Kentucky education: Is Thunder’s Cason Wallace the next ex-Wildcat guard to thrive in NBA?

Kentucky education: Is Thunder’s Cason Wallace the next ex-Wildcat guard to thrive in NBA?

That draft position means great expectations for Wallace. The Kentucky legacy might be one reason to believe he can meet them.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 12, 2023, 5:00am CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 12, 2023, 5:00am CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — John Calipari can remember the moment that, in his own words, he “fell in love” with Cason Wallace.

The Kentucky basketball coach was at an AAU tournament where Wallace — then a high school prospect, now a rookie on the Thunder — was matched up against Shaedon Sharpe, a Canadian phenom who’d go on to join Calipari at UK, though he never played there.

Wallace attacked Sharpe at both ends, Calipari remembers. Drove against Sharpe on offense. Defended like a demon at the other end. Used his body to contest drives. Never backed down.

“He went right after Shaedon,” Calipari told Sellout Crowd last week. “Shaedon was coming with us, and I said, ‘We got to get that kid.’”

They did, and It should come as no surprise that Calipari was looking to horde NBA-caliber guards. He’s been doing it for years.

And though he’s had his share of superstars in Lexington — guard John Wall and big men Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns were No. 1 picks — lately he’s had a different sort of draft success.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Wallace’s Thunder teammate, was the No. 11 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft out of Kentucky. That was three years after Devin Booker went 13th. In 2019, Tyrese Maxey went 21st; a year later, Immanuel Quickley was 25th.

All four guards have outperformed their draft slots. You can make a case that Tyler Herro, the 13th pick in 2019, has too.

It’s a point of pride for Calipari — and on occasion a reason to needle the NBA.

“You go right down the line, other than our No. 1 picks, 90%, 95% of them outplay their draft position,” Calipari said. “And that’s why I sometimes say, ‘How’d you pass on a Kentucky kid when the numbers say this?’”

Unlike the rest of the Wildcats’ recent run, Wallace was a top-10 pick, going 10th to the Mavericks in June as part of a trade with the Thunder.

That draft position means great expectations for Wallace.

The Kentucky legacy might be one reason to believe he can meet them.

For a host of reasons — the talent of the players; the stiff competition in practice; the way the floor opens up in the NBA; the scrutiny of playing there — UK has proven an elite feeder of guards to the league.

“The offense (Calipari) runs probably leads to players getting drafted a little bit later than they should,” said Sam Vecenie, NBA draft analyst at The Athletic. “But I absolutely think it’s a great developmental incubator for players, for getting better and having better careers because they spent that year at Kentucky.”

That’s in part because the pro approach starts in the early days of college.

Practice makes production

It starts with the talent.

Whatever fault you may find with Calipari, he’s a historically great recruiter. The 247Sports composite rankings put Wallace 10th in the high school class of 2022. Booker (No. 22 in 2014), Quickley (No. 22 in 2018) and Maxey (No. 10 in 2019) were highly coveted recruits.

So was Gilgeous-Alexander, though his No. 33 composite rating in the class of 2017 seems laughably off base now.

But it takes more than player ratings to make an NBA prospect, and one of the separators at Kentucky is the depth of recruiting classes.

It sometimes means two blue-chip talents at the same position land on the same team, playing against each other in daily practices that can be as intense as games.

On an episode of Maxey’s podcast in March, the Knicks’ Quickley said that “the competition level every single day that we had to endure in college” is “the first thing that comes to my mind” when he’s asked how Kentucky prepared him for the NBA.

Gilgeous-Alexander — famously the seventh-highest-rated player in a seven-man recruiting class — had verbally committed to Florida before he changed course and pursued a recruitment by Kentucky.

Those practices were part of the reason.

“His mother wanted him in this environment,” Calipari said. “She would tell me, ‘Don’t you stop coaching him.’ Those were the calls I got from her. She’d say ‘I sent him to you because I think he’s that good.’ And she was right.”

On that episode of “Maxey on the Mic,” Quickley said that Calipari had tried to get him to enroll in college a year early to align his freshman year with Gilgeous-Alexander’s.

When Quickley ultimately didn’t, Calipari tried to convince Maxey to enroll early the following year to put him in the same class as Quickley.

“We didn’t do it, but that just speaks to the level of competition that he was ready to teach us,” Quickley said on the podcast. “He don’t care who’s there. Y’all gonna go at it, y’all gonna compete, y’all gonna get better. And that’s the same thing when you get to the next level.”

Spreading the wealth

Kentucky’s practice competition is the stuff of legend — some NBA scouts have told Calipari they’d prefer to see a practice than watch his team “play against Popcorn State,” he said — but that’s not the only reason its players might outperform their draft stock.

The nature of the college game — and Calipari’s approach to coaching it — might hinder players’ individual reputations. It certainly dampens their stats.

Calipari often recruits top-rated talent at multiple positions. And the Wildcats rarely play fast. Only one Calipari-coached Kentucky team has finished in the top 50 in adjusted tempo at college basketball analytics site KenPom.com.

And even fast-paced college teams don’t generate nearly the number of possessions an NBA team does, given the shorter length of both games (40 minutes vs. 48) and shot clocks (30 seconds vs. 24).

So with multiple talented players and limited possessions to go around, individual Wildcats can be limited statistically. And sometimes stylistically.

Kentucky teams in the past haven’t excelled at floor spacing, in part because its big men rarely operate behind the 3-point line.

Towns made 36.6% of his 3-pointers on 5.6 attempts per game last season for the Timberwolves. At Kentucky in 2014-15, he attempted eight total 3-pointers in 39 games.

