Kentucky Basketball's 10 Best Current NBA Players

Paul AblesContributor IIIMay 9, 2012

Kentucky Basketball's 10 Best Current NBA Players

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    The NBA is set to add another stellar class of Kentucky basketball players in the 2012 NBA Draft. As many as six players could be selected and will add even more excitement to the NBA for all UK fans.

    However, there are plenty of former Kentucky greats already playing in the NBA and many of them had excellent seasons. So before we look forward to the future NBA Wildcats, let us first review how well the current UK professionals performed in the 2011-12 NBA regular season. 

10. Chuck Hayes, Sacramento Kings

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    This offseason was one of excitement for Chuck Hayes. The veteran Wildcat became a free agent after coming off of a strong 2010-11 season in which he recorded career highs, as seen below:

    PPG RPG APG BPG SPG
    7.9 8.1 1.4 0.3 0.7

    Hayes also wanted to move closer to home. He is a native of Modesto, California, so playing for the Sacramento Kings seemed like a perfect fit. The Kings signed a $22.4-million dollar contract with Hayes and expected him to anchor the post defense alongside DeMarcus Cousins, another fellow Cat.

    However, the 2011-12 season proved to be one of the least successful of Hayes' career. His numbers dropped across the board, including an average of 4.3 rebounds per contest, the second-lowest of his career. His scoring, which has always been limited, dipped to slightly over three points per game.

    Regardless, Chuck Hayes is still known as a tough defensive presence in the post. Hopefully he can turn his luck around next season. 

9. Josh Harrellson, New York Knicks

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    Before the start of the 2010-11 basketball season, there would not have been a single person who would have expected Josh Harrellson to be on this list. He was nothing more than a backup center at Kentucky and did not expect to receive much playing time with incoming big man Enes Kanter manning the middle.

    However, the NCAA declared Kanter to be ineligible and Harrellson was forced into duty out of necessity. His final college season turned into a season-long dream for the player affectionately referred to as "Jorts" in Lexington. He put up big numbers in big games and led the Wildcats to the 2011 Final Four.

    Most shocking of all, Josh Harrellson was drafted in the second round by the New York Knicks. Many people thought that he would not even make the roster, but he has maintained his position as backup center all season long. Harrellson's 2011-12 season stats can be seen below:

    PPG RPG APG BPG SPG 3-FG% MPG
    4.4 3.9 0.3 0.5 0.6 .339 14.6

    The most surprising statistic of all might be his three-point percentage. Harrellson has turned into a matchup advantage because of his ability to make three-point field goals. 

    As you can see, Harrellson only played over 14 minutes per game. Below is a glimpse at what Jorts' numbers could be when adjusted for playing 36 minutes per game:

    PPG RPG APG BPG SPG
    10.8 9.6 0.7 1.3 1.5


8. Enes Kanter, Utah Jazz

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    The man that gave Josh Harrellson his big chance, actually had a very similar NBA season to the Knicks' big man. Enes Kanter was drafted third overall by the Utah Jazz, and he has been playing behind a congested front line, one which includes Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors. 

    Because of the competition in front of him, Kanter has not played many minutes this season. However, he has produced well when given some time on the court. Below is Enes Kanter's 2011-12 NBA season averages:

    PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% MPG
    4.6 4.2 0.1 0.3 0.3 .496 13.2

    Coming into the NBA, Kanter's best perceived strength was his rebounding and shooting around the rim. This certainly proved to be the case in his rookie season and his rebound-rate is superb, considering that he only played over 13 minutes per game.

    When adjusting his statistics for 36 minutes per game, it is obvious that Kanter has the potential to turn into a double-double machine with an increase in playing time:

    PPG RPG APG BPG SPG
    12.5 11.2 0.3 0.7 0.9

    The future is bright for Enes Kanter, and he should flourish into a star once he is given the opportunity.

7. Patrick Patterson, Houston Rockets

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    Patrick Patterson came to Lexington as perhaps the most important recruit in over a decade. He was a 5-star prospect and was the talented power forward that Kentucky had missed out on multiple times during the end of the Tubby Smith era.

    Patterson then endured two difficult seasons under new head coach Billy Gillispie, but he stayed the course and was rewarded with an opportunity to play for John Calipari during the 2009-10 season. Coach Cal took Patrick under his wing and helped him develop a three-point shot, a mid-range jump shot and increased conditioning that would help improve Patterson's draft stock.

    This approach landed Patrick Patterson in the lottery, as the Houston Rockets selected him with the 14th overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft. Since then, Patterson has improved during each season and is now an established sixth man for the Rockets.

