Think about some of the most storied basketball colleges in America. Which do you think has produced the most future top-level professionals? The once untouchable UCLA Bruins? North Carolina? Duke? I’ll give you a hint: Think about the college basketball landscape today. Who is consistently nabbing one of the top recruiting classes and churning them out after just one year of seasoning into the open arms of salivating NBA GMs?
With 94 current and former NBA players, the answer is, of course, the University of Kentucky. Much of their success in this area has come recently in the John Calipari era, but they aren’t exactly new kids on the block, having established a reputation for developing athletes with professional aspirations long before the “one-and-done” era. They’ve been far more than simply a temporary training ground, with eight national championships to their name and a heated in-state rivalry with Louisville.
When you’ve put as many players through to the league as Kentucky has, you’re bound to host your fair share of studs—and just as many duds. Once they reached the ranks of the NBA, some Wildcats have had more success than others. Different players develop at different rates, and NBA basketball is an entirely different beast from the NCAA. Some very productive and decorated collegiate athletes have had dismal professional careers, while other less impactful players blossom into stars once they mature and get let loose in the faster pace and more open space of an NBA game. The same thing can be said for Kentucky’s high school recruits, many of whom go from dominating kids their age to riding the pine and never recovering their confidence or taking their game to the next level.
For better or for worse, these are the names fans remember most, those who live up to the hype, and those who flame out spectacularly. These are the top players who have thrilled and infuriated “Big Blue Nation” the most.
15 Best: Louie Dampier
Dampier’s basketball beginnings were humble and tragic, a scrawny 6’0” guard who had lost both his parents by age 18. Though being orphaned affected him deeply, one aspect of his life it didn’t diminish was basketball. He was a high school star in basketball-crazed Indiana before taking his talents to Kentucky. During his time there, he was a two-time All-American, teaming up with Pat Riley to lead the Wildcats all the way to the championship game in his junior year. After college, he headed to the ABA where he became a star and pioneer of the three-point shot. After seven All-Star appearances and an ABA championship, Dampier spent the twilight of his years in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.
14 Worst: Antoine Walker
“Worst” might seem like a strong word for a player who accomplished so much in his career. At Kentucky, he was an NCAA champion before being picked sixth in the hallowed 1996 NBA draft. Once in the league, he won a title at the professional level with the Miami Heat to go along with three All-Star appearances. But looks can be deceiving, and once you dig under the shiny accolades, you’ll find some pretty ugly numbers. Walker could score, but only by putting up a ton of shots, with an abysmal career field goal percentage of .414. When asked why he took so many threes despite being just an average-at-best shooter, he infamously responded “because there are no fours”. He was also extremely turnover prone, leading the league in that category during his second year in the league. So, while he might not be strictly the worst, he might be the most overrated.
13 Best: John Wall
One of the most physically gifted point guards to ever play the game, Wall started turning heads at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He shot up the recruiting rankings and committed to Kentucky, whose new coach John Calipari had provided the NBA with their two latest Rookie of the Year award winners, guards Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans. Wall lived up to the hype and then some, dominating with his length, speed, and court vision on the way to winning SEC Player of the Year and the Rupp Trophy. Teaming up with fellow freshman phenom DeMarcus Cousins, Wall led the Wildcats to the Final Four, and established Calipari’s reputation as the best recruiter in the nation. Wall has continued to impress in the NBA, now a four-time All-Star having his best season as a pro with career highs in points (23.0) and assists (10.8) per game.
12 Worst: Melvin Turpin
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, it was only natural that Turpin, a 6’11” center would choose the University of Kentucky. In his senior year, he helped lead the Wildcats to a Final Four appearance, where they lost to eventual champions Georgetown. He then became a part of the 1984 draft, arguably the greatest class of all time featuring the likes of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton. Unfortunately for Turpin, who was selected sixth overall, success would elude him at the professional level. The always thickly built athlete struggled to stay in shape, earning cruel nicknames like “Dinner Bell Mel”. Despite showing potential early in his career, he would play just five total seasons in the league. Tragically, Turpin’s reputation as a bust and the public humiliation that went along with it may have haunted him long after his playing days, as he committed suicide in 2010 at just 49 years of age.
