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Kentucky Basketball: Predicting Which Underclassman Will Stay, Which Will Go

Matt KingFeatured Columnist IOctober 7, 2016

Kentucky Basketball: Predicting Which Underclassman Will Stay, Which Will Go

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    It's amazing what a Final Four will do.

    Going into the NCAA tournament, this Kentucky team seemed like a disappointment. Entertaining the idea of a 40-0 season turned into a 10-loss season. The vaunted recruiting class was not living up to its billing and Wildcats fans were getting frustrated with the lack of improvement and consistency.

    Fast-forward past Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin, and suddenly, everyone sang a different tune. What looked like consecutive-season arguments against Calipari's method of rebuilding the roster every year resulted in his third Final Four in four years.

    Even with the loss to UConn in the championship game, Kentucky's run completely changed the narrative of the season for almost all of the players on the roster. And now, the focus turns to next year. Who will stay another year and who will bolt for the NBA?

Julius Randle

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The most touted recruit from this class also turned out to be the most impressive.

    Julius Randle was the SEC newcomer of the year, averaging a double-double for the season. He showed a dominant streak where he was totally unguardable one-on-one. Randle was the indisputable star of this Wildcats team.

    However, for as much as John Calipari praised his motor, Randle had huge stretches this season where he seemed disinterested and would disappear from the game. His defense is below par, and near the end of the year, he started missing a lot of easy baskets that he otherwise should have been making. And let's not even mention his jump shot.

    But would another year playing against a below-average SEC do him well? Or does he need to transition to the NBA, where he can learn to play against athletes with his body type?

     

    Should he go? 

    Yes. Randle still has plenty to work on, but it's doubtful that college basketball is going to offer up enough of a challenge to keep him interested.

     

    Will he go?

    Of course. Randle is not turning down a chance to be a top-six pick.

James Young

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    Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

    While Julius Randle may have the most NBA-ready body and game, James Young may have the most NBA-ready skill set.

    Young can shoot the three, finish around the basket, drive the ball and hit contested mid-range or short-range shots. He can be a premier scorer and is the kind of athlete that would flourish in the NBA.

    However, the thing that really has held Young back this year has been his decision making. His field-goal percentage has been incredibly low because he forces too many bad shots. He can fill up a stat sheet, but he can also shoot you out of a game.

    Young's defense has gone from terrible to just plain iffy. In transition, he was a nightmare. He still has so much to learn about the game of basketball. A full college basketball offseason would really do him well.

     

    Should he go? 

    No. Young is not mature enough to handle the NBA right now. He could wind up being a career bench player if he leaves now. His game is not so different from Archie Goodwin last year.

     

    Will he go? 

    Yes. Young was never really going to be a long-term college player. I'd be shocked if he stays.

Willie Cauley-Stein

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    There have been games this year where Willie Cauley-Stein looked like a top-five pick. When he is on, he can score, rebound and block shots at an elite level. He's an insanely athletic 7-footer. He's the kind of guy NBA scouts salivate over.

    The problem with Cauley-Stein this year has been consistency. For every massive game where he looks like a future NBA All-Star, he will have two where he seems like an afterthought on Kentucky's roster. 

    Sure, Cauley-Stein could take another year to get his body NBA-ready and continue to hone his skill set to where he's able to be at his best on a regular basis, but the NBA drafts so much on potential and it doesn't take a genius to look at WCS and see mountains of it right now.

    The fact that he got hurt in the tournament may also influence his decision. Suffering an even worse injury next year could negatively impact his draft stock, a la Nerlens Noel.

     

    Should he go

    I'm going to piss off Big Blue Nation and say yes. He's a lottery pick right now (according to Draft Express' latest projection) and may even climb higher once he starts going to workouts. Besides, if he stays, he'll continue to share time with a rapidly improving Dakari Johnson.

     

    Will he go?

    No idea. Cauley-Stein seems like he legitimately enjoys playing college basketball. He's a fun-loving guy who may not want to face the full-time-job world of the NBA just yet. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that he stays.

The Harrison Twins

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    It's not exactly fair to these guys to keep lumping them together into one entity, but the fact of the matter is they are either both staying or both leaving for the NBA. So, we have to look at them as a package deal.

