John Calipari's New Sales Pitch: Become a One-and-a-Half-and-Done Player

Reid ForgraveSpecial to Bleacher ReportJanuary 11, 2017

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats gestures as his team takes on the North Carolina Tar Heels during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kentucky won 103-100.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Another season of college basketball in Lexington, Kentucky, another innovation by head coach John Calipari that could change the game.

On Saturday, Hamidou Diallo, an absurdly athletic 18-year-old shooting guard from New York City who's ranked 10th in his class, committed to play basketball at the University of Kentucky. In and of itself, that fact—one of the top prospects of the 2017 high school class joining Calipari's already loaded recruiting class—is not of particular note. Calipari has had the top-ranked or second-ranked recruiting class for each of his eight seasons at Kentucky. Next year will be more of the same.

But here's what's game-changing about Diallo's commitment: Instead of finishing out his postgraduate season at Putnam Science Academy, a private boarding school in Connecticut, Diallo is enrolling at Kentucky during semester break and joining the roster immediately, per ESPN.com's Jeff Borzello.

Calipari, who has harnessed the power of one-and-dones to change college basketball over the past decade, is now ushering in an age featuring a different breed of player: the one-and-a-half-and-done.

You may agree with this strategy, thinking better coaching and a heightened focus on basketball can only be a positive for young men like Diallo, who will almost certainly be in the NBA in the near future. Or you could be disgusted by it, believing Calipari cheapened the experience of college basketball by his full embrace of one-and-dones; now he's cheapening the experience of high school basketball by plucking kids from those rosters. It won't be the first time that Calipari has engendered extreme views on both sides of an issue. He is, after all, one of the most polarizing figures in sports.

With his larger-than-life personality, his willingness to speak uncomfortable and sometimes unpopular truths about his sport, and his desire to look at the status quo as an obstacle instead of as a rule, Calipari makes college hoops more relevant than it would ever be without him. And that's the case with his newest innovation of one-and-a-half-and-dones.

During Calipari's remarkable stint at Kentucky, he hasn't simply recruited better players than anyone else and gotten them to sync so quickly that he's made four Final Fours in eight seasons. He looks at where the elite level of college basketball is heading and pushes the envelope to become the first coach to take it there.

He was famously the first college coach to fully embrace the NBA's one-and-done rule, and he did so with complete honesty. Come to Kentucky, he tells recruits, and I'll do everything I can to make sure you're walking across that stage at the NBA draft in a year.

He organized his own Kentucky-only NBA combine. When he recruited a team that was too talented, he instituted a hockey-style substitution system, subbing in entirely new lineups in order to dole out minutes to all of his talented players. (That team went 38-1, with its only loss coming in the 2015 Final Four.) He's even been lobbying his university to have special financial management classes for these teenagers who are a few months away from becoming millionaires.

Calipari with former players-turned-first-round picks Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein and Devin Booker.
Calipari with former players-turned-first-round picks Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein and Devin Booker.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

And now this, with Diallo jumping from his postgraduate year at a prep school to Kentucky's roster midseason. There are several options from here—Diallo could play immediately and be a sophomore next year, play immediately and then put his name in the 2017 draft or sit out and still jump to the NBA. But the most likely route, according to Chris Barca and Adam Zagoria of Zagsblog, is that he'll redshirt the rest of this year and go up against surefire 2017 lottery picks Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox in Kentucky practices for the next few months. Come next season, he would be in excellent position to become a lottery pick in the 2018 draft.

"This'll be a test case to see if this can work," Butler head coach Chris Holtmann told Bleacher Report on Monday. "Any time you add an elite talent, your team has the potential to get better—as long as it's not disruptive to what's already been started. That's where the coach has to navigate that well, and there's few people in the country that do that better than John does. It will certainly elevate practice, which will certainly help your team. And going against the level of talent at Kentucky and being coached by that staff, it'll certainly help this kid immensely."