11 Best: DeMarcus Cousins
Cousins and the aforementioned John Wall formed one of the best freshmen one-two punches in NCAA history for the 2009-10 season. Cousins’ immense bulk but surprisingly nimble feet made him unstoppable at the college level, dominating the competition despite only playing 23.5 minutes per game. The only question marks in his game were his conditioning and attitude, and while those remain concerns today, his production on the court has proven to be worth the price of his emotional outbursts. The versatile 6’11” big man is now a three-time All-Star in the middle of his fourth straight season averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds per contest.
At just 26, “Boogie” still has many years left to add postseason success to his legacy, which has thus far completely eluded him. Now that he’s out of the toxic Kings organization, and paired with a fellow superstar in Anthony Davis, his chances of fulfilling his full potential may finally be realized.
10 Worst: Walter McCarty
McCarty had a good, though not spectacular college career, capped off with an NCAA title in 1996, his junior year. As with his teammate Antoine Walker, McCarty decided to go out on top and declare early for that year’s NBA draft. He ended up going 19th overall to the Knicks, one spot ahead of future two-time All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas. McCarty never came close to having that kind of impact in the league, averaging a paltry 5.2 points per game for his career. He may have been a “jack of all trades” as a college athlete, but he was really just a “master of none” as a pro. He did however manage to find some success off the court as an R&B singer, releasing two generally well-received albums and singing the pre-game National Anthem at the 2006 NBA All-Star Game.
9 Best: Rajon Rondo
After attending the prestigious Oak Hill Academy in high school, Rondo took his talents to Kentucky where he led the team in steals and made it to the Final Four as a freshman. In the NBA, he would very quickly find himself thrust into the spotlight, after the Celtics made blockbuster moves to acquire superstars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The unproven Rondo had shown promise as a playmaker, and defender, but his inexperience and broken shot made him a risky choice for starting point guard on a team with serious championship aspirations.
As we all know, the gamble proved to be a good one, with Rondo successfully steering Boston to their first championship in more than 20 years. His role with Boston continued to expand over the coming years, leading to four All-Star selections and another Finals appearance. Outside the structure and veteran leadership of the Boston locker room, Rondo’s career seems to have taken a turn for the worse lately, but he did lead the league in assists just last season, leading to some optimism that he may yet have some championship-level production left in him.
8 Worst: Daniel Orton
As a member of John Calipari’s inaugural star-studded recruiting class for Kentucky, big things were expected of Orton, the nation’s 19th ranked high schooler. However, a crowded frontcourt meant Orton mostly had to watch from the bench as his freshman teammates John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins stole the show. Despite his limited playing time, Orton surprised many by also declaring for the NBA draft after his lone season. While he managed to sneak into the first round to Orlando, the Magic gave up on him after just one season, and his next teams would follow suit.
In total, Orton played just 51 games over three seasons for three different teams before bouncing out of the league. Kentucky fans probably wish he had stayed behind and developed his game in college for a couple more years, and at this point, Orton probably wishes he had too.
7 Best: Frank Ramsey
A native Kentuckian, Ramsey decided to stay in-state for his college experience, helping UK win their third national title in his first year. A point shaving scandal forced Kentucky to forfeit what would have been Ramsey’s senior year. Though he was selected in the first round of the 1953 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, Ramsey elected to return to Kentucky since he missed out on his senior season.
His basketball career would once again be interrupted after his rookie season with the Celtics, when he spent one year in military service before returning to the team. His return signalled the beginning of the most successful dynasty in NBA history. Boston would win 11 of the next 13 NBA Championships, of which Ramsey was around for seven before retiring at the age of 32. A winner in every sense of the word, few players in history have seen as much success as Ramsey did at all levels of the game.
6 Worst: Marquis Teague
The younger brother of current Pacers star Jeff Teague, the speedy Marquis was much more highly regarded than his brother as a high schooler, the top point guard and seventh ranked recruit overall in his class. He joined an absolutely stacked class of Kentucky freshmen that included Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis. Though Teague struggled at times to adjust to the college game, he played well enough to help take Kentucky all the way to an NCAA title. Unfortunately, that success did not translate to the pro level, which he made the leap to the following year. He lasted just two years in the NBA, and has spent the past three seasons overseas and in the D-League. It’s now looking less and less likely that he’ll measure up to his big brother’s success despite the potential he showed as a teenager.
