In 2002, Calipari famously tore up Dajuan Wagner's Memphis scholarship after his freshman year because he believed Wagner shouldn't pass up the NBA riches he would earn as a projected first-round draft pick. Ever since, any kid dreaming of a sneaker contract has thought, there's a coach who gets it. -- Sports Illustrated
With his last four teams producing 12 NBA draft picks, more than most elite programs produce in a decade, and his current Kentucky squad only a Christian Watford buzzer-beater from a 26-0 record, it's easy to forget John Calipari didn't always dominate the college basketball landscape.
But in 2002, he was just the latest college coach looking to regain his footing after being humbled by an unsuccessful stint in the NBA. He didn't even make the NCAA Tournament in his first two years at Memphis.
Having Dajuan Wagner, his first big-time recruit since returning to college, for two or three years would have been huge for Calipari. After a freshman season where he averaged 21.2 points a game on 41 percent shooting, Wagner wasn't a lock to go pro, not with a shaky perimeter jumper (31.7 percent from beyond the arc) and a questionable floor game (3.6 assists and 2.9 turnovers a contest).
But as Calipari knew, a relatively unathletic 6'3 combo guard couldn't afford to pass up on the chance to be a lottery pick, as there was no guarantee NBA scouts wouldn't fall out of love with his game if he stayed in school.
In 2005, in what could have been his senior year at Memphis, Wager was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a rare internal infection which forced him to have surgery to remove his entire colon, effectively ending his basketball career.
If he had played for a more traditional coach, Wagner might have nothing to show for his career. Instead, he made over $8 million after the Cleveland Cavaliers took him No. 6 overall in 2002. Calipari could have sold him on the value of a college degree and playing for the love of the game, but it's not really a game for the players Calipari recruits, it's life.
College basketball is a multi-billion dollar business which explicitly forbids its players, many of whom come from inner-city neighborhoods where their entire extended family is trapped in a cycle of poverty that goes back generations, from receiving any money for their talents. Wagner, a reclusive figure since retiring, can always go back to school, but he ended up only having one shot at a making enough money to be financially secure for life.
As Calipari tells his players, "if you want to do what's best for me and my family, you will stay in school. If you want to do what's best for you and your family, you will go pro."
His reputation has been tarnished because his first two trips to the Final Four, with UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008, have been stripped from the record books. However, it's hard to muster much outrage over what actually happened: an agent was caught paying Marcus Camby at UMass while Derrick Rose has been accused of having someone else take the SAT for him in order to become eligible to play in college.
Ignore the absurdity of worrying about whether a 21-year-old college student would accept cash for playing basketball and put yourself in Rose's shoes. The youngest of four sons, he was the last hope for his family to get out of the South Side of Chicago. But because of the age limit, he couldn't go pro, while not playing in college would have dramatically lowered his draft stock. He was supposed to accept losing millions of dollars because he couldn't pass an ultimately meaningless test that would have no bearing on his professional career?
John Calipari would rather ensure the professional futures of his players than worry about the NCAA's outdated concepts of amateurism. Like the Miami Heat in the NBA, he runs a program "of the players, by the players and for the players", which is why the best ones continue to flock to Lexington year after year after year after year.
And if you consider the breath-taking number of far more serious scandals that have rocked college sports in the last year alone, Calipari's violations look like small potatoes indeed. He's one of the most honest coaches in the sport, which is probably why so many dislike him.
6'10 freshman center
- Shot creation: The great unknown in his game. A 6'3 guard before a seven-inch growth spurt in high school, he is comfortable with ball in his hands and has displayed excellent footwork and ball-handling ability at times. However, he is rarely featured in the Wildcats offense, with most of his 14 points a game coming off alley-oops, tip-ins and fast breaks.
- Defense: With a 7'5 wingspan to go with the foot-speed and defensive aggressiveness of a 6'3 guard, has potential to be a game-changing defensive force. As a freshman, leading the country with 4.9 blocks a game while also averaging 1.5 steals. However, at only 220 pounds, needs to gain weight to hold position on the block against 250-260 pound NBA centers.
- Outside shot: Rarely takes shots outside of the paint but has shown decent looking shot mechanics and a confident release. A 70.6 percent free throw percentage indicates potential to be a reliable floor spacer offensively.
- Rebounding: Phenomenal length allows him to grab 9.9 rebounds a game. Will need to bulk up to prevent stronger NBA players from moving him out of the paint at the next level.
- Passing: Will occasionally come out to the three-point line in Kentucky's offense, but rarely looks to create own shot, much less one for teammates. Averaging 0.9 assists and 0.9 turnovers a game as a freshman.
- Best case: Black Swan -- 6'10+ forward capable of playing dominant defense at all three frontcourt positions and using length to score over the top of defenders.
- Worst case: Marcus Camby -- athletic shotblocker who contributes offensively despite lacking a go-to move or a consistent jumper.
6'7 freshman small forward
- Shot creation: Extremely athletic player with good ball-handling skills and a 7'0 wingspan who can finish in a variety of different ways in the lane. Doesn't have a reliable outside shot and isn't a primary offensive option, but still manages to score 12.3 points a game on 47.5 percent shooting.
