Unsung Heroes: UK’s Supporting Cast
John Wall. Brandon Knight. Anthony Davis. Karl-Anthony Towns.
These are the superstars of Kentucky basketball for the last seven years; the NBA stars that have helped turned UK coach John Calipari into a recruiting legend and a Hall-of-Famer.
Every true blue Kentucky fan knows those names and a handful of others guys that took the one-and-done route to the NBA, often leaving dozens of wins and Final Four appearances in their wake. But not every year can Cal’s Cats start with 30-something wins and a clear shot at a national title. And yes, this 2015-2016 season is one of those years.
Sure, there’s Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray: the two-man firing squad that has pushed and pulled UK into respectability this season. No one would dispute their growing development into two of the best players Calipari has brought into UK.
But this isn’t about them. Nor is it about any of those guys mentioned above.
It’s about their wingmen, their supporting cast, the guys who had to hit the big shot when the opposing teams decided the superstar wasn’t going to beat them this game.
None of those guys are likely to be NBA All-Stars like the ones mentioned at the top of this story. They never even lead the team in scoring while they were at UK. But they were crucial members of developing teams – upperclassmen in a world of one-year rental players that sometimes had to take the reins and steer clear of crushing defeat.
If you remember, it was the development of Harrellson as a legitimate big man, Liggins as a lockdown defender and Miller as a legitimate scoring threat that took a wobbly team led by a star point guard (Brandon Knight) from a potential first round knockout in the NCAA tournament to the Final Four
If this year’s Kentucky team is to do anything significant, it will be for the same reasons.
It will be because Derek Willis – a homegrown Kentucky player just like Miller – opens up driving lanes by being a dead-eye three point shooter. It means Hawkins will be used to hit the occasional shot (or several, in terms of this season’s win over Louisville) and lock down a hot shooter on the other team.
It will be because a supporting cast finally showed up around the two stars. In the 2010-2011 season it was the support of Harrellson, Liggins and Miller that fueled the stars of Knight, Terrance Jones and Doron Lamb.
In this season, it’ll be Willis and Hawkins to step up for Ulis, Murray and Isaiah Briscoe (and, if recent games hold true, maybe even Isaac Humphries or Marcus Lee).
With injuries mounting and without the help of a crystal ball, tarot cards or psychic abilities, it’s uncertain if the rising support cast will have the same results as the Knight-led team.
But what is certain is that the development of such strong upperclassmen role players means Calipari is more than just a great recruiter of future NBA all-stars who need a little seasoning before making the leap.
Before Calipari, Liggins, Miller and Harrellson were looking at short professional basketball careers, if they had any at all. And while none of them have turned into NBA All-Stars, all have been on NBA rosters and have respectable pro careers.
The same could be true for Willis – who at 6-foot-9 could be interesting as an off the bench shooter for an NBA team. Or even for Hawkins, who’s shorter height might prevent a substantial NBA career, but could promise a decade in the NBA Development League or in Europe.
That’s without mentioning Humphries, Tai Wynard or Marcus Lee – a former volleyball player who could jump his way into the league.
The difference between just running through one-year players for short term success (cough Duke cough) and doing so while also developing underclassmen is a system monopolized solely by Calipari.
If asked at the beginning of this season if Derek Willis would be a key factor in possible SEC championships and a potential Final Four – 99.9 percent of Kentucky fans would have impolitely laughed until they cried.
But his nearly 8 points and 4 rebounds averages a game are crucial to many wins. Asked if Hawkins would be a factor with UK’s main guard trio, fans would have shrugged.
But UK doesn’t defeat archrival Louisville without Hawkins.
Some years… Kentucky wins 30 games a win and is a lock for the Final Four behind a band of baby-faced freshmen.
Other years it takes the unheralded veterans, who have sat on the bench for a few years, biding their time for a breakout moment.
To be sure, no one knows where this Kentucky team will end its season (as of press day). But one thing is for certain… without Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and the other Unsung Upperclassmen this team wouldn’t be going anywhere at all.
This article also appears on page 6 of the March 2016 issue of Ace.
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