The NBA sun is shining brightly on the old University of Kentucky campus nowadays. According to the 2013-14 player survey based on opening night rosters, 22 NBA players — by far, the most from one school — shared a Wildcats pedigree. Thus far this season, 20 UK alums have seen playing time.
What in the John Calipari is going on in the Bluegrass State?!?!
For one thing, UK’s basketball pedigree is unquestioned. The program has produced the most wins (2,132 and counting) and the highest winning percentage (.762) in college basketball annals, as well as the most NCAA Tournament invites (52). The Wildcats also have had 82 players appear in NBA games since 1947. UCLA, the only college sporting a comparable hoops cachet – UK trails only the Bruins in NCAA titles (11-8) — has had 80 alums play in the NBA. Since Calipari’s arrival in April 2009, however, the UK pipeline to the NBA has been gushing. Four Wildcats made their NBA debuts in both 2011-12 and 2012-13. Six appeared on the scene in 2013-14, the most since 1950 when eight UK alums appeared in a NBA season.
The best NBA player to come out of UK certainly is Hall of Famer Dan Issel. In a career that spanned from 1971-85, Horse scored 27,482 points, and finished with averages of 22.6 points and 9.1 rebounds. Whether any of the current Kentucky-bred players measure up to, or perhaps even surpass, Issel’s NBA career is a question that won’t be answered for another decade or so. Several, however, are off to promising starts. Here the top five Wildcats playing in the NBA this season, ranked by their 2013-14 salaries.
5. Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets, 2013-14 Salary: $1,551,840
Full disclosure: If the Phoenix Suns’ Eric Bledsoe or Philadelphia 76ers rookie Nerlens Noel were not battling injuries in 2013-14, Jones probably would be on the also-ran column for this list. That said, Jones certainly has acquitted himself nicely in his second NBA campaign. The 18th overall pick in the 2012 Draft is the least sexy name on this list, and the least likely. But he has turned into a key cog in the Houston Rockets’ ascension in the Western Conference. A team that features two All-Stars in Dwight Howard and James Harden, and another in Chandler Parsons who is developing into a solid B-List contributor, doesn’t need another star, it needs blue-collar lunch pail guys. And Jones gets it. Jones is averaging 12.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.39 blocks in his 46 starts this season. Jones has registered thirteen games this season with three or more blocks, reached the 20- point plateau on six occasions, and has posted 13 doubles after doing so once in his rookie campaign.
4. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, 2013-14 Salary: $4,916,974
The fifth overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Cousins comes with about as much baggage as talent. That said, his combination of ruggedness and basketball skills eventually could place him at the top of the NBA All-Time Best Kentucky Alums list. Through 48 games this season, Cousins is averaging a team-leading 22.4 points and 11.6 rebounds, to go along with 2.9 APG, 1.60 SPG and 1.27 BPG. Each would represent a career high if he can maintain those numbers for the rest of the season season. His previous career high in scoring stands at 18.1 PPG, Cousins has netted at least 20 points in 32 games including nine instances of at least 30. He has posted 34 double-doubles, and had a double-double streak of fifteen games, the longest in the franchise’s Sacramento-era history. He has led the team in scoring in 27 games, rebounding in 37, and assists in six.
On Jan. 13, Cousins became the first King since 2008, to earn Western Conference Player of the Week honors after averaging 25.0 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.7 blocks. In his three-plus seasons, Cousins is averaging a double-double (17.4 PPG and 10.1 RPG). A beast down low, Cousins owns three 20-point, 20-rebound games in his career, and two 30-point, 20-rebound games.
3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, 2013-14 Salary: $5,607,240
Although he missed 18 games due to injury in his rookie season last year, Anthony Davis averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 64 contests. He finished second to Portland’s Damian Lillard for the 2012-13 Kia NBA Rookie of the Year Award, showcasing his high-ceiling potential. Davis has done more than simply reach that ceiling this season, he has Willie Wonka-crashing-through-the-Chocolate-Factory shattered it. Named to his first All-Star Game, Davis is leading the league in blocks at 3.0 per game, while also averaging 20.5 points and 10.2 rebounds. According to NBA’s Player Impact Estimate, which measures a player’s overall contribution when he is on the floor, Davis sports a PIE of 15.7%, which ranks 13th.
