LEXINGTON, Ky. – An unprecedented seven Kentucky Wildcats announced they are declaring for the NBA Draft at a press conference at the Joe Craft Center on Thursday.
Junior Willie Cauley-Stein, sophomores Andrew and Aaron Harrison and Dakari Johnson, and freshmen Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns, will forego their future eligibility at UK and put their names in the upcoming draft, to be held June 25 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“It’s about each individual up here making a decision – not based on what’s right for this university, not based on what’s right for me and our staff – but what’s right for them and their families,” UK head coach John Calipari said at Thursday’s press conference. “The way this works, I meet with each player after the last game, and truly it’s the morning after the last game. I ask, ‘Do you want me to explore your options?’ They all said yes. A few said no. We gather the information. We talk to about 20 NBA teams, maybe more. We let the parents talk directly to the NBA so there’s no confusion. We have about a five-minute meeting – maybe. I’m not convincing them to stay and I’m not pushing anybody out the door. This is their choice.”
Kentucky is coming off a record-setting season in which the Wildcats became the first team ever to post a 38-0 record. UK’s 38 victories tied the most in NCAA history, tying Calipari’s 2012 national championship team and his 2008 Memphis squad.
The Wildcats, who captured both the Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament crowns, made it to the Final Four unblemished, the first team to accomplish that feat since UNLV in 1991.
“We didn’t quite get our goal of winning a national title and 40-0, but it can’t and it doesn’t take away from what these people have accomplished,” Calipari said.
Booker averaged 10.0 points and sunk 58 3-pointers during his freshman season. He was named the SEC Sixth Man of the Year by the league’s coaches and was also a member of the All-SEC Second Team and All-SEC Freshman Team.
The Grand Rapids, Mich., native was a five-time winner of the SEC Freshman of the Week honor while connecting on 41 percent of his shots from long range. Booker’s season highlights included a stretch of seven games in which he connected on 20 of 28 (71.4 percent) of his 3-point shots, beginning with the game vs. No. 18 North Carolina.
“We all wanted a national championship, but I feel like we made a lot of history here, did a lot of great things,” Booker said. “These are memories that I’ll never forget. People always ask what my hardest decision was, and it’s the decision to leave Kentucky, not to come here. That was the easy decision, to come here and be a part of this program. Great fan base. That was an easy decision and leaving all of that will be the hardest.”
Cauley-Stein (pictured with Aaron Harrison) became one of UK’s 58 all-time All-Americans during his breakout junior campaign and its 25th consensus First Team All-American. The 7-foot forward from Olathe, Kan., averaged 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds during his three-year career in Lexington.
Cauley-Stein finished his career as the only player in program history to amass 500 or more rebounds, 200 or more blocks, and 100 or more steals. He concludes his career ranking second all-time in the UK record books with 233 blocked shots.
In addition to his consensus All-America honors, Cauley-Stein was the 2015 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, 2015 SEC Tournament MVP, an All-SEC selection, an All-Freshman Team selection in 2013 and a two-time member of the All-SEC Defensive Team.
“It’s the start of something big for all of us,” Cauley-Stein said. “It definitely is a tough decision, especially with how young we are and everything, but it’s a decision that everybody and their family, they got to make. We think it’s the time to go.”
Aaron Harrison will forever be remembered for his three straight game-winning 3-pointers during UK’s thrilling 2014 NCAA Tournament run. The sophomore averaged 12.4 points in his two-year career with the Wildcats and sunk 121 career 3-pointers, a mark that ranks 22nd all-time in Kentucky’s record books.
Aaron Harrison started all but one game in his 79 career appearances. He was a Second Team All-SEC selection as a sophomore and a two-time All-SEC Tournament Team selection. For his career, he shot 41 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from behind the arc. He finishes just 21 points shy of joining UK’s 1,000-point club.
“It was just time for me to go to the next level,” Aaron Harrison said. “I think I’m ready for the next level. I haven’t really heard much with draft projections, but I feel like I’m one of the best No. 2 guards. I had an up-and-down season, but I still think I’m one of the best No. 2 guards in the draft. I just have to go out there and prove it.”