- Defense: One of the most versatile defenders in the country, can defend four positions at the college level with phenomenal combination of quickness and length. Averaging 1.2 steals a game as a freshman.
- Outside shot: An extremely inconsistent outside shooter, going 11-39 from beyond the arc for the season. Has a decent mid-range jumper and a respectable 75.4 percent shooting percentage from the free throw line.
- Rebounding: Dominant rebounder from the small forward position who grabs 7.7 a game as a freshman.
- Passing: Has excellent vision, especially on the break, and often combines with Davis to form a dominant alley-oop combination. Averaging 2.2 assists and 2.3 turnovers a game this season.
- Best case: Shawn Marion -- versatile 6'7+ defender capable of playing elite defense on four positions and contributing offensively without dominating the ball.
- Worst case: Trevor Ariza -- long and athletic defensive-minded wing held back by a lack of a consistent outside shot.
6'9 sophomore power forward
- Shot creation: Athletic 6'9 combo forward who can use speed to blow by big bigger players on the perimeter and size to post-up smaller defenders. Points per game average has dropped from 15.7 as a freshman to 12.2 as a sophomore because he isn't being featured as much offensively, but his efficiency numbers have risen from 44.2 percent to 49.3 percent.
- Defense: Doesn't always use vast physical gifts but is still averaging 2.0 blocks and 1.3 steals this year. 7'2 wingspan makes up for lack of ideal height at power forward position.
- Outside shot: Inconsistent shooter with career shooting percentages of 33.6 percent from beyond the arc and 65.7 percent from the free throw line.
- Rebounding: After averaging 8.8 rebounds a game as a freshman, average has dipped to 6.5 due to playing next to dominant rebounders in Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist.
- Passing: Can pass out of the double team and create shots for others off the dribble. Career average of 1.5 assists and 2.0 turnovers in two years in Lexington.
- Best case: Josh Smith -- Athletic 6'9+ forward who can create shots offensively while doubling as an excellent help-side defender in the paint.
- Worst case: Earl Clark -- skilled forward whose lack of offensive consistency keeps him from earning a consistent spot in someone's rotation.
6'4 sophomore shooting guard
- Shot creation: Pure shooter with a lightning-quick release, excellent ball-handling skills as well as a developing floater. Knows how to use screens to get open offensively and the Wildcats often look for him to close out games. Averaging 13.7 points on 47.9 percent shooting this season.
- Defense: A good athlete with a 6'7 wingspan, has the size to defend both backcourt positions at the next level. Won't be a dominant defender, but should be able to hold his own, especially against second-unit guards.
- Outside shot: As a sophomore, near the 40/50/90 mark that great shooters aim for: shooting 48.1 percent from the three, 47.9 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from the free throw line.
- Rebounding: Does a decent job on the glass for a guard, pulling down 3.3 rebounds a game this year.
- Passing: Has flashed excellent play-making skills at times in his first two years in Lexington and often runs point in end-of-game situations. Averaging 1.7 assists and 1.0 turnovers a game as a sophomore.
- Best case: Ben Gordon -- 6'4 combo guard with excellent shot-making ability ideally suited to be a microwave scorer off an NBA bench.
- Worst case: Beno Udrih -- talented combo guard with no glaring holes in his game capable of carving out a 10-year career in the NBA.
6'8 senior small forward
- Shot creation: Has dramatically expanded his offensive repertoire in four years in Lexington, averaging 9.7 points a game on 47.7 percent shooting as a senior. Uses 6'8, 235-pound frame to shoot over the top of smaller defenders off the dribble and in the post.
- Defense: Physical defender who lacks great lateral quickness, may be too slow to guard threes and too short to guard fours at the next level. However, is a smart and fundamentally sound player with career averages of 0.7 blocks and 0.7 steals.
- Outside shot: Shooting 37.9 percent from the three-point line and 73.9 percent from the free throw line this year. Will need to be nearly automatic from the perimeter to stick in the NBA.
- Rebounding: Like Jones, rebounding averages have plummeted this season due to presence of Gilchrist-Kidd and Davis. After grabbing 4.6 boards a game last year, is only averaging 2.8 this season.
- Passing: A surprisingly effective passer capable of finding players from the wing and the top of the key as well as drawing double teams in the post against smaller defenders. Averaging 2.2 assists and 1.6 turnovers a game as a senior.
- Best case: Jared Dudley -- 6'8 perimeter player with smarts to overcome average athleticism and skill level to be an offensive contributor in the NBA.
- Worst case: David Noel -- "3.5" from an elite program destined for a career overseas.
Marquis Teague: The younger brother of the Atlanta Hawks' Jeff Teague, a 6'2 freshman who has improved as the season has gone along but is still a long away from being a reliable NBA floor general. Hard to gauge his true talent level playing with so many elite prospects who command other team's defensive attention, but has shown ability to penetrate and finish in traffic with a floater as well as run a team. Needs to improve outside shot (shooting 17-55 from beyond the arc this year) and individual defense before making the jump to the next level.
Kyle Wiltjer: 6'9 McDonald's All-American who has received inconsistent playing time behind Davis, Jones and Miller as a freshman. An excellent outside shooter who already excels at the pick-and-pop, will need to answer questions about his athleticism and interior defense when he assumes bigger role next season after Calipari "graduates" latest wave of stars.