That puts the Cats “behind the eight ball,” Vecenie said, in giving its guards the room to operate that they ultimately find in the NBA.

“The offense that they ran is not necessarily the most modern thing in the world from a creativity perspective in terms of creating driving lanes,” Vecenie said. “And the areas that I think you’ve seen Kentucky guards particularly stand out more in the NBA as opposed to college is how they get to the basket and drive all the way to the rim.”

Last season, Gilgeous-Alexander led the league in points off drives at 17.1 per game. Another Kentucky alum, Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox, was fifth at 12 per game.

At the Thunder’s media day, Wallace said he hoped to show off an ability to create his own shot in the NBA that he didn’t fully utilize in college.

“Not saying that the coaches or anything limited me to what I could do on the court, but… the spacing might be a little off in college, and in the NBA you have a little bit more room to work with,” he said.

The better spacing in the NBA clearly has unlocked the offense for past Wildcats.

Since Calipari arrived at Kentucky in 2009-10, only one player — Nuggets guard Jamal Murray — has averaged 20 points over a season there. Malik Monk averaged 19.8.

Last season, 11 former Wildcats averaged 20 or more points in the NBA. Five of them, including Gilgeous-Alexander, averaged more than 25.

You might call that limiting. Caliapri sees it as laying NBA groundwork.

“Pat Riley said to me, ‘The greatest thing about your players in this league is, they’re all really good teammates,’” Calipari said. “Because they had to share. So now, you’re not into just your own thing. You become a great teammate. That means you’re comfortable in your own skin and how you play and what you do. You built your own self-confidence. I didn’t built it. You built it yourself competing against these guys. And you go in that league with that head start.”

Under the spotlight

Though the style of play shifts dramatically between Kentucky and the NBA, there are intangibles that are much the same.

Before he joined the Oklahoma City organization, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault was on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida, which competed against the Wildcats in the SEC.

And Daigneault can draw at least one clear parallel between life in Lexington and the rigors of the NBA.

“The one thing that I do respect about the guys that come out of there — I’ve coached not only Shai and Cason, but a good amount of Kentucky guys now — (is) the pressure in that program of that fan base and the expectations there,” Daigneault said. “The guys that come out of that program aren’t flinching really at anything because of what they’re exposed to when they play there. And so I have great respect for the players that come out of there and what they endure to become the players that they are. And I think those guys are both examples of it.”

From message boards to direct messages, many Kentucky fans are comfortable airing their grievances with players.

On the “Maxey on the Mic” podcast, Quickley called Kentucky fans and Knicks fans “very similar,” and Maxey drew a parallel between Wildcat backers and 76ers fans, who have a reputation as the NBA’s least forgiving.

“I don’t know which one’s harder,” Maxey said. “The Kentucky fans are on you hard and the Philly fans are on you hard, because they know hoop.”

Calipari noted that after every Kentucky home game, players are swarmed by “50 reporters with 50 cameras,” a count not meant to be taken literally but as representative of the scrutiny that surrounds the program.

It’s one way he hopes the collegiate experience mirrors the pro game.

“I want the kids that leave here to say, ‘My first year in the NBA was at Kentucky,’” Calipari said. “The terminology, how we play, the competitive spirit. Every arena’s packed, the media you got to deal with. It gives you a head start.”

Oct 9, 2023; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Devin Vassell (24) dribbles while defended by Oklahoma City Thunder guard Cason Wallace (22) during the second half at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs guard Devin Vassell (24) dribbles while defended by Oklahoma City’s Cason Wallace (22) during an Oct. 9. 2023 preseason game at Paycom Center. (Rob Ferguson/USA TODAY Sports)

The case for Cason

Wallace is the most recent lottery pick to come from the Kentucky incubator, and the intangibles, at least, seem to have traveled to OKC.

“The dude carries himself like he’s a 10-year vet already,” Thunder forward Kenrich Williams said.

When the Thunder rested Gilgeous-Alexander in Monday’s preseason opener, Daigneault chose Wallace to step into the starting lineup.

“He’s got an approach and competitiveness that allows you to walk in front of the team and say, ‘Hey, we’re starting a rookie in the first preseason game,’” Daigneault said. “No one bats an eye when a guy competes the way he competes and approaches it the way he approaches it.”

The Thunder allows its best backcourt defenders to pick up opposing ballhandlers as high up the floor as they choose, Daignuealt said, and Wallace opted to pressure full court against the Spurs.

It was one of the ways he sparked a sloppy Thunder defense, and Wallace “looked even better on film” the next day, Daigneault said. Offensively, Daigneault has praised Wallace’s “spacing instincts,” notable for a player who played point guard in high school and some in college, and now is playing with Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, both primary creators.
But it’s early. And Wallace has a long way to go to live up to his draft position — or to the run of Kentucky guards that have some since.

For now, he’s soaking up all he can — an attribute he said the ex-Cats have in common.

“We all have a lot of talent already inside of us,” Wallace said. “We all have that dog mentality, that willing-to-learn mentality. So just stepping in with an open mindset and the willingness to learn as much as we can about the league kind of sets us apart.”

What might set Wallace apart from the rest, Calipari said, is the same stuff he showed in that matchup with Sharpe. He’s tough. He’s smart. He’ll attack his improvement.

“His demeanor never changed here,” Calipari said. “Made a shot, missed a shot, never changed. Physically, he’s a beast. Skill wise, he’s good, but he’s gonna get better. All the stuff that he’s got to do in that league he’s capable of doing. He’s just 60% of the way there now. Now you’re gonna say ‘Oh, 60%, geez. Wait till he’s 90.’ Well, yeah. Wait till he’s 90.’”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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