LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach John Calipari believes his latest class of talented recruits can keep the Wildcats in the national championship discussion.
Playing pickup games against those newcomers has No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns just as convinced of the Wildcats’ potential.
Back in Lexington this week to help with Calipari’s summer camp, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ top selection is impressed by the mix of returnees from last year’s 38-1 Final Four squad and another group of prized prospects. Leading Kentucky’s class are Canadian forward Jamal Murray and 6-foot-11 Skal Labissiere, from Haiti.
Labissiere has amazed the 6-11 Towns in those impromptu games, but Calipari’s third No. 1 overall choice stopped short of praising his successor too much and said joking on Saturday, “there’s a reason I’m a pro and he’s a rook(ie).”
Considering that Towns was a raw pupil himself last summer, Calipari believes Labissiere, Murray and fellow freshmen Isaiah Briscoe, Charles Matthews can learn and grow just as quickly. The Wildcats also signed junior college transfer Mychal Mulder, another Canadian.
“The greatest thing for all these kids is they get to go against these guys,” the coach said. “They’re all wired in a way to be competitive and they want to work. … If you don’t want to fight, you can’t play here.”
Towns is the latest example of making the most out of his brief stay at Kentucky.
Projected as a potential lottery pick when he arrived, Towns steadily built his draft stock and eventually became the first of four Kentucky players to be drafted in the top 13 and six overall in June. He averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. He says he looks forward to discovering the finer points of pivot play from future Hall of Fame big man Kevin Garnett with the Timberwolves.
“To have (Garnett) on my team and be able to learn from him is a blessing,” said Towns, who plans to play in the Kentucky alumni charity game on Sept. 13 at Rupp Arena.
That exhibition game will match Wildcats pro players against North Carolina pros, and Calipari hinted that some proceeds may be donated in the name of legendary late Tar Heels coach Dean Smith. Then comes the real season, when Calipari rolls out his latest talented group.
The Hall of Fame coach isn’t predicting anything close to last year’s team, which began 38-0 before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. But he believes they can do something special.
“Early on it may be ugly,” Calipari said, “but I’m not worried because we’ve got good players.”
Not to mention, good alumni eager to help their development.