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The Worst Kentucky Wildcat NBA Draft Busts of All Time

Kentucky has one of the proudest college basketball traditions, but not ever Wildcat star makes it in the NBA…

T he Kentucky Wildcats are one of the proudest traditions in college basketball history, and today when basketball fans think of the University of Kentucky, they think of a factory of NBA talents, especially under John Calipari. Indeed an all-UK team could roll out a starting NBA lineup of De’Aaron Fox, Devin Booker, Kevin Knox, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Anthony Davis, then bring Jamal Murray and Julius Randle off the bench — and all while letting John Wall and Boogie Cousins do some injury rehab.

No school has more NBA stars in today’s league than Kentucky. But that doesn’t mean every Kentucky pick turns into a star. The jury is still out on recent first round picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Malik Monk, but dig back a little deeper and there are as many Kentucky busts as hits, maybe even more. Let’s take a look at 20 of the biggest NBA busts in Kentucky history, from most recent to deep in the past…

2016 — Skal Labissiere

Skal Labissiere was supposed to be a superstar. He averaged 26 points, 12 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks a game his final year of high school and came to Kentucky looking like a future number one pick. He was the number one recruit for both Scout and Rivals. And then the games started. Labissiere struggled to stay on the court for the Wildcats, scoring just 6.6 points in under 16 minutes per game. He decided to enter the draft anyway and snuck into the end of the first round but never found consistent playing time for the Sacramento Kings, despite their love of international big men that can’t play ball. Labissiere was dumped unceremoniously at the trade deadline for fellow bust Caleb Swanigan.

2015 — Willie Cauley-Stein

Willie Cauley-Stein was the sixth pick of the 2015 draft. He was the second Kentucky big man taken after Karl-Anthony Towns. The two had been twin towers for a Wildcats team that went undefeated until a shock Final Four loss to Wisconsin. Cauley-Stein ranks second all time in UK blocks and came to the NBA as a defensive specialist. The defense never really came with him to Sacramento, and Trill has struggled to be more than a decent role player on a bad team. He’s held down the starting center spot and averaged double digit points the last two seasons, but that’s not saying much on the Kings.

2015 — Trey Lyles

Lyles was the third of six Kentucky players drafted in 2015 after the outstanding Wildcats season. Lyles was a borderline top ten prospect out of high school but never produced consistent numbers for Kentucky, but he still profiled as an NBA stretch four and got taken with the 12th pick of the draft by the Utah Jazz. Lyles brought his shot with him but struggled to stay on the court in two years at Utah before being packaged in a draft day trade that worked out pretty well for the Jazz, landing them Donovan Mitchell. Good thing too because they might have just taken Lyles’s Kentucky teammate who went one pick later in 2015, one Devin Booker.

2014 — James Young

The 2014 Wildcats were the second worst Kentucky team of the John Calipari era, earning just an eight seed in the March Madness bracket. It turns out there was a reason. Julius Randle ended up a solid NBA player out of the number seven pick, but teammate James Young was a complete bust at pick 17 for the Boston Celtics. All you need to know about James Young is that the most single memorable thing about his NBA career was a giddy Bill Simmons pumping his fist at the selection live on air during ESPN’s NBA Draft coverage.

2013 — Nerlens Noel

Unlike most of the others on this list, Nerlens Noel has actually looked pretty good in the NBA… when he’s healthy enough to stay on the court. Too bad that hasn’t happened very often. Noel was the number one high school recruit and looked the part at times his freshman season before tearing his ACL and missing the end of the season. Noel had been expected to contend for the number one pick but ended up going sixth to the New Orleans Pelicans, who traded his rights with another pick to the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers for Jrue Holiday. Like other Sixers picks to come, Noel missed his rookie season after another knee surgery, and he’s never managed to stay healthy and keep his immense defensive talents on the court, bouncing around to Dallas and now Oklahoma City.