    Patterson received extra playing time during the 2011-12 NBA season and his production rose as a result. Below is a chart that makes for an easy comparison between Patrick's rookie and sophomore seasons in the NBA:

    Season PPG RPG APG BPG MPG
    2010-11 6.3 3.8 0.8 0.7 16.7
    2011-12 7.7 4.5 0.8 0.6 23.2

    As long as he continues to improve his scoring and rebounding averages, Patrick Patterson should be able to contend for a starting role next season for Houston. He would have to beat out Luis Scola for the spot, but Patterson has the athletic ability and skills around the rim to contend for a starting job in the near future.

6. Jodie Meeks, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jodie Meeks will forever be remembered in UK lore as the man who lit up the Tennessee Volunteers for 54 points on January 12, 2009. Meeks' hot shooting broke the school single-game scoring record, which was previously held by UK legend Dan Issel. The scoring output was the most points scored in regulation by a single player in over 10 years.

    However, Meeks was not projected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Yet the Philadelphia 76ers took a chance on him in the second round, and Meeks has established a nice career on the upstart Sixers, who are currently leading the Chicago Bulls 3-1 in their first-round playoff series.

    Jodie proved to be an important player on the roster and played in every game during the shortened 2011-12 NBA season. He often started at shooting guard, playing in front of Evan Turner, who was the second overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Although this trend has not continued in the playoffs, Jodie Meeks posted solid numbers in the 2011-12 season, which he hopes to improve upon next year:

    PPG RPG APG 3-FG% FT%
    8.4 2.4 0.8 .365 .906

5. Tayshaun Prince, Detroit Pistons

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    If you ask a Kentucky Wildcat fan about Tayshaun Prince, there is one highlight that will instantly pop into their mind: the game against North Carolina in which Prince started the contest by connecting on five consecutive three-pointers. The fifth and final three-point field goal came from nearly half court, and Tayshaun cemented his legacy as an all-time fan favorite in Lexington.

    Since then, Prince has enjoyed a successful career in the NBA and won a world championship as the starting small forward for the 2004 Detroit Pistons. He has remained a Piston ever since, even though he was a free agent this past summer and had a chance to join a title contender.

    Instead, Tayshaun Prince chose to remain in Detroit and he has teamed up with new rookie guard Brandon Knight to form a dynamite Kentucky duo.

    However, age has caught up to Prince and his numbers have begun to slip. Below are his 2011-12 NBA season averages:

    PPG RPG APG PER
    12.9 4.4 2.4 12.8

    He is still a productive veteran, but Tayshaun is no longer the defensive enforcer that he was in his early years. The four-time NBA All-Defensive selection posted the second-lowest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of his career and saw his rebounding average dip below his norm. 

    Despite the step back that he took this past season, Detroit has a promising young duo in Knight and center Greg Monroe, and the Pistons are looking to reach the playoffs a few more times before Prince's playing days are over.

4. Brandon Knight, Detroit Pistons

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    Brandon Knight entered the 2011-12 season as a NBA rookie, only weeks removed from his incredible play in the 2011 NCAA Tournament that led the Kentucky Wildcats to the Final Four.

    Knight was projected to be a lottery pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, and this prediction held true as the Detroit Pistons selected him with the eighth overall selection. By pairing him up with fellow Kentucky legend Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons became the unofficial favorite team of many fans across the Bluegrass.

    Brandon Knight gave the fans plenty to cheer about during his first professional season. His statistics are impressive enough, as seen below:

    PPG APG RPG SPG BPG FG% 3-FG%
    12.8 3.8 3.2 0.7 0.2 .415 .380

    Coming out of Kentucky, Knight's greatest strengths were his shooting and scoring ability. This certainly held true during the 2011-12 season. In fact, Brandon Knight ranked near the top in multiple rookie categories:

    • Ranked second among rookies in scoring (12.8 points per game)
    • Ranked second among rookies in three-point field goals made (103)
    • Ranked fifth among rookies in assist average (3.8 assists per game)
    • Knight scored 20-plus points in 11 games

    Looking ahead to next season, Knight should benefit from the Pistons' lottery selection joining the team. Whoever is selected will form a nice young core of Brandon Knight, Greg Monroe and Rodney Stuckey that could lead Detroit back to the playoffs sooner than expected.

3. John Wall, Washington Wizards

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    John Wall will forever be a UK basketball icon and is one of the most electrifying players to ever wear the blue and white. He became a college superstar once he set foot on the court during his first collegiate game.

    Wall was the key player behind the 2009-10 Kentucky Wildcats' successful return to prominence, and his reputation and success will aid Kentucky recruiting for years to come.