5 Best: Cliff Hagan
A teammate of Frank Ramsey’s at Kentucky, Hagan also had to navigate the point shaving scandal and military service before settling into the NBA lifestyle. After a rookie season in which he saw limited minutes, he exploded as a sophomore, averaging nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds per game and leading the St. Louis Hawks to victory over Ramsey’s Celtics in the NBA Finals. He continued his dominance over the coming years, appearing in five NBA All-Star games and an additional one in the ABA, where he spent his latter years. Though he would never again best the vaunted Celtics in a playoff series, no one can ever take that season’s accomplishment away from him, along with all of the individual accolades he racked up over the course of his basketball career.
4 Worst: Sam Bowie
No discussion of worst players is complete without Sam Bowie, though through no fault of his own. A combination of bad luck with injuries and draft position have cemented his status as one of the biggest busts of all time. Bowie was a defensive force in college, averaging 2.3 blocks for Kentucky and becoming a Consensus All-American in just his sophomore year. However, injuries would force him to miss his next two full college seasons, an ominous sign of things to come. The Trail Blazers nevertheless decided to take him second overall in the 1984 NBA draft, behind Hakeem Olajuwon and, infamously, one spot ahead of Michael Jordan. We all know how that turned out. Jordan became the greatest basketball player of all time while Bowie, though a decent player when he could get on the floor, was plagued by leg injuries his entire career and never reached his full potential.
3 Best: Anthony Davis
“The Brow” may still only be at the beginning of his basketball journey, but he’s done enough in his short career to warrant such a lofty position. Shooting up the rankings as a high school senior thanks to an incredible growth spurt, Davis became the number one high school prospect and cream of Kentucky’s recruiting crop. He lived up to the hype in college, winning the Naismith and Wooden awards en route to a national title, and showcasing his ability to dominate the game with his length, explosiveness, instincts, and skills. Labelled a once-in-a-generation talent, he’s continued to live up to expectations in the NBA despite some minor injury problems. At just 23 and already putting up historic numbers, the sky is truly the limit for this former Wildcat, and he could very well end up at the top of this list by the time his career is over.
2 Worst: Aaron and Andrew Harrison
I couldn’t decide who sucks more, so here’s a rare two-for-one! The fifth and sixth ranked high schoolers in their class landed in Kentucky as part of one of the best recruiting hauls ever, featuring an astonishing six of the nation’s top 20 high school players. Despite finding a lot of team success over the next two seasons (a championship game appearance followed by an undefeated regular season), the twins both struggled mightily to stand out, particularly the more highly touted Andrew.
Many observers felt that the brothers were selfish and only played for themselves, but they couldn’t even get that part right. Andrew, the supposed “point guard” averaged a pedestrian 3.8 assists over his two seasons, along with a horrendous .372 field goal percentage. His more shot-happy brother didn’t fare much better, averaging just 12.4 points per game on .410 shooting for his college career.
With their draft stock floundering, the former surefire one-and-done brothers decided to cut their losses and declare after their sophomore campaign. Andrew was taken 44th overall in 2015, but did not appear in any games until this season, where he’s been a backup guard for Memphis. Aaron has fared even worse, going undrafted and so far appearing in just 26 games over the past two seasons in garbage time minutes, scoring a grand total of 19 points overall.
1 Best: Dan Issel
A two-time consensus All-American, Issel still holds the record for most career points (2,138) in University of Kentucky men’s basketball history. He decided to stay in the bluegrass state to start his professional career, electing to sign with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels over the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. He was an instant star, leading the ABA in scoring during his rookie campaign and making six straight ABA All-Star teams, eventually helping the Colonels win an ABA championship. He continued to find success in the NBA as a member of the Denver Nuggets despite joining later in his career, making an All-Star team and averaging better than 20 points during his time there. Now a Hall-of-Famer, Issel can look back on his career with pride knowing he’s the best player—for now—to ever lace ‘em up for the Kentucky Wildcats.
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