A couple years ago I had an opportunity to interview John Calipari for Dime. Aiming to do something different with the biggest rock-star coach in the college game, I came up with the idea to have Coach Cal talk to me like I was a big-time recruit and give me his pitch on why I should play for him at Memphis. Thus was born “The Pitch,” our now-regular feature where we’ve had everybody from Rick Barnes to Reggie Theus share their recruiting tactics.
It was only right that Calipari set the standard. After all, he is the best salesman in the college game. By the time he was done with his hypothetical pitch on me, I was ready to quit my job, enroll in grad school at Memphis and try walking on to the Tigers.
Oddly enough, one of Coach Cal’s unique selling points when it comes to landing real-life prospects is something he doesn’t even have to hype up on his own, because the whole basketball world has done a good enough job for him:
John Calipari produces NBA point guards.
It’s the biggest myth in college basketball.
True, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans played for Calipari at Memphis and went on to be picked #1 and #4 in their respective NBA Drafts. Rose won Rookie of the Year in ’09 and Tyreke is right in the mix for the 2010 trophy. Calipari also had Dajuan Wagner at Memphis before he was a Top-10 pick; and no one knows how good Wagner could’ve been as a pro before injuries and illness got in the way.
But let’s be serious: D-Rose, ‘Reke and Juanny would’ve been Lottery picks whether they’d gone to Memphis or Middle Tennessee State. All three left school after their freshman years, not quite enough time for Cal to really mold them into pros; had those three gone pro out of high school they would’ve been picked anyway. Did Cal really “produce” these NBA point guards, or just oversee their development for a few months?
Meanwhile, look at the PG’s who played under Calipari for a significant amount of time:
Darius Washington was arguably the third-best high school PG in the country (behind Sebastian Telfair and Shaun Livingston) when he came to Memphis in 2004. Although his freshman year was marked by those infamous missed free throws in the C-USA title game, D-Wash was still a projected Lottery pick going into his sophomore year. He wound up going undrafted. He’s had a cup of apple drink here and there in the NBA, but is otherwise a D-League/overseas player.
Willie Kemp was a Top-5 PG in the ’06 high school class — his signing with Memphis was actually one of the reasons Washington left school early. A good friend of mine who is an assistant at the D-1 level swore up and down that Kemp would be the next Gary Payton. Now in his senior year, after three seasons with Calipari, Kemp still hasn’t developed into an NBA point guard. He was a starter as a freshman, backed up D-Rose and Tyreke for two years, and while he’s now starting again under Josh Pastner, he’s not even one of Memphis’ best players.
Who else? You’ve got Antonio Burks, who played three years for Coach Cal at Memphis and saw a combined 81 games in the NBA as a fringe guy. Andre Allen went undrafted by the League. None of Calipari’s point guards at UMass sniffed a minute of NBA burn; can you even name one of them besides Derek Kellogg and Edgar Padilla?
And yet, early into his first season at Kentucky, Calipari is already thriving thanks to his reputation. Not only did he land John Wall, a national Freshman of the Year candidate who’s been compared to Rose and Chris Paul, but Cal also convinced blue-chip PG Eric Bledsoe to come to Lexington even though Bledsoe knew he could be backing up Wall for as long as Wall decided to stay in school. For 2010, superstar prep PG’s Brandon Knight and Josh Selby are still considering Kentucky, while recent Duke commit Kyrie Irving had UK high on his list of finalists. Talk to any of those kids about Kentucky’s appeal, and I guarantee one of the first things they’ll say is, “Coach Calipari produces NBA point guards.”
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not hating on Calipari or saying he’s not a great college coach. The two keys to winning at this level are recruiting and game management, and Cal’s track record has proven he’s one of best recruiters — if not the best — to come along in the last 20-something years. But the idea that he is somehow to college point guards what Mike Holmgren is to NFL quarterbacks is just false.
Still, next spring when Wall gets picked somewhere in the Top-5 of the NBA Draft, the legend will continue to grow. The world has been convinced that Coach Cal cranks out NBA PG’s like Las Vegas community colleges crank out strippers — and somehow, the best salesman in the college game didn’t even have to do the convincing.