    Following up on his immense success in college, John Wall became the first overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Being selected by the Washington Wizards was convenient for Wall, whose family lived nearby in North Carolina.

    However, playing for the Wizards has also stunted the growth of Wall, who is the only elite talent on a roster full of scrubs. Losing has become the norm for the first time in Wall's playing career, and his numbers failed to noticeably improve during his sophomore season. 

    In fact, his statistical averages during his first two seasons are nearly identical, as seen below:

    Season PPG APG RPG SPG BPG PER
    2010-11 16.4 8.3 4.3 1.8 0.5 15.8
    2011-12 16.3 8.0 4.5 1.4 0.9 17.7

    His box score-stuffing stat line is extremely impressive, but Wall did not improve much during his sophomore season in the league. Although part of the blame falls squarely on his shoulders, his growth is also being stunted by the lack of talent on the Wizards' roster.

    If Washington can improve their team during the offseason and if Wall can focus on making more jump shots, then the 2012-13 NBA season should be a breakthrough season for the dynamic point guard.

2. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

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    DeMarcus Cousins came to the University of Kentucky as a hot-tempered 6'11" man-child, and he left as a First-Team All-American selection. The combination of an immense skill set and imposing physical frame was too much for the Southeastern Conference to handle, and Cousins bruised his way through the conference and led the Kentucky Wildcats to the SEC regular season championship and an appearance in the NCAA Elite Eight.

    Cousins entered the 2010 NBA Draft, and many teams considered his talent level to be on par with the consensus top pick, John Wall.

    However, DeMarcus' supposed attitude and immaturity issues allowed him to slide down to the fifth overall selection in the draft. The Sacramento Kings did not hesitate and they drafted Cousins to form a dynamite duo with rising star Tyreke Evans.

    DeMarcus' rookie year was successful, but he was at odds with the head coach at the time, Paul Westphal. This continued into the 2011-12 season as Westphal claimed that Cousins demanded a trade from the team.

    Sacramento responded by quickly firing Westphal and chose Keith Smart to serve as the interim head coach. This was the turning point of the season for Cousins, who has since improved dramatically in his second NBA season.

    In fact, his 2011-12 season averages rival that of All-Star center Andrew Bynum. Below is a comparison between the two this season:

    Name Season PPG RPG APG BPG SPG PER
    DeMarcus Cousins 2011-12 18.1 11.0 1.6 1.2 1.5 21.7
    Andrew Bynum 2011-12 18.7 11.8 1.4 1.9 0.5 22.9

    Both of these players improved their performance tremendously this season, but Cousins is certainly the most surprising of the two. He increased his averages across the board with the exception of assists. The most telling statistic is his PER, which rose seven points from his rookie to his sophomore season and shows the improved efficiency that Cousins displayed this season.

    DeMarcus Cousins did lead the NBA in an important category: offensive rebounds. His total on that side of the court led all other players and is indicative of a player who is hungry to find the ball and improved his work ethic. Both of those descriptions fit that of Cousins.

    If DeMarcus can continue to improve next season, then he will not be far away from his first All-Star selection and could challenge contemporaries Dwight Howard and Bynum for the title of the best center in the NBA.

1. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

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    No other player on this list has surprised UK fans with his NBA success more than Rajon Rondo. He did arrive at Kentucky as a hyped prep star, and he posted two impressive seasons at Kentucky.

    However, his abysmal shooting and small size left many people to doubt his ability to succeed at the next level. Rajon Rondo was the first point guard selected in the 2006 NBA Draft, but he was not selected until the 21st overall selection. 

    Since then, Rondo has made it a point to prove his doubters wrong and he has flourished into a multiple All-Star selection and one of the most dynamic point guards in the league. 

    In fact, Rajon achieved an incredible feat during the 2011-12 season: He claimed the NBA assists title. Rondo led the league in dimes and filled up the stat sheet all season long. He achieved this feat by recording ten or more assists in 24 consecutive games, which is one of the longest streaks ever recorded by a point guard in NBA history.

    Rondo's season statistics are seen below, in addition to his current playoff averages:

      PPG APG RPG
    Regular Season 11.9 11.7 4.8
    2012 Playoffs 19.0 13.0 7.0

    Rondo has become a triple-double machine, as he posted one during the first round against Atlanta recently. Rajon collected 17 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists in the Celtics' Game 2 victory. It is Rondo's seventh-career playoff triple-double, as he has been doing his best Jason Kidd impersonation on the game's biggest stage.

    Be sure to cheer on the Boston Celtics in the playoffs as Rajon Rondo attempts to win his second NBA championship. After all, he is the greatest former UK player playing in the NBA.