Camp Cal the latest innovation in team building at Kentucky
LEXINGTON, Ky. – It could’ve easily been called the John Calipari Fantasy Camp.
The Kentucky coach invited NBA scouts and GMs to a first-of-its-kind workout before the start of the season, so they could get a look at what all these future pros can do. Calipari wanted to get feedback about his own players, as well.
Then, he shut the doors for the season on all the NBA folks and refocused his players on the task at hand.
The dividends have been flowing in ever since. The Wildcats are two wins away from the first perfect season since 1975-76. Three Kentucky players — Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles — are projected as top-20 draft picks should they go pro. Save Alex Poythress, whose season ended with a knee injury, everyone has thrived despite nobody averaging 26 minutes a game.
"Pretty much every guy that’s in our first round right now from Kentucky has seen his stock rise from where the year started," said Jonathan Givony of Draft Express, a website that keeps close tabs on all the NBA prospects.
For all the criticism of Calipari as a "one-and-done" coach who cares little about the college experience, the camp was simply another example of him doing what the rules allow him to do: Working the system to make his own college program great and set up his players — not all of them freshmen, by the way — to make millions.
Since Calipari arrived at Kentucky in 2009, the Wildcats have won one national title, made four trips to the Final Four and had 19 players selected in the NBA draft.
Calipari’s unique handling of his current team stands out, even for a man who has long pushed the boundaries of what a "student-athlete" playing big-time basketball really comes to college for.
The 58-year-old coach, in his fourth decade in the business, gave NBA personnel full access to a camp featuring his 10 pro hopefuls in October.
It was essentially a Pro Day, the way they do it in college football — except it came before the season, not after. They played 5-on-5 with officials and ran through drills that showed their ability to work on pick-and-roll, post moves, isolations and other skills. Calipari personally called teams, then followed up with an invitation letter.
"When you leave our practice, you should walk away with every player’s true measurements (height, reach, vertical, etc.), agility times, shooting numbers, skill sets and more. Our hope is for you to leave with a solid foundation to evaluate our players and get a head start on the upcoming season," he wrote.
Most teams sent three people from their personnel departments. Can’t attend the workouts? No problem. Calipari had them televised on one of the ESPN networks — another shrewd move by a coach whose subtle message to high school players was, come to Kentucky, and people can watch your practices on TV.
"It showed us that he really wants what’s best for us, he wants us to succeed and go live our dreams," freshman guard Tyler Ulis said.
Calipari repeats that mantra often.
Of the much-debated, much-criticized rules that allow players to play one year of college and leave, Calipari insists he’s only going by the rules as written by the NBA. The coach is fond of saying the system sets up his players — many of them from poor, rough backgrounds — to be millionaires. Who is he to stand in the way?
Yet for all the handwringing over Calipari’s supposed "one-and-done" way of doing business, six of the 10 players who averaged the most minutes on this year’s Final Four team are not freshmen.
"They trust us enough with their careers to come back," Calipari said.
When they do, they’re well-schooled on the idea that by playing well, sharing the minutes and the shots at Kentucky, the NBA will take care of itself.
"They have respect for each other and kind of knew that the minutes would kind of even out, as far as points per game and who the superstars were," said Joe B. Hall, the Kentucky coach from 1972 through 1985 and a frequent guest at Calipari’s practices.
Seven different players have led the team in scoring since Christmas. Nobody averages more than 11 points a game. They pride themselves in defense — allowing 35.2 percent shooting from the floor, a mark no team has reached since Stanford in 1999-2000.
Calipari’s deft handling of the NBA and all its issues comes in contrast to his one stint as a head coach in the league, when he was accused — among other things — of over-coaching his players and sometimes openly ridiculing them.
He posted a 72-112 record in two-plus seasons with the Nets.
In at least one way, his return to the NCAA at Memphis in 2000 ran a similar course as his stay at UMass that ran from 1988-96. Sanctions forced his teams to vacate Final Four appearances in both cases, though the coach was never directly implicated in either situation.
But with the NCAA investigation into Memphis still ongoing, Calipari knocked it out of the park during his 2009 interview with Kentucky president Lee Todd, who said the coach showed a genuine interest "in his players and what he’s done as far as graduation rates."
After being hired at Kentucky, Calipari boasted that 19 of the last 22 players who reached their senior year at Memphis graduated.
Great stat, even though his best player at Memphis, Derrick Rose, was a one-and-doner whose SAT scores were the focus of the ensuing NCAA investigation.
That is part of Cal’s past now, and the coach makes no apologies for recruiting great basketball players who don’t put graduating college at the top of their list of goals.
"Cal told me when I got here, don’t think of myself as a four-year player (or) I shouldn’t be here," Ulis said.
For as long as they are around, Calipari tells them if they do it his way, the wins and the NBA will take care of themselves.
"You’re going to be evaluated either way, it doesn’t matter how many minutes you play," freshman Trey Lyles said. "They look a lot at winning, and that’s what we’re doing."
AP Sports Writers Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Kentucky and Brian Mahoney in New York contributed to this report.