2012 — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

The Kentucky Wildcats made history in 2012, becoming the first school ever to see two players selected first and second in the same NBA draft, a feat Duke may challenge in a few months. The first pick, of course, was Anthony Davis. The Charlotte Bobcats had the best odds at number one but slid to second and took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as their consolation prize. Ouch. MKG was supposed to be a defensive wing, and that he was, but he’s never found enough offense to merit his high draft pick or subsequent contract extension. He can’t shoot to save his life, with just seven threes made his first six seasons, and simply doesn’t fit the modern NBA.

2012 — Terrence Jones

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was hardly the only Kentucky bust in the 2012 draft. NBA teams went crazy on Big Blue Nation, selecting four UK players in the first round after the 8th Wonder Wildcats won their first NCAA championship since 1998. It turns out they should’ve just all tried to get Anthony Davis. Jones was a tweener forward stuck between two positions, and he struggled with injuries as well, putting up decent numbers in limited appearances for the Houston Rockets before rejoining Davis with the Pelicans and slowly fading out of the league.

2012 — Marquis Teague

Marquis Teague was the fourth Wildcat selected in the 2012 first round. Kentucky would go on to see six players chosen once Doron Lamb and Darius Miller went in the second round, an NBA draft record the Wildcats would match themselves a few years later. Teague was the number one high school point guard recruit his year but never found his way in the NBA, with just six starts in three seasons before being waived and bouncing around Israeli and Russian leagues. He’s currently playing in Korea.

2011 — Enes Kanter

Kanter never actually played for the Wildcats because he was ruled ineligible after receiving unsanctioned benefits from his Turkish team. Shame, because Kanter is actually one of the most successful players on this list, now on six straight seasons with double digit scoring. Still, Kanter was the number three pick in a 2011 draft featuring names like Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler chosen after him. Utah was never pleased with their investment and Kanter continues to bounce around the league with a reputation of a player who Kant-play defense.

2011 — Brandon Knight

Knight was the number eight pick and certainly looked the part early on. He averaged 13 points a game over two seasons with Detroit, then neared 20 points per game during his stops in Milwaukee and Phoenix the next few years. The Bucks traded Brandon Jennings for Knight and then-throw-in Khris Middleton, and Knight moved to the Suns a few years later in an infamous trade. Knight signed a fat extension with Phoenix but could never stay healthy, and nowadays it’s rare you see Brandon Knight without his adopted NBA surname ‘s Contract since teams keep trying to dump his salary onto the next team like some terrible game of hot potato.

2010 — Patrick Patterson

Patrick Patterson snuck into the lottery as the 14th pick. He’s carved out a nice enough career for himself after a decade in the NBA, but he was only ever really a starter for one season in Houston, and they traded him before the season ended if you’re wondering how that went. Patterson has never been much of a scorer and always finds himself in a bench role. He is often an advanced stats darling and has certainly contributed to some winning teams, but he’s still a bit of a disappointment for a lottery pick.

2010 — Daniel Orton

Orton was the second to last pick of the 2010 first round, a developmental big man who never really developed. He appeared in 51 games over three seasons, recording 143 points and 126 rebounds in his entire NBA career before bouncing around the G-League and through a litany of other international leagues. He’s still plying his trade in Taiwan today, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see someone RKO Orton’s career for good soon enough.

1999 — Scott Padgett

Scott Padgett is a Kentucky hero after helping lead the Comeback Cats to an NCAA championship in head coach Tubby Smith’s first year in 2018, but all that Big Blue magic never translated to the NBA. Padgett might have been better two decades later as a stretch four, but he never justified his first round price tag for the Utah Jazz and never averaged more than 6.7 points per game in any season of his career.

1998 — Nazr Mohammed

You’ll forgive Nazr Mohammed for not exactly feeling like a bust. It’s hard to be a bust when you’re a two time NCAA champion, with titles in 1996 and 1998, as well as an NBA champion for the 2005 San Antonio Spurs. Mohammed was the penultimate pick of the 1998 draft and played almost two seasons in the NBA, finally retiring in 2016. He never averaged double digit points or rebounds for a whole season but did start 354 games and appear in over 1000 games, and he started every playoff game of that Spurs championship run en route to 88 playoff appearances. Mohammed played for eight NBA teams in all, but for such a career journeyman, he sure had a lot of team success.

