A sizable group of former players traveled to Springfield to support University of Kentucky coach John Calipari as he was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame two weeks ago. There were players on hand that he had coached at UMass, Memphis, with the New Jersey Nets, and at Kentucky.
Especially in recent years, Calipari has had as much to do with shaping NBA players as any college coach. He has turned Kentucky into a one-and-done factory, understanding that the more talent he recruits, the fewer years they will spend in college. And he’s OK with that tradeoff.
Players such as Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Terrence Jones, James Young, and Devin Booker — players who spent not years but months at Kentucky with Calipari — were there to pay tribute. Whether his methods are liked or not, the bond he creates with his players is undeniable.
“When I walked in [to a recruit’s home] at UMass, I talked about hope and I talked about dreams and I talked about a vision after a 10-18 season and maybe getting fired,” Calipari said. “It’s a different deal than walking in after a 38-1, seven guys in the NBA, billions of dollars in contracts results. I’ll be honest, I went in this morning to recruiting and I was jacked about it and I didn’t talk about that. I talked about relationships.”
Asked if the mind-boggling roster of players he has sent to the NBA contributed to his induction, Calipari said, “I hope I’ve helped the players as much or more that didn’t make the league. We’ve graduated 80 percent of our kids at UMass and Memphis and we didn’t have as many NBA players then. Now, 30 out of our 40 kids who came in [to Kentucky] are playing professionally and that’s outrageous.”
What was probably the least-known fact about Calipari was that he was an assistant at Kansas with Celtics great Jo Jo White under coach Ted Owens in the early 1980s.
“I played against him when he was 42 and he could still play,” Calipari said of White. “And he talked about going to Europe or going to the [minor] leagues and said, ‘I need to still be playing.’ He was that good. I told coach [Tom] Heinsohn, ‘Do you remember how fast he could run? And stop on a dime and pull up and shoot?’ He was doing that in his 40s. He glided. He didn’t really run. They took care of me. I was a volunteer at Kansas and Jo Jo was the assistant.”
Young was one of Calipari’s former players who watched the ceremony, sitting next to former teammate Willie Cauley Stein, now with the Sacramento Kings. What’s undeniable about Calipari’s reign as a college coach is his influence on his players. All of his former players who attended the ceremony also attended a get-together prior to the induction, and then Calipari’s former Kentucky players flew to Lexington for an alumni game against former North Carolina players.
Young just turned 20 and was an infant when Calipari led UMass to the Final Four in 1996. Although it would seem that the significance of the Hall of Fame might be overlooked by someone born in the mid-1990s, it was the opposite.
The highlight of the weekend for Young was not only reuniting with Calipari, but watching White’s acceptance speech. Because of his physical condition, the speech was prerecorded, but White touched on the pride of playing for the Celtics and how much he adored the organization. That wasn’t lost on Young.
“It was a great experience, probably the best experience of my life, to be honest,” he said. “I got to communicate with some of the guys I went to school with. I got to see some familiar faces and I talked to Cal, so it was a great experience. I’m glad I got a chance to be part of it.”
Asked about White, Young gushed.
“It was great to see Jo Jo talking and it made me more focused and more confident that I want to be something like Jo Jo and what he did,” Young said. “I just want to follow in his footsteps and maybe be a Hall of Famer one day, so it was great to see that.”
While Calipari’s tactics may be questioned, the fact that many of his players made the trip to Springfield speaks to his impact. He doesn’t view his NBA coaching stint with the Nets fondly and perhaps his failure on the highest level discouraged general managers from seeking college coaches back then. The success of the Celtics’ Brad Stevens has changed that trend.
Calipari has enjoyed his greatest success sending immense talent to the NBA and the readiness of players such as Cousins, Davis, Eric Bledsoe, and John Wall has helped cement his impact on the professional game.
TURNING THE CORNER
Revamped Lakers eye major strides
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak spent the summer making a series of moves that could make his club a playoff contender, though its chances in the treacherous Western Conference are remote. Yet the Lakers enter training camp as one of the more intriguing teams in the NBA because of their roster makeup.
They have Kobe Bryant, D’Angelo Russell, Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson, and now Metta World Peace, who signed a training camp contract last week after two years away from the NBA. Kupchak has always been one of the league’s more honest GMs. He offers accurate assessments of his rosters and his decisions.
On Bryant’s minutes:
“There’s been an unwritten understanding that he’s had significant injuries the last three years and it’s important for us to keep that in mind and to see how he progresses in training camp. I would imagine he would not practice twice a day, every day. I know we’re going to get a great effort. He looks great. He’s in great spirits.
“As far as what level of play, how many minutes, and how we’ll be playing as a team, that remains to be seen. I watched him work out. Assuming he’s ready to go, then he’ll go full blast.”
On the season:
“There’s quite a few story lines for the season coming forward. Kobe coming back is one of them. We’re hopeful that we can put together a competitive season, win a bunch of games — certainly more games than we won last year. Let’s see how the first six to eight weeks go. We’re going to be much more competitive this year. I am hoping that would be case.
“Anything’s possible. I know the West is a tough conference to play in. We do want to stay healthy. We want to exceed whatever the expectations may be. We want our core to develop.”
On team aspirations:
“Our goal is always to win a championship. That’s our goal. As an organization I don’t feel we can ever go into a season and say our goal is to win 30 games or our goal is to barely make the playoffs. There is a realistic part to every note of expectation.”
