NBA Draft season is officially upon us as the Finals are in full motion heading to game three. With Cleveland looking entirely overmatched by the defending champion Golden State Warriors through two losses, the attention of most fan bases has shifted to assessing the upcoming crop of rookies led by LSU’s Ben Simmons, Duke’s Brandon Ingram, and Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Dragan Bender. Only 15 days stand between hypothetical and reality.
It’s time to buckle up for the home stretch and ultimately another joy ride that is the NBA draft, when the most pitiful franchises over the past year get a chance at redemption and are given the opportunity to add the most promising young stars to their payroll under rookie scale deals. But everything can go wrong just as easily as it can go perfectly right. Karl-Anthony Towns isn't the standard. He's the jaw-dropping exception that makes Andrew Wiggins the unforeseen Robin only 12 months after being Batman. He's the one that brings Tom Thibodeau out of retirement back to where it all started in Minneapolis in 1989 as an assistant for the expansion Timberwolves under Bill Musselman. There are no talents like Towns in this draft, but there are plenty of intriguing prospects from top to bottom.
I jokingly tweeted two weeks ago that my new NBA draft model was almost finished, and that it’s going to be called the PKP model, which stands for Pick Kentucky Players. If any team is stuck, and there's a talented high-end Kentucky prospect available, that’s really all they have to do. If they can’t decide who to pick, smart money is on grabbing the Kentucky guy, because the results will probably be favorable down the line. The reason for my sarcastic tweet has to do with the Wolves picking fifth overall and my preference for what they ultimately do with the selection. Trading the pick for a proven veteran that is a known commodity is an interesting proposition, no doubt. But my eyes are fiercely focused on Kentucky’s most highly-touted prospect, freshman combo guard Jamal Murray of House Canada, and also the amazingly successful House Calipari.
I’ve read hundreds of different, unique opinions on what Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden— the new leaders in Minneapolis — should do with the fifth pick. We have Kris Dunn believers that see the Providence point guard as the perfect orchestrator of the young Wolfpack. There are Buddy Hield fans that dream of his sharpshooting Oklahoma days translating seamlessly to the modern NBA in Curry-esque ways to help space the defense for a team that finished 29th in 3-point attempts (1,347) and 26th in percentage (33.8).
Some might prefer to take the home run swing by selecting the raw yet uber-athletic Marquese Chriss as power forward of the future. Plenty of smart folks have labeled him as the ultimate lottery ticket in this draft class, while I'm branding him as the Zach LaVine of big men since freakish athleticism is currently his most tantalizing trait. There’s also the inquisitive and explosive Jaylen Brown, who could be shaped as a dynamic defensive wing under Thibs in due time.
That’s not where I would look, though. Why? Because John Calipari is doing all of the work for us, and my money is on Jamal Murray being the latest hit single coach Cal produces. With the fifth overall pick, if he’s on the board like many experts are projecting, the Wolves would be wise to pick the NCAA’s best U20 scorer from the past season. Drafting the 19-year-old Canadian combo guard certainly doesn't fill the biggest need on the roster—that designation goes to the starting power forward spot—but that would be best filled through a trade or free agent acquisition anyway.
The smooth, elite spot-up shooting freshman comes off screens like a young Ray Allen or Klay Thompson, primed and ready to rip it from deep. He definitely has the scoring chops to be the next big thing out of Kentucky. In a draft that appears wildly unpredictable after the top three prospects get plucked from the pool, Murray looks like the best chance to hit it big. If he does, that will open up a plethora of alternative options in the upcoming years as the Wolves not only look to become a legitimate team in the Western Conference but a perennial contender.
Look around the NBA with Kentucky and Calipari in mind for a moment. There's an incredible amount of star power that has been harvested in Lexington over the past seven years. Karl-Anthony Towns single-handedly changed the entire course of the Timberwolves franchise after one season. Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, and Eric Bledsoe are all franchise cornerstones with either Max-level contracts or something close to it.
Calipari has been landing star players in every recruiting class since being named head coach on April 1, 2009, consistently sending them to the NBA more prepared than most other prospects. Then he sits back and watches them flourish at the next level. It’s no wonder only a handful of programs can compete for the top high school prospects each year. How easy is it to sell the NBA dream with the list Calipari can point to. Come to Kentucky! You could be the #1 pick, have a max contract, and a shoe deal with Nike or Adidas or Under Armour or whatever brand you want within five years. I guarantee it (George Zimmer voice).
Coach Cal’s Quick Pitch
You’ve heard of the Unibrow, right? I’m sure you have before. Anthony is like my son. What about John Wall, surely you’ve seen the Dougie before? Boogie Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. Two more of my sons. Both highly successful. The reigning rookie of the year? I know you’ve heard of him. Did you see what he just did for the Wolves? You’re going to do the same thing as these guys, son. We’re a family here at Kentucky and we want YOU to be part of the family. YOU are going to be the next big rookie in the league after I get done with you. Did I mention Drake stops by every now and then?
Towns and Devin Booker were first-team all rookies in the NBA this year! 15-year cornerstones! Willie Cauley-Stein is already an imposing defensive player who will be a top 10 center once he learns the art of rim running like Tyson Chandler. Trey Lyles is major opportunity away from being a top 15 power forward in the league. Do you want a stretch four that can rebound and defend? Trey is your man. Nerlens Noel, Brandon Knight, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Enes Kanter and Julius Randle are five other players that have found great success in the league (and big ass contracts). Patrick Patterson, Terrence Jones, and Jodie Meeks have been decent role players. James Young has been buried in Boston, so we don’t really know about him quite yet, and really how many busts have I produced here (Calipari whispers Marquis Teague and Daniel Orton, and mutters Dakari Johnson and Darius Miller before quickly shrugging it off).
There are 22 active Kentucky players in the NBA. Do you want to be 23?
All Signs Point to Jamal
According to Draft Express, Murray was the most efficient off-screen scorer in the NCAA last season (minimum 80 possessions and 30 games played). He finished with an incredible 1.506 points per possession. Adding him to the Wolves roster and letting him curl around screens for days, or camp out along the perimeter (89.4 percent of his 3-pointers were assisted this season) as Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine shoulder most of the scoring load, is an ideal fit. Murray doesn't need the ball in his hands to dominate like Dunn or Hield will. He can simply fit in with the tools he has and act as the primary floor spacer off the bench immediately while still having a high enough ceiling to start down the line if everything comes together.
Watch Murray's film long enough and it starts to become clear that this guy has the tools to be just as successful as Devin Booker was last season. This is a pure shooter with an insanely quick release, who can also go up and slam one home over a 7-footer or dissect an opposing point guard in the pick-and-roll. Murray has a major future ahead of him, and he's also exceedingly more explosive than originally advertised, validated by his 39.5 inch max vertical during the combine in Chicago.
I don’t think Calipari is being disingenuous when he raves about Murray's game. This isn't him talking up one of his guys to maximize their income. At this point, the amazing track record of John Calipari speaks for itself. Murray also has serious game worthy of a top pick. Add everything up and the Wolves would be smart to invest the fifth pick in him if he's available come June 23.