Wall among 5 Wildcats heading to NBA

John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins delivered on their promise to
help coach John Calipari return Kentucky to national
prominence.

Next stop, the NBA.

The freshman All-Americans are among five Kentucky players who
declared for the NBA draft on Wednesday, an exodus that includes
freshman guard Eric Bledsoe, freshman center Daniel Orton and
junior forward Patrick Patterson.

Wall and Cousins are expected to be among the first few players
selected after leading the Wildcats to a remarkable turnaround
season in Calipari’s first year on the job.

Kentucky went 35-3 this season – Calipari’s first as Wildcats
coach – winning the Southeastern Conference regular season and
conference tournament titles before falling to West Virginia in the
regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.

Calipari met with each player individually and encouraged them
to gauge their draft prospects.

“It’s extremely unusual for four freshmen from the same team to
have this opportunity, but it’s my job as a coach to prepare these
young men for such opportunities,” Calipari said.

Players have until May 8 to change their minds, as long as they
don’t hire agents. It’s highly unlikely any of the five players
will come back for another season with the Wildcats.

Certainly not Wall, who was the SEC player of the year after
averaging 16.6 points, 6.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds while becoming
a highlight-reel staple for his breathtaking play in the open
floor.

“I’m not the same player as when I arrived at UK,” Wall said
in a statement. “I believe I’m ready for the next challenge as
Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans were the last two years under Coach
Cal.”

Calipari said early in the season that Wall was more evolved as
a freshman than either Rose and Evans – both of whom starred as
point guards for Calipari at Memphis before heading to the NBA.

Wall is a good bet to be the first pick in the draft, the way
Rose in 2008.

The 6-foot-4 Wall then spent the next five months largely living
up to the hype. He hit a jumper at the buzzer to lift Kentucky to
victory over Miami (Ohio) in his first regular season game but did
his best to share the spotlight. His 241 assists set a Kentucky
single-season record.

Many of those assists came courtesy of baskets by Cousins, the
SEC freshman of the year who will likely join Wall as one of the
first players drafted. The 6-11, 270-pound center averaged 15.1
points and 9.8 rebounds, numbers that could have been significantly
higher if he hadn’t struggled with foul trouble and his temper
early in the season that severely limited his playing time.

When he was on the floor, Cousins was often the team’s most
dominant player and once he learned to control his emotions, he
became borderline unstoppable.

“Coach challenged me to grow on and off the court this
season,” Cousins said. “I believe my game expanded along with my
maturity. This year was the most fun I’ve ever had playing
basketball.”

It certainly looked like it while the player nicknamed
“Boogie” helped Kentucky return to its place among the national
elite. The Wildcats won their first 20 games and briefly rose to
No. 1 in the polls.

It’s a rise that seemed hard for Patterson to fathom during his
first two years with the team as the program slumped under former
coach Billy Gillispie.

Patterson could have gone to the NBA last spring but opted to
stick around to expand his game in Calipari’s “dribble-drive”
offense while also finishing his degree. He averaged a career-low
14.3 points but became a better shooter and fit in with his
less-experienced teammates.

If the departure of Wall, Patterson and Cousins was expected,
Bledsoe’s and Orton’s decision to join their teammates in the draft
came as a bit of a surprise.

Bledsoe averaged 11.3 points and proved to be just as fast as
Wall in the open floor and an even better long-range shooter.
Bledsoe’s 49 3-pointers were second on the team and he made eight
3-pointers in a romp over East Tennessee State in the opening round
of the NCAAs.

“I never thought I’d be in this position after one year,”
Bledsoe said. “Coach Cal pushed us all to be the best we could be
and he believes I’m prepared to take my game to the next
level.”

Orton, thought to be a project when he came in, instead became
the team’s best defender while filling in for Cousins. He averaged
a modest 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per but also finished among
the leaders in the SEC in blocks (53). Orton said going against
Patterson and Cousins in practice each day helped him believe he
could make it in the NBA.

If they all leave, it leaves Calipari with a rebuilding project
on par with the one he inherited a year ago. The departure of Wall
and company combined with the graduation of Ramon Harris, Perry
Stevenson and Mark Krebs leaves Kentucky with just five players
returning next year, only three of whom – guards DeAndre Liggins
and Darnell Dodson and forward Darius Miller – played significant
minutes this season.

Calipari will try to replace them with another highly ranked
recruiting class, though one that will find it difficult to
duplicate the magic Wall and company brought to Rupp Arena.

The Wildcats already have commitments from center Enes Kanter
and Stacey Poole and are considered to be in the mix for a handful
of elite recruits, including guard Brandon Knight.