1997 — Ron Mercer

Ron Mercer made the All Rookie team as the sixth pick of the 1997 draft for the Boston Celtics, scoring 15 points a game in his first season as things got off to a good start. He matched or beat that total each of the next three seasons but still bounced from Boston to Denver to Orlando to Chicago, failing to carve out a role or find a home in the NBA despite his scoring ability. Perhaps it was the career 47% true shooting hidden behind all those inefficient points for a wing player that never learned to shoot a three and never had an offensive rating of 100 after his rookie season. But Mercer wasn’t the only Kentucky Wildcat bust drafted by the Celtics.

1996 — Antoine Walker

Antoine Walker, a bust? Employee number eight, the guy with all the commercials? Yes and yes. Walker was the sixth pick of the 1996 draft, and that year is key. Walker did go on to put up five seasons with 20 points a game or better and made three All Star teams in Boston, but he shot under 33% on threes and a brutal 41% field goal percentage for his career, the king of inefficient volume with a career 48% true shooting. Even with all those points, it’s the player Antoine Walker wasn’t that Boston fans always remember. He never lived up to Allen Iverson or Ray Allen, chosen right before him, and he sure didn’t live up to Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash, both chosen in the ten picks after Walker.

1996 — Tony Delk

Tony Delk had the best pedigree of all the Wildcats drafted in the late 90s. He was named the Most Outstanding Player after leading Kentucky to the championship in 1996, and he still ranks second all time in Wildcat steals and fifth all time in scoring. Delk was a gunner who never found his shooting stroke in the NBA, scoring just nine points a game over a decade in the league. He played for eight teams in ten seasons, never sticking at any team more than two years and never finding a starting role outside of one decent playoff season with the Boston Celtics. But he’ll always have a place in his Old Kentucky Home.

1996 — Walter McCarty

Walter McCarty is the final member of the Untouchables, the 1996 Kentucky squad that was the first SEC team in 40 years to finish conference play undefeated before going on to win the first Wildcats national championship in 18 seasons. You probably remember McCarty as yet another Wildcat on the Boston Celtics, but he was actually the 19th pick of the 1996 draft to the New York Knicks before being traded to Boston one year later. He lasted only one season as the starter there and never averaged double digit points over a full season.

1986 — Kenny Walker

Kenny “Sky” Walker is one of the all time Big Blue legends. He was a two time SEC player of the year and still ranks second all time among Kentucky scoring leaders, and he’s still a radio host today in Lexington, Kentucky. But he never quite lived up to the hype as the fifth pick of the 1986 draft for the New York Knicks. If you aren’t a Kentucky fan and know Walker’s name, it’s probably because he won the 1989 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, but it’s never a good thing if that’s in the first sentence of your NBA bio. Walker averaged 7.7 points a game in five seasons with the Knicks before playing a couple seasons in Spain and then returning to join the Washington Bullets. He never really found his way in the NBA.

1984 — Sam Bowie

Sam Bowie is the draft bust to end all draft busts, Kentucky or otherwise. Bowie was better than you remember for the Portland Trail Blazers, putting up 10 points and eight rebounds a game for them along with quality defense, but he never stayed healthy and was plagued by leg injuries throughout his career. Bowie was the number two pick in the 1984 draft, and today we only really know him because of the guy drafted right after him: Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Heck, Hakeem Olajuwon went one pick before, and Charles Barkley went three picks after. How do you pick second in a draft with Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Charles Barkley and end up with Sam Bowie? Portland fans have never figured out an acceptable answer.

Originally published as a freelance opportunity for thesportsdrop.com.

Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, television, humor, and culture. Visit the rest of Brandon’s writing archives here.

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