John Calipari’s Recruiting Prowess is All-EncompassingPosted by Chris Johnson on September 12th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Recruiting has never been as simple as John Calipari makes it look. Winning national championships, plucking the annual Rivals Top 150 of its very best talent, sending them off to the NBA Draft, and grinning with every lottery selection. It is a self-sustaining cycle, and it has long since worked. That’s the part that makes sense. Most coaches don’t have the luxury of bringing in six McDonald’s All Americans to an iconic, tradition-laden program – so they use scouting acumen, and developmental prognostication, to find the best players the best teams have neglected (or temporarily dismissed) and scoop them up before engaging in a recruiting battle they can’t possibly win. Most high-major programs offer their own uniquely attractive features, true–even non-bluebloods offer variously amenities and benefits many top high schoolers find appealing. But generally, their job is more difficult than John Calipari’s. At this point, Calipari’s program basically recruits itself (Calipari is a terrific recruiter on his own merits, and he’s been in battles for top players with other big-name programs before, but there are a number of factors – program, coaching history, track record of NBA preparation – that give him a leg up on competitors). Most other coaches need to do a lot more heavy lifting before landing the players they sign.
Not only does he boast those obvious advantages, Calipari has a few recruiting tricks up his sleeve that he can pull out at a moment’s notice. There was the famous Jay-Z incident, in which the hip-hop mogul visited Kentucky’s locker room after the Wildcats advanced to the 2011 Final Four, not to mention his backstage access to Hov’s Barclays Center-opening concert. Or the controversial “greatest day in the history of the program” remark, which referred to Kentucky’s landmark five first-round selections in the 2010 draft, a statement representative of Calipari’s desire to – above winning championships, even – turn the high schoolers he recruits into wealthy professional basketball players using one year of Kentucky-based tutelage as their developmental pathway (in lieu of the impossible solution: the abolition of the NBA’s 19-year-old age limit). And then, my personal favorite: Calipari apologizing to recruits in June 2012 because “I’m spending the majority of my time answering questions from NBA teams about my six guys.” The subtle brilliance of that tweet is everlasting; sorry, five-star high school hoops stars of the world, but I’m busy talking to NBA scouts.Your questions will have to wait. It’s perfect.
On Monday, Calipari revealed another mechanism for NBA-related recruiting enticement. With a number of Kentucky’s most coveted prospects – including center Jahlil Okafor, a consensus top-three prospect in 2014, and Tyler Ulis, a fast-rising point guard who recently received a scholarship offer from Kentucky – on hand for an alumni game Monday at Rupp Arena, former Wildcat and current Wizards star guard John Wall stole the show with 40 points. Other participants included Anthony Davis, Patrick Patterson, Terrence Jones, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, NBA talents all, but more importantly guys who just recently were groomed for their respective NBA careers through Calipari’s coaching. Okafor, Ulis, and the other recruits on hand were given a close-up look of the product of Calipari’s work, of what going to Kentucky can mean for your basketball future. It can mean a lot of things: championships, the Wildcat lodge, unrivaled campus celebrity (Kentucky is one of the few FBS schools in the country where being a basketball player affords one a higher social capital score than a football player), and lots of nationally televised games are important, but the NBA – the place the alumni game participants, and many others, have landed thanks in large part to Calipari’s coaching – is the biggest selling point.
And sell it, Calipari does. He may not get verbal commitments from Okafor or Ulis, the former considered a package deal with top 2014 point guard Tyus Jones (who plans to visit Lexington on an official visit sometime in September), the latter being recruited hard by Michigan State and Iowa. But if he does, having them sit down and watch the fruit of his recent labor perform at a high level surely didn’t hurt. Calipari’s recruiting pitch is obvious and it is great, but there are little things, little details like alumni games filled with NBA regulars shuttled through Kentucky hoops under his watch, that take it over the top. It’s hard not to be impressed.