The John Calipari Problem
When high schoolers were blocked from entering the NBA draft, it created the so-called “one-and-done era,” and Calipari was one of the first college coaches to fully embrace it. He had no fear of recruiting top talent that would stick around for a single year before heading to the NBA because he was confident he could reload every season with another talented crop of freshmen.
The best player on just about every Kentucky team of the Calipari era has been a freshman destined for the NBA after a single collegiate campaign. While the strategy has worked in terms of winning, it has caused many of his guard recruits to fall down draft boards.
Calipari’s basketball philosophy has become archaic. He loves highly athletic guards that can penetrate a defense, but the NBA game has drifted away from that skill set. This isn’t to say NBA teams don’t love highly athletic guards, but that passing feel, shooting, and skill have become far more important to a guard’s success at the next level, and there’s a clear moment in history that catalyzed the shift.
In 2014-15, the Golden State Warriors forced NBA front offices to reimagine the guard position. Stephen Curry’s unlimited shooting range showed the world the extreme value of players capable of shooting effectively off the dribble from 3-point range.
Add in the proliferation of spread pick-and-roll attacks that use screeners to create separation for guards, and suddenly the prototypical guards were Curry, Damian Lillard, and James Harden. All three are excellent athletes, but none were reliant on overwhelming athleticism to create offense. Since 2015, burst in the backcourt stopped being the trait-de-jour as skill-based traits came to rule.
While the NBA changed, Calipari didn’t. He continued to recruit high-end prospects but gave little thought to their fit within his scheme and the changing realities of basketball at the professional level. His offense was designed for guards with high-end athleticism, but that stopped being what scouting services and the NBA were prioritizing. Factor in a long list of wings and front court players with little to no shooting ability, and Calipari began building rosters that were setting up his guards to fail.
The last six years have been far less successful than Calipari’s first six years, and a lot of it has to do with his coaching philosophy not overlapping with where the game has gone. He has consistently recruited top guards, but what makes them top-rated recruits has changed dramatically. In essence, Calipari believes the top-rated high school guards should be like John Wall when they’re now more in the vein of Trae Young.
Talent still wins, but a more modern approach to offense could have netted Kentucky a few more deep runs in the NCAA Tournament and possibly another national championship.
What does this mean for TyTy Washington?
TyTy Washington is not a John Calipari guard. He isn’t blessed with elite burst, athleticism, or physicality, but he is shifty and an excellent mid-range shooter who projects as a dependable 3-point shooter as he continues to develop. In essence, his game is built for the modern NBA.
His college stats were still strong but far from noteworthy. Averaging 12.5 points per game on 49.6% shooting on 2-pointers and 35% on 3-pointers is fantastic for a freshman, but it doesn’t scream NBA star.
Washington also battled injuries throughout his lone collegiate season, which likely sapped his athleticism and made him an even more awkward fit for Calipari. His falling to 29th was more a product of bad luck and fit than a lack of NBA-level talent. Every fanbase believes they got a steal, but the Rockets might have actually landed a lottery-level talent at the end of the first round.