Andrew Harrison served as the floor general for two seasons at Kentucky. The 6-foot-6 point guard averaged 10.1 points and churned out 298 career assists in 79 career contests, starting all but one game for the Wildcats during his tenure.
Andrew Harrison’s 298 career dimes ranks 16th all-time in UK’s record books, which are the most for a two-year player in program history. He earned a spot on the 2015 All-SEC Tournament Team and was a member of the Midwest All-Region Team after sinking the game-winning free throws against Notre Dame to send Kentucky to its 17th Final Four in program history.
“It’s really cool, but it’s just now beginning,” Andrew Harrison said. “Like they say, you’ve got to fight for what you want and don’t worry about what anybody says about you and just fight and believe in your talent. Obviously, we are all pretty talented in our own rights and it was fun. This was the best experience of my life playing basketball here at the University of Kentucky, and I’m so thankful for them for having me here these past two years.”
Johnson appeared in 78 career games and started 18 contests during his two-year career in Lexington. The 7-foot center averaged 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in his career, logging career bests in points per game, rebounds per game, free-throw percentage, blocks, steals and assists during his sophomore campaign.
In UK’s Final Four game vs. Wisconsin in 2014, Johnson poured in 10 points and hauled in seven rebounds, including five offensive boards. Against Louisville in the Sweet 16 in 2014, Johnson played in a career-high 31 minutes and posted a career-high 15 points while filling in for the injured Cauley-Stein.
“I just feel like it’s my time,” Johnson said. “Growing up as a kid, you always wait for this moment. I just think I’m prepared. These last two years here have been great. When you go up against people every day that’s going to be pros one day, I think it just made me mentally stronger, and stronger as a player and person. After the meeting me and my mom had with Coach Cal yesterday, I just told my mom I’ll call her this morning and tell her my decision. Last night, I just prayed on it. God told me it’s my time.”
Lyles, who Calipari described as the “X-factor” of Kentucky’s magical 2014-15 run, averaged 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in 36 games in 2014-15. An All-SEC Freshman Team selection, Lyles was also named the SEC Freshman of the Week twice during his career.
The Indianapolis native averaged 10.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game throughout UK’s NCAA Tournament run in 2015, which included his second career double-double effort with 11 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Cincinnati.
"It was a really tough decision,” Lyles said. “The bonds that I built with a lot of coaches and teammates here makes it hard to say goodbye, but I know this is the next step for me to reach my goal. It’s been my dream since I was 7 years old, and now that it’s time for me to make that move, it’s crazy for me to think about. I would shoot in the driveway or mimic game-winning shots at the park and it’s just crazy to think about the fact that it’s happening now."
Towns earned All-America distinction while hauling in SEC Freshman of the Year accolades during his freshman season at UK. The 6-11 Piscataway, N.J., native averaged 10.3 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds per game while shooting 56.6 percent from the floor and 81.3 from the charity stripe.
Towns saved his best basketball for the biggest of games, logging 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds throughout the NCAA Tournament. He was the 2015 Midwest Region Most Valuable Player after scoring a career-high 25 points and hauling in five rebounds on 10-of-13 shooting vs. Notre Dame.
“It’s surreal,” Towns said. “You never think of this moment; you dream of this moment when you’re young, when you’re playing on the court and you just think about these moments, like the one today – like hopefully I could be in the same league as the greats like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. All these great players, you just want to be a part of the fraternity that they are a part of.”
All seven of Kentucky’s early-entry players are on the majority of NBA mock drafts.
Coach Calipari has placed 31 players in the NBA during his college coaching career (30 of them via the draft), including 19 over his first five seasons at Kentucky. The 19 draft picks over that five-season span is the most of any coach.
Included in the Wildcats’ recent draft success includes two No. 1 overall draft selections (John Wall in 2010 and Anthony Davis in 2012). Toss in Derrick Rose in 2008 at Memphis and Calipari has coached three top draft picks, more than any other coach all-time.
In 2010, five UK players were selected in the first round for the first time in NBA history, and the Wildcats’ six selections in the 2012 NBA Draft are the most in the two-round era.
All told, UK has had 15 first-round draft picks in the Coach Cal era, two No. 1 overall selections, five top-five picks and nine lottery picks.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught