CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Duke and Kentucky look like early frontrunners for the No. 1 college basketball recruit in the Class of 2017, 6-foot-11, 245-pound DeAndre Ayton, and he has one primary concern as he evaluates both programs.
“I just want to see how they do with their bigs,” he said. “That’s pretty big. I’m looking at that a lot.”
Coincidentally, there’s a pretty handy guide right in front of him. The Wildcats’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Blue Devils’ Jahlil Okafor could go 1-2 in next week’s NBA Draft. So how did the two schools do developing their stars?
“They did all right,” Ayton said of Duke. “I think (Okafor) could’ve done more. Could’ve been more athletic, to me. Because I’m an athletic big, like a stretch four. I don’t like to be in the post that much.”
Sound familiar, UK fans?
“I picture my game as Karl Towns,” Ayton said, “because he runs the floor, he plays defense and he shoots the outside jumper.”
“They did pretty well with Karl-Anthony Towns,” said 6-11, 235-pound Nick Richards, a top-25 recruit in the 2017 class. “He wasn’t even really a post player, and to see what they did to him was really great.”
Calipari’s rep for years was that of a point guard whisperer. From Memphis to Kentucky, he had a run of lottery picks at the position: Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight. Lately, though, the parade of star big men has been even more eye-popping.
Kentucky produced a top-10 pick in the post each of Calipari’s first five seasons – DeMarcus Cousins, Enes Kanter, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle – and this year the Cats will likely have two: Towns and Willie Cauey-Stein. Incoming 6-11 freshman Skal Labissiere is already the projected No. 1 pick in next year’s draft.
And while many have been, not all were ready-made pros when they arrived in Lexington. Cauley-Stein, a Kansas native, couldn’t get a scholarship offer from the Jayhawks. No one predicted Towns challenging Okafor for the top spot this year.
“If you can point to a line of success at a position, there’s no doubt it helps. That’s what the kids want. And they don’t just want coaches to tell them; they want coaches to show them. Calipari can.”
Just ask 6-10, 205-pound 2016 center Sacha Killeya-Jones, who recently backed out of a commitment to Virginia and is considering the Wildcats.
“Coach Cal, he has a history of tall, lanky bigs,” he said. “He’s already talked about players like Willie Cauley-Stein, players like Skal, Anthony Davis. Very good company.”
And a very powerful message for 6-8, 230-pound 2017 forward Xavier Tillman, who just got an offer from the Wildcats. UK has had burlier big men, too, like Cousins, Randle and Dakari Johnson, who might sneak into the late first round this year.
“If you can do it with somebody who plays my position, why can’t you do it with me?” Tillman said. “That’s a big factor.”
It was a recurring theme among post players this week in Charlottesville. Marques Bolden, a 6-9, 230-pounder who is a top-10 prospect in the 2016 class, is feeling the same pull as the others.
“I like the way Calipari does his thing,” Bolden said. “He told me just to keep working and I would fit their style of play real good and he thinks I can end up like most of their previous players – like, at the next level.”
Kentucky’s coach has the track record to back that up.