -- John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton -- were taken in the first round in 2010. Wall and Cousins, consensus All-Americans, and Patterson, a holdover from the Billy Gillispie era, were lottery picks who walked into significant roles. Bledsoe and Orton, in contrast, lasted until the latter half of the first round, selected more for potential than production. And while Bledsoe has blossomed under the tutelage of Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, Orton is already on his second NBA team and may need to start updating his passport.
In his one season at Kentucky, Bledsoe struggled playing off the ball. With most of the offense running through Wall and Cousins, he spent a lot of time spotting up on the perimeter, the weakest part of his game. He averaged 11 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists on 46/38/67 shooting; solid numbers of a freshman, but hardly enough to guarantee NBA stardom. A hyper-athletic 6'1, 190-pound combo guard with a 6'7 wingspan, he was drafted by the Clippers at No. 18 overall under the hope that he could develop into a PG.
Orton barely got on the floor at Kentucky. A burly 6'10 and 255-pound center who didn't have the quickness or shooting ability to play as a power forward, he backed up Cousins and played only 13 minutes a game. He was a spare player who averaged only 3 points, 3 rebounds and 1 block a game on 53 percent shooting. With quick feet and a solid frame, his per-minute production indicated that he could develop into a starting-caliber center in the NBA. However, thanks to his meager overall statistics, he slipped to the No. 29 overall pick, where the Magic selected him as a project to develop behind Dwight Howard.
If Bledsoe and Orton had stayed in Lexington, they would have been starters on a top-10 team as sophomores. There's no way to know how the season would have played out, but Kentucky made the Final Four with two less talented players -- Brandon Knight and Josh Harrellson -- in their place. Given how weak the 2011 NBA Draft was, Orton and Bledsoe could have easily been lottery picks if they had stayed for one more season. Instead, they entered the NBA as wide-eyed and raw 20-year-olds, playing for franchises with bigger concerns than their development.
Bledsoe played in all 82 games as a rookie but had a PER of only 10.8. With an inconsistent outside shot and very questionable decision-making, he wasn't ready to be a team's primary ball-handler. He took a big step back after L.A. acquired Paul and Billups before his second season, but it ended up being the best thing to happen to him. This season, after spending a year caddying for two of the savviest PGs in the NBA, he was ready when the Clippers needed him to play a bigger role. He's emerged as one of the NBA's breakout players, with per-36 minute averages of 15 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks on 45/43/80 shooting.
Orton wasn't as lucky. As a rookie on a team coming off an NBA Finals appearance, he never had a chance to earn a spot in the rotation. And over the next two years, the franchise fell apart around him. Howard forced his way out of town in a messy process which ended up costing Stan Van Gundy and Otis Smith their jobs. Orton played a grand total of 187 minutes with the Magic, so when a new management team began a house-cleaning effort this summer, they had no real incentive to keep him around. The Thunder picked him up this season, but there's no room for him to earn minutes in Oklahoma City and little guarantee they keep him around going forward.
Bledsoe has earned nearly $5 million dollars over the last three years while playing on a young Clippers team that gave him a pseudo-collegiate experience in L.A. instead of Lexington. He'll likely be traded this summer to a PG-hungry team who will give him a big long-term contract. Orton, on the other hand, has earned a little over $2 million dollars without ever getting the chance to play consistent minutes. His lack of playing time over the last four years may have fatally short-circuited his development, costing him tens of millions of dollars in lifetime earnings.
At the next level, so much of your development depends on circumstances out of your control. For a late first-round pick, the wrong coach, locker room or front office can mean the difference between staying in the NBA and ending up in bouncing around Europe and the D-League. And in the NBA, the second contract is the one that can set you up for life. That's the gamble for Goodwin, Cauley-Stein and Poythress: there's no way to know whether they will follow Orton or Bledsoe's path if they declare after one underwhelming season at Kentucky.
Let's take a look at Kentucky's NBA talent individually.
