Path to the Draft: No. 4 Kentucky

In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we’ll be taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds). Click here to read Eamonn Brennan’s explanation of the series, which will be featured in the Nation blog each morning as we count down the programs from 20 to 1.

Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989:

  1. Rajon Rondo (2006)

  2. Antoine Walker (1996)

  3. Jamal Mashburn (1993)

  4. DeMarcus Cousins (2010)

  5. John Wall (2010)

Sixth man: Tayshaun Prince (2002)

The rest: Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, Marquis Teague, Josh Harrellson, Enes Kanter, Brandon Knight, DeAndre Liggins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton, Patrick Patterson, Jodie Meeks, Joe Crawford, Kelenna Azubuike, Chuck Hayes, Randolph Morris, Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch, Keith Bogans, Michael Bradley, Jamaal Magloire, Scott Padgett, Wayne Turner, Nazr Mohammed, Jeff Sheppard, Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer, Rodrick Rhodes, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Mark Pope, LeRon Ellis and Reggie Hanson.

Why they’re ranked where they are: In 2012, Kentucky went to New Orleans and changed perceptions about the value of freshmen in college basketball.

By then, many first-year studs had already proved their collective worth. Magic Johnson led Michigan State to the national title in 1979 a year after guiding the program to the Elite Eight. Pervis Ellison was a star for Louisville’s national championship team in 1986. He earned most outstanding player honors that year.

The Fab Five pushed Michigan to consecutive national title games. And multiple freshman performers have excelled since then.

But the 2011-12 Kentucky squad was unique. No squad anchored by freshmen to that degree had ever won a national title. The Wildcats had come close in the past (Elite Eight in 2010, Final Four in 2011). But winning the crown signaled a shift in old notions about the dangers of relying on freshmen.

Now, teams still win without Kentucky’s philosophy. Louisville had a veteran team when it won the national championship in Atlanta.

But assembling a group of elite freshmen on one team has worked for John Calipari. Lexington possesses a true NBA talent manufacturer. Experience has been an overlooked factor in the team’s success. The youth, however, has been a prominent component in the program’s recent history.

Six players from that championship team were selected in that summer’s draft. That was a record, which could be shattered next season by Kentucky again. Calipari has signed one of the greatest recruiting classes in NCAA history. So the pattern will continue: go to Kentucky, turn pro a year later.

Kentucky since Calipari arrived is an important piece of its current standing in our “Path to the Draft” rankings.

But there was plenty of life at Kentucky before Calipari.

Antoine Walker was a three-time All-Star who averaged 17.5 PPG and 7.7 RPG in 12 seasons in the NBA. Plus he had that little shake move that was mimicked on playgrounds around the country.

Remember Jamal Mashburn in his prime? Somehow, he made just one All-Star team after averaging 19.0 PPG and connecting on 35 percent of his 3-pointers in a 13-year career.

Tayshaun Prince hasn’t added one ounce of fat to his frame during a 10-year career. But he has been consistent. He’s averaged 12.6 PPG and hit 37 percent of his 3-pointers throughout his time in the league. He has also been a member of the NBA’s all-defensive second team. And he won a championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004.

And Rajon Rondo, a four-time All-Star in six seasons with the Celtics, is one of the league’s elite point guards. The 2007-08 Boston Celtics would not have won the NBA title without him.

Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, Tony Delk and other former Kentucky players were admirable contributors at the next level, too.

If we stop right there, we have a strong case for Kentucky’s inclusion in our rankings, perhaps the top 10.

But it’s the recent surge during Calipari’s tenure that has pushed Kentucky to the No. 4 slot.

DeMarcus Cousins, who is just 22, is already one of the best big men in the NBA three years into his career. Consider these ridiculous career numbers: 16.3 PPG, 9.8 RPG and 1.3 SPG. He can certainly improve. And he has had some struggles with the whole “team player” thing. But he’s going to be worth a max contract soon.

John Wall plays for the Washington Wizards. That will change at some point. And when he switches teams, I think he’ll earn more praise for the strides he has made during his three years in the league. He averaged 18.5 PPG, 7.6 APG and 1.3 SPG in 2012-13. He also made 80 percent of his free throws. His jump shot needs work. But he has the foundation of a future perennial All-Star.

Brandon Knight, who led the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2011, is off to a strong start in Detroit (13.1 PPG, 3.9 APG, 37 percent from beyond the arc in two seasons with the Pistons). Michael Kidd-Gilchrist averaged 9.0 PPG in his rookie season with the Charlotte Bobcats.

And Anthony Davis met most of the hype in his first season. He averaged 13.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.2 SPG and 1.7 BPG. A knee injury interrupted his progress this season. But the New Orleans Hornets can -- and will -- build around him in the coming years.

Talent, consistency, substance, depth and longevity. Kentucky has it all.

That’s why the Wildcats are No. 4 in our “Path to the Draft” rankings.

Why they could be ranked higher: Look at the list again and pretend that every player, regardless of era, is eligible. Here’s the lineup as I see it. Rondo running point. Mercer on the wing. Mashburn on the other wing. Cousins at the 4. Davis inside. Now, Kentucky would also have Prince, Knight, Kidd-Gilchrist, Walker, Wall, Anderson and Delk coming off the bench. Wow.

I don’t care who we’ve ranked No. 1, 2, 3. Good luck finding a school that could produce a team that would outplay the group I just mentioned.

Kentucky has sent 41 players to the NBA since 1989. Forty-one! Think about that. And then look at the best players within that group.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that might elevate Kentucky into a higher slot.

Why they could be ranked lower: Where are the superstars? Yes, Kentucky produces NBA talent with ease. Dozens of prospects have made millions after attending the university for one season or more.

The pipeline is healthy.

But Rondo is the only guy who has approached true superstar status on this list. Walker and Mashburn were very good during their tenures. If Wall and Cousins maintain their early progress, they could be all-NBA first-team guys. Consistently. Davis, too.

They’re not in that that “top-10 player in the league” conversation though.

There’s a lot of debate about the teams that have earned the top five or six slots in our standings. The argument for Kentucky’s demotion would probably center on the idea that this list boils down to Rondo, a couple of talented veterans who were good but not great and a bunch of players who are too young to truly assess. I’m not saying I agree with that. But that would be the stance that someone might take if they argued against Kentucky as the No. 4 team in our rankings.

What’s ahead?: Paradise, if you believe the NBA’s prognosticators. Next year alone, Kentucky could have four or five lottery picks in the 2014 draft. Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee make up one of the top recruiting classes in NBA history. Randle could be a top-three pick next season. Young and Andrew Harrison shouldn’t be too far behind him. Plus, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein could be high draft picks in a year, too.

So the future is beyond bright for Kentucky. Calipari will continue to send multiple players to the NBA each year. That’s the system and it works for him.

If that trend continues and the young Kentucky reps in the league now continue to improve, then Kentucky could be the unanimous No. 1 team if we decide to reassess these rankings in a few years.

Final thoughts: This is an incredible list. There’s so much talent.

I remember when Anderson, Walker and Mashburn were all young studs in the league. And it’s amazing that one program has managed to maintain that legacy since that time.

That’s not easy, especially with the challenges that college basketball has experienced throughout our allotted time frame.

But Kentucky has stayed the course. And that’s a profound accomplishment.

Still, there’s so much potential in the future. The sheer volume is mind-boggling.

Stay tuned.