Here's why Calipari's midseason addition of Diallo could end up being a sea change: Ever since the NBA's 2005 collective bargaining agreement forced players to spend a year out of high school before becoming eligible for the NBA draft, the only truly viable route to the NBA has been to spend one year at a college.

That created this imperfect, controversial one-and-done system that Calipari has so adeptly exploited. But for players like Diallo—a 6'6" wing with long arms and elite athletic ability—different options are becoming more readily available.

Some elite players have chosen to play professionally abroad for that one post-high school year before going into the draft, as Terrance Ferguson opted to do this season. The D-League is becoming more viable with every passing year, especially with the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement allowing each team to have two players with two-way contracts between the NBA and the D-League. That essentially opens up 60 more roster spots.

Going to college may soon be the least attractive of several options for the next Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Towns. After all, elite players take the one-and-done route for the top-notch coaching and exposure they get from a blueblood college program and a lack of other options. 

Calipari taking Diallo at midseason offers another way. While he could have finished his postgraduate year in high school, Diallo can instead get a few months of elite competition and coaching in Kentucky practices. He can focus on developing his fundamentals without the pressure of performing in games.

"He's far from a finished product," Evan Daniels, Scout.com's director of basketball recruiting, said of Diallo when speaking with Bleacher Report. "But when you're that size, have that type of length and are as fluid and athletic as he is, you've got a chance to be special."

Diallo is looking to take an unusual path to college and NBA stardom.
Diallo is looking to take an unusual path to college and NBA stardom.Kelly Kline/Getty Images

He can test the waters for the 2017 draft and be even more ready for the 2018 draft. And he can then come back to Kentucky next season as someone who already knows the ropes, a hit-the-ground-running redshirt freshman who may be the most experienced elite young player in the country.

Let's say he does all of this and then shines early in the 2017-18 college basketball season. He'd immediately vault himself into the lottery discussion. In theory, this decision could mean a difference of millions of dollars.

Diallo isn't the first player to choose this route. Jarnell Stokes graduated high school a semester early and joined the Tennessee Volunteers in the middle of the 2011-12 season. Potential 2017 No. 1 pick Dennis Smith joined North Carolina State at semester break last season (to rehab a torn ACL). Austin Wiley joined Auburn in December this season and has already played in seven games.

But there's a legitimacy lent to any newfangled, outside-the-box idea when Calipari puts his imprimatur on it. If Cal says this is a route to the NBA that can work, goes the thinking, then this is a route that can work. It takes away the stigma from this being a path less traveled.

Tired, old pundits and fans will throw around the same tired, old accusations about Calipari being the death of college basketball.

Calipari coaching up this year's 5-star guard, De'Aaron Fox.
Calipari coaching up this year's 5-star guard, De'Aaron Fox.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

But what Calipari does for his players—from his early embrace of one-and-dones a decade ago to his visionary idea of one-and-a-half-and-dones today—is actually the best thing for them.

Calipari's NBA factory isn't a cynical ploy to dominate college basketball with rent-a-players. It's a philosophy that looks at the current "amateur" system—a money-printing system that takes advantage of young men who are paid in scholarships—and makes sure that system works as best as it can to maximize their basketball futures. (It's worked out pretty damn well for Calipari, too.)

When it comes to media coverage of the game today, one college coach recently told Bleacher Report, "We spend all our time concentrating on those 25 or 30 kids who are that elite level"—and not enough time on the other 6,970 kids in Division I college basketball.

It's a fair criticism. But you can't put that way of thinking back in the bottle. NBA draft speculation will be a huge part of college basketball for as long as future NBA players are part of college basketball.

In the future, would we rather have elite players like Hamidou Diallo not consider college as an option to achieve their NBA dreams? Or would we rather have forward-thinkers like Calipari devise ways to allow these players to play college ball for their benefit as well as the school they choose to play for?

"Of course college basketball would love for them to be a part of what we're doing," Holtmann said. "One-and-a-half is better than a year, right?" 

 

All scouting information via Scout.com unless otherwise noted. 

Reid Forgrave covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @ReidForgrave.