Shot creation: An extremely raw center, Noel gets his points through aggressiveness and athleticism, not skill. While he's shown flashes of good footwork in the low post, his lack of touch around the basket hamstrings him against bigger opponents. Regardless, at 6'10 and 230, he's not going to be strong enough to consistently establish post position at the next level. Given his high center of gravity and narrow frame, that may not change as he gets older. (Averaging 10.5 points on 59 percent shooting, 4.3 free throw attempts)
Defense: With incredibly quick feet for a guy with a 7'4 wingspan, he has the potential to be an absolutely devastating rim protector and help-side defender at the next level. However, interior defense, especially the ability to anticipate rather than react to plays, is one of the toughest things for young players to master. At the same time, Noel will struggle to hold position on the block against bigger centers like Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert. Like any defensive-minded center, it will take him time to adjust to the NBA paint, which is the domain of grown ass men. (Averaging 4.4 blocks, 2.1 steals a game)
Shooting: Noel doesn't look comfortable stepping out away from the paint and doesn't get much arc on his jumper. He isn't a threat outside of 10+ feet, a huge concern for an undersized center. Anthony Davis has spent most of his rookie season playing as a four, something Noel won't be able to do. (Shooting percentages of 59/0/52)
Passing: Noel is a surprisingly good passer who can have offense run through him in the low and high post. He has an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 1, which is phenomenal for a freshman big man. (Averaging 1.6 assists, 1.9 turnovers a game)
Rebounding: Noel's length and activity level make him a force on both the offensive and defensive glass. While his lack of strength is a little worrisome, rebounding is the one thing that almost always translates to the NBA. (Averaging 9.5 rebounds a game)
Injury Flag: The biggest question surrounding Noel over the next few months will be his recovery from a torn ACL. While he should be able to make a full recovery, knee injuries can be very tricky and his timetable may be more Derrick Rose than Adrian Peterson. That's a big concern for a player who relies so heavily on his athleticism. Realistically, he probably won't be at 100 percent until 2014.
Best case: Larry Sanders
Worst case: Chris "Birdman" Anderson
If you've watched any Kentucky games this season, you've probably heard that Cauley-Stein was a standout WR in high school. At 7'0 and 245 pounds, that's absolutely insane. Unfortunately, he also plays like a football player with very little feel for the game. Due to his superior size and athleticism, he has a higher upside than Noel, but it will take him at least 5+ years to reach it, if he ever does. If he declares, he's almost certain to end up in the D-League next year. The best-case scenario is that he develops on a similar timetable as DeAndre Jordan, a freakish 6'11, 265-pound athlete whom the Clippers stole with the No. 35 pick in 2008. (Averaging 8 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks on 63/0/36 shooting)
Poythress might be the player most harmed by the Wildcats' lack of a reliable PG. He's a very fluid athlete at 6'7 and 240 pounds with a good-looking jumper, but he can't consistently create his own shot. Even more worrisome is his lack of consistent energy on the glass and the defensive end. Like most collegiate combo forwards, it's unclear what position Poythress will play at the next level. Is he skilled enough to be a 3 or big enough to be a 4? It's the same question that's plagued Mike Beasley and Derrick Williams in the NBA and Poythress doesn't have nearly as many skins on the wall. He might have the widest range of possible outcomes of anyone in the draft, although he reminds me a lot of Marvin Williams. (Averaging 12 points and 6 rebounds on 58/42/70 shooting)
Goodwin is an extremely athletic 6'4, 200-pound combo guard with an elite first step, but that's not enough in the NBA. At the next level, a 6'4 guard has to be able to run point or shoot and Goodwin hasn't shown that he can do either. As a PG, he has an assist-to-turnover ratio of less than 1 and a lot of Tyreke Evans in his game. As a SG, he's undersized and bigger defenders will be able to lay off his drive and concede his very shaky jumper. Just like Cauley-Stein and Poythress, he's a high-risk prospect, but without their size, he doesn't represent nearly as big a reward. (Averaging 14 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3 assists on 43/27/64 shooting)
The lone holdover from last season's championship team, Wiltjer hasn't taken as big a leap as many hoped in his sophomore season. He's an extremely skilled player with an effortless looking jumper at 6'10 and 240 pounds, but his lack of athleticism is a problem for him at the collegiate level. Wiltjer moves like he's stuck in molasses, which wouldn't be as much of a concern for a guy with his size if he had the strength to bang in the paint, which he doesn't. He's got a lot more work to do on his body before he even thinks about the NBA. (Averaging 10.5 points, 4 rebounds and 1.5 assists on 42/37/82 shooting)
Harrow, who transferred from N.C. State after losing out on a PG battle with Lorenzo Brown, was getting first-round talk before the season started. But instead of coming into his own as a redshirt sophomore, he's been downright awful for long stretches. Even with the Harrison twins coming in next season, Harrow has no choice but to stay in school. At 6'2 and 170 pounds, he needs to get stronger, become a more efficient shooter and a better all-around playmaker. Harrow might not emerge until he's a fifth-year senior, when he could be buried behind several more talented underclassmen. (Averaging 10 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists on 43/29/71 shooting)
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