LEXINGTON, Ky. - Before every Kentucky home game, the public address announcer shouts a reminder to the crowd that Rupp Arena is home to "the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball!!!" Maybe Patrick Whitmer should update this proclamation by announcing UK as "the greatest way station en route to the NBA!!!"
ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla all but suggested that change during a conversation about UK basketball's annual rite of spring: Players declaring for the NBA draft. This year's early entrants are sophomore PJ Washington and freshmen Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and EJ Montgomery. Johnson and Herro became the 26th and 27th UK freshmen in the last 10 years to forego their remaining college eligibility and link their basketball fates to an NBA draft. Montgomery has left open the door for a return to UK.
"This is the deal with the devil," Fraschilla said. "The devil being the one-and-done."
Fraschilla did not mean to criticize nor suggest something evil. He explained that his friend, UK coach John Calipari, has built a highly successful recruiting pitch around the idea of Kentucky preparing players for NBA careers. To make it work in the most attention-getting way, players must be NBA-bound ASAP. The revolving door ever spins. That is the bargain UK makes with its recruiting pitch.
"These guys feel like, 'This is exactly why I came to Kentucky, period,' " Fraschilla said of decisions to turn pro made by UK players. "Being part of the great tradition (also). But, let's face it. The biggest draw has not been the history and tradition of the program as much as it's been, 'John can help me be an NBA player.'"
Another ESPN analyst, Jay Bilas, suggested another factor leads players to enter an NBA draft. A competitive nature that helps them become good enough to play major college basketball creates peer pressure.
"When we were younger and some kid made the McDonald's All-American Team, another player sat there and said, 'I'm just as good as he is,'" Bilas said. "A guy plays golf and a friend of his is playing from the back tees. 'I'm just as good as he is. I'm playing from the back tees.'
"They look at who's going (in the NBA draft) and say, 'Wait a minute. I played against this guy my whole life. I'm good enough, too.' That's just the way it is."
On occasion, an incoming freshman will talk about wanting to make his mark on college basketball. Michael Porter Jr. spoke of staying at Missouri longer than a season if additional time was needed to make a lasting impact on the program. Because of injuries, he played only three games as a freshman. Then he entered the 2018 NBA draft.
Fraschilla said that Kentucky has proven that players can gain iconic status in one-season college careers. John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns come to mind.
Incidentally, UK announced Monday that DeMarcus Cousins, whose one college season was 2009-10, will be one of this year's inductees into the school's Athletics Hall of Fame.
"You're still revered by Kentucky fans ...," Fraschilla said. "They'll always be part of the Kentucky family. But they really come to Kentucky to fulfill the next dream beyond playing at UK."
As for the future, the NBA is expected to resume allowing players to go directly from high school to the draft within the next few years. But Bilas suggested this change will not affect Kentucky's annual rite of spring. If a player feels ready after one season, he will enter the NBA draft.
Several UK freshmen were not considered NBA ready coming out of high school. But they became one-and-done players. Herro fits that description.
"That's the way it's going to be going forward," Bilas said.
Visit the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) at www.kentucky.com