Davis is one of only five players averaging at least 20.0 points and 10.0 rebounds and the only one of that group averaging more than 1.3 blocks. He’s averaging one-half black more than his closest challengers (Indiana’s Roy Hibbert and Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, 2.5 BPG each) and is responsible for almost half of New Orleans’ league-leading 6.4 BPG. As impressive as the aforementioned statistics are, factor in his percentages — .522 from the field and .777 from the line — and Davis’ 2013-14 season is trending towards the historically great. The last player to match or excel all of Davis’ stats mentioned above for a full season was David Robinson during his 1994-95 MVP season. Robinson averaged 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks while shooting .533 from the field and .774 from the charity stripe.
2. John Wall, Washington Wizards, 2013-14 Salary: $7,459,925
The number one overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft, John Wall, after three solid, yet unspectacular NBA seasons, finally appears on his way to achieving the superstar status that was predicted for him as a No. 1 pick. Wall was named a reserve on the 2014 Eastern Conference All-Star team for this year’s All-Star Game, becoming the first Wizard All-Star selection since 2008 when Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler earned invites. Wall is averaging career highs with 19.7 points per game, 8.6 assists per game and 2.0 steals per game. His numbers at home are even better: 21.5 PPG, 9.4 APG, 4.3 RPG and 2.2 SPG in 28 home games (14-14). During one stretch this season, Wall scored at least 20 points in eight straight games, the longest such streak of his career. The fourth-year guard recorded his second career triple-double with 28 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists at Boston on Jan. 22. Earlier in the season, Wall became the first player in franchise history to have a game with at least 26 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and five steals, accomplishing the feat against Atlanta on Nov. 30.
Wall’s willingness to share the ball, he ranks third overall in assists and has paced the team in that category 46 times, has been contagious, as the Wizards are averaging 23.2 assists, which ranks eighth in the NBA. Wall’s gaudy numbers would not mean much, however, if Washington was mired in the second half of the conference. But that’s not the case. As of this writing, the surprising Wizards are ranked fifth in the East and on target to make their first postseason appearance since 2008. Through three-plus seasons, Wall is averaging 17.6 points, 8.2 assists. 4.4 rebounds, and 1.6 steals.
1. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics, 2013-14 Salary: $11,945,545
Given the chance at a do-over, it’s safe to assume the Phoenix Suns wouldn’t have traded the Boston Celtics the draft rights to Rajon Rondo after they had took him with the 21st overall selection in 2006. Alas, the Suns did, and the rest is history. Not only has Rondo evolved into one of the better playmakers in the NBA, he also played an integral role in helping the Celtics win the 2008 NBA title over the Los Angeles Lakers, and in reaching The Finals again in 2010, where they came up short in an epic seven-game series against the Lakers.
It’s a testament to Rondo’s talent that he was such a focal point for a team with a trio of future Hall of Famers: Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Rondo was only a second-year playmaker in 2008 when he guided the Celtics to their 17th NBA championship, averaging 10.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.73 steals in 32.0 minutes per game in the postseason. In the clinching Game 6 win over Los Angeles, Rondo recorded 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals. In Game 2, he dropped 16 assists, the most recorded by a player in a Finals game since Magic Johnson had 20 assists in 1991. Ranked sixth in all-time assists in the Celtics history, Rondo has averaged at least 11.1 assists each of the past three seasons. In 2011-12, Rondo averaged an NBA-best 11.7 assists, becoming the first Celtics player to pace the NBA in that statistic since Bob Cousy in 1959-60. Rondo appeared in only 38 games last season due to a torn ACL in his right knee. For his career, he is averaging 8.3 assists in the regular season and 9.1 dimes in the postseason.