    The Harrison twins had probably the toughest year of any of the freshmen for Kentucky this season. Andrew had a difficult time running the team and didn't really fit the prototype of the quick Calipari point guard who could collapse defenses and make the dribble-drive purr. He played hesitant and did not put up great assist numbers for a point guard.

    Aaron had a better year, but even he struggled to really find his way with this team. He's someone who needed to shoulder a huge scoring load and wasn't quite ready for that. Like James Young, Aaron had difficulty with decision making, oftentimes passing up open threes to dribble closer and settle for a contested long two.

    But in the tournament, they were two totally different players. Aaron has turned into one of the most clutch Wildcats of all time, making huge shot after huge shot. Andrew showed great leadership and his assist numbers were more characteristic of a playmaking point guard. These two literally may have played their way into the NBA in a span of just four games.

     

    Should they go?

    No, but it's close. With another year of grooming, they could definitely be lottery picks. Their stock may be the highest it's been all year, but it will be even higher next year. I guarantee it.

     

    Will they go? 

    No. These guys have a good head on their shoulders and realize there is more work to be done.

Dakari Johnson

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Dakari Johnson has been a pleasant surprise for Kentucky fans this season. Johnson started out slowly, but evolved into an important piece of the puzzle for this Wildcats team.

    Johnson is a big boy who knows how to use his body. He's got great control, a good touch around the basket and terrific post moves. He's not much of a passer out of the post, but he delivers often enough not to take issue with it.

    Defensively, Johnson still has some improving to do. One-on-one, he's still too easy to score on. He's not quite athletic enough yet to handle the NBA game. He could still stand to lose a little weight and gain a little quickness.

     

    Should he go? 

    No, Johnson leaving would be Daniel Orton-esque. He would get drafted late, but it wouldn't be good for him in the long run. He could get so much better with another year or two of college ball under his belt.

     

    Will he go? 

    No. Johnson likely realizes he could be a centerpiece of next year's team without Julius Randle hogging the spotlight. He'll raise his draft stock considerably with another season at Kentucky.

Alex Poythress

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    Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

    Coming into last season, Alex Poythress seemed like he might be an easy one-and-done. He started out great, averaging 18.4 points per game over the first five games. Then it was pretty much all downhill from there as he slowly lost his confidence.

    This season has been better for Poythress. He learned to play within himself and took to his role as an energy guy coming off the bench who could get his points by grabbing offensive rebounds.

    The problem with Poythress is that he has no real way to generate offense. He doesn't really have any moves. He can shoot a decent three and is insanely athletic enough to dunk the ball anytime he's anywhere close to the basket, but looks lost anywhere in between.

     

    Should he go? 

    No. Poythress will play in the NBA someday, but that day is not today. He still needs to improve his offensive game a lot, and the place to do that is in college.

     

    Will he go?

    Anyone in their right mind who is averaging less than six points and five rebounds a game is not going to make the jump to the NBA after two seasons. Poythress will most likely be around for all four years and end up as a second-round draft pick.

Marcus Lee

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    With the exception of the Harrison twins, there's not one other player on Kentucky that turned his season around quicker than Marcus Lee. 

    A 10-point, eight-rebound performance against Michigan from the man who scored nine points across all SEC play? Nobody, with maybe the exception of John Calipari, saw that coming.

    With Willie Cauley-Stein out, Lee stepped up big-time and showed that he can be a major contributor to next year's team. As Calipari said in his postgame speech, the only reason Lee hasn't been playing is that there are two terrific guys in front of him. That could open up next year.

    And to Lee's credit, he hasn't pouted at all or made any sort of waves that might indicate he wants to transfer. When asked if this season of sparse playing time has been challenging for him, Lee responded (via Keith Taylor of The Winchester Sun), “Spending this time with my family and my brothers is not challenging at all."

     

    Should he go? 

    No. Sure, it might be tough next year, depending on who comes back and how good the incoming freshmen are, but Lee showed that he can be a key cog regardless of that roster's makeup.

     

    Will he go? 

    No. Marcus Lee has bought in. He's ready for next season.

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