On World Peace:
“Clearly, Metta is much closer to the end than he is to the beginning. I watched him play here for the last six weeks and he can still be effective on the court. But these are scrimmages that last 15-20 minutes. As a person, he’s been with us for years and I’ve got to know him very well. I think he’d be great in the locker room with younger players.”
On the Lakers’ long-term future:
“The rules have significantly changed the way you can address rebuilding a team. It’s become clear that draft choices and building through the draft is a big part of it. We don’t have the luxury to have a 10-year rebuilding program done through the draft. Which is why we’ve maintained a lot of flexibility with the cap going forward. Our position has been to try to do it the right way under the existing rules.
“That’s a combination of doing it through the draft, and we’ve gotten very lucky with a second-round pick last year [Clarkson]. He was really good on a bad team . . . but we think he can be a heck of a player. I don’t think there’s anybody in the league who has more money than we do available this [coming] summer.”
“I’m hoping he can get back to where he was two years ago. He’s got great size. He’s got great length. I think he needed a change of scenery. I know he’s motivated and I know he’s highly skilled. The pieces to the package are there to have a very effective season.”
On coach Byron Scott:
“I’m hoping he has more to work with than he did last year. I thought he was great last year. Under really tough circumstances, he kept the group together. They played hard every game. We had a bunch of injuries. That could really demoralize a coach and his staff. But he had them playing hard every game. I thought he did a great job and I think he has more to work with this year and I think he would agree with that. I hope he is rewarded with more W’s.”
ON THE RISE
Teams in the East have improved
The Celtics have been picked to compete for the playoffs this season with an upgraded roster that includes Amir Johnson, David Lee, and rookie Terry Rozier. Former first-round pick Perry Jones will be fighting for a roster spot, while Isaiah Thomas will be healthy and Jae Crowder freshly re-signed and with the benefit of participating in a full training camp with the team.
But the competition in the Eastern Conference also improved. Miami, which missed the postseason in 2014-15, re-signed Goran Dragic and added Amar’e Stoudemire to join a healthy Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Hassan Whiteside.
The Hornets added Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes, Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin, and rookie Frank Kaminsky. The Pistons acquired Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris, and drafted Stanley Johnson, while the Pacers drafted gifted big man Myles Turner, signed Monta Ellis and Jordan Hill, and welcome back a healthy Paul George.
“I think the East is good,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. “Obviously Cleveland is a powerhouse and Chicago on paper, if they stay healthy, they’re a terrific team, and Miami is a very underrated team. Washington still has great young talent. Big front line. I think the East is a very good conference.”
The Celtics will have major competition in their quest for one of the eight playoff spots. Even teams such as the Knicks and Magic have postseason aspirations.
“We sit here at this time of year and we try to prognosticate and there’s always things that happen,” Ainge said. “I know it’s tough. I know we’re going to have a tough game every night because we’re that type of team. We’re a team that if we don’t come ready to play and we don’t play well, we can get beat by anybody.
“And at the same time if we do play well, we can beat anybody. We had a lot of close games last year. A lot of games that we won, we were very fortunate to win. A lot of games we lost that we made some critical mistakes down the stretch, so it’s very fragile. Our effort has to be there every night and we have to be consistent.”
Ainge was asked about not being able to acquire a major free agent this summer and how it affected the Celtics’ rebuilding process.
“I’m excited about the team. I mean, listen, there’s always things you want to do that you don’t get to do,” he said. “We don’t always get what we want, but I’m excited about each and every guy on this roster. I think you need transcendent players in the NBA and you don’t always get what you want.”
The free agent market was given an unexpected boost with the Timberwolves’ buyout of former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, who has averaged 4.7 points over his first two NBA seasons with Cleveland and Minnesota. The move could be viewed as simple roster management since the Timberwolves already have Kevin Garnett, Adreian Payne, and Nemanja Bjelica at power forward. But the fact they rid themselves of a player who has only played two seasons is perhaps testament to Bennett’s soiled reputation. What’s bizarre is that despite limited minutes, Bennett thrived in Team Canada’s run in the FIBA Americas tournament this month. He averaged 7.6 points in 16.8 minutes per game, shooting 58 percent from the field and 64.7 percent from the 3-point line. Bennett cleared waivers and is reportedly headed to the Raptors, which would give him an opportunity to play in his home country. It should be a less-stressful situation for Bennett, who does have NBA skills but has not received significant minutes. While he has been a major disappointment, Bennett has attempted fewer than five shots per game in his first two years, hence his 4.7 scoring average. Like lottery bust Derrick Williams, who was chosen No. 2 overall in 2011, Bennett may never be a star, but there is a place for him in the NBA . . . Former University of Washington center Robert Upshaw agreed to a training camp deal with the Lakers, joining former Celtics summer league standout Jonathan Holmes as nonroster invitees. Upshaw was considered a potential first-round pick when he decided to enter the draft after being dismissed from his college team. Although he performed well in tests during the draft combine, there were questions about his health and his off-court issues. The Lakers were interested in Upshaw after he played for their summer league entry, but not enough to sign the big man to a guaranteed contract. His best path may be the NBADL, which was the road center Hassan Whiteside took before finally finding an NBA home with the Heat . . . The Bulls were handed some unexpected bad news when forward Mike Dunleavy required back surgery last week that will cost him two months. While the Bulls are expected to compete with the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, good health is the key to that quest. Second-year forward Doug McDermott could see increased playing time under new coach Fred Hoiberg.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.