“They had it before you, they had it during you, they’ll have it when you’re gone.” This quote about Kentucky’s basketball tradition was said by former Marquette coach Al McGuirre. Kentucky no doubt has tradition. They have the most wins and highest winning percentage of any program ever. They’ve won a championship with 5 different coaches in 5 different decades. They’ve produced more NBA players than any other program. Now, however, there are those who believe that Kentucky is losing its basketball tradition due to the route its program has taken to find success in recent years.
Several top programs outside of Kentucky have also taken this controversial route, considered in a way as a “youth movement”, beginning in 2006. That year, the NBA decided it would be THAT much better if its worst teams drafted 19 year-olds instead of 18 year-olds. Because of this, schools like Kentucky get to have young, elite talents for one year, when in the past they wouldn’t have had that luxury.
While those affected by it usually end up in the NBA, this rule has changed the landscape of college basketball since its implementation. Only two freshman have won the Naismith POY Award, but both happened since the rule took effect (Durant-2007, Anthony Davis-2012). Additionally, about 20% of the 1st Team All-Americans since 2006 have been freshman. In 2012, Kentucky’s roster was dominated by freshmen and they won the national championship. 3 of those freshmen were drafted a couple months later. All of these players (Durant, Davis, the All-Americans and Kentucky’s super frosh) have one thing in common: they went pro after one year in college, and would have been drafted out of high school had no rule prevented it.
Kentucky is currently the ultimate school for one-and-done players, as John Calipari is there. Calipari has produced 10 one-and-done players in the four years he’s been at UK. Whether you love or hate his tactics of recruiting the best players, he has produced the nation’s most exciting team in 2010 (including a 32-3 record), a Final Four team in 2011 and a national title team in 2012 that won a record 38 games. One-and-done players have certainly served the Kentucky program well. Before Calipari was at UK and even before the one-year rule was put in place, Kentucky had one-and-dones. Kentucky was, in fact, the first to do it. The following are Kentucky’s first one-and-done players.
1935- Leroy Edwards The world was way different back then: People read books for enjoyment. Germany was trying to take over the world. British tennis players could actually win Wimbledon. In the college basketball world, players stayed with their teams throughout their entire eligibility periods and went pro in things other than sports. This changed when a left-handed post player, nicknamed “Cowboy”, left Kentucky after one varsity season to play in the National Basketball League (precedent to the NBA).
Also known by his birth name, Leroy Edwards, the 6’5” center dominated opponents during his singular season with the Wildcats. He scored 343 points in 21 games, which was at the time an unheard-of amount. This includes a 34 point game against Creighton, which broke the NCAA record at the time. In his one season, Edwards was voted a consensus 1st Team All-American, in addition to being named the Helms National Player of the Year. After realizing that he had a bright future in basketball, Edwards decided it was worth his while to make money playing basketball instead of getting a college degree.
Edwards went on to become the first great professional basketball player. In an 11-year career, Cowboy won 3 league scoring titles in addition to earning 3 MVP awards. Edwards finished his career 2nd all-time on the NBDL scoring list. Other career highlights include being the reason for the implementation of the 3 second rule, and being a better basketball player than legends John Wooden and George Mikan. His decision to leave Kentucky after one year of varsity basketball was a great choice.
1943- Paul Noel In the midst of World War II, freshmen were eligible to play varsity basketball at the Division I level. Paul Noel played 20 games in the 1942-43 season as a key rebounder who defended multiple positions. After his freshman season, Noel left UK to go help take care of his ill father and the family farm. Soon after, however, Noel was drafted by the New York Knicks. He played three seasons in New York and two in Rochester. He was a member of Rochester’s 1951 NBA championship team.
After Noel’s basketball career ended, he continued his life as an overall stud. He was a successful entrepreneur, as he owned a drugstore in his home town. He later became the town’s mayor and his policies helped make Versailles, Kentucky a beautiful, affluent town. As a star athlete, successful businessman and endeared public figure, Paul Noel was the man.
1961- Roger Newman Like Edwards and Noel, Newman played just one year of collegiate basketball. His case was a bit different, however, as Newman’s lone year was as a senior in college. Part of this late start was attributed to his lack of interest in basketball (source: Greg Doyel’s Kentucky Wildcats, Where Have You Gone?). A 6’4” guard/forward, Newman was an all-around player in college, averaging 14 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. In his final game as a wildcat, Newman scored 31 points against top-ranked Ohio State. The man guarding him: John Havlicek. The same John Havlicek who was the top perimeter defender during the Celtics’ dynasty era. I wonder if ole John ever told his kids about the time he got lit up on defense by some first-year player with an apathy for the game.
After his season at UK, Newman was drafted to the NBA for the second time, by Syracuse. The previous year, he was drafted by the Celtics, making Newman one of the first players to be selected in the NBA draft without playing in a collegiate game. While Newman was one of the most talented and athletic players that Adolph Rupp coached in the 60’s, and had the opportunity to become an NBA star, he ended his basketball career at the collegiate level. Roger Newman may have played his first season at a later age than most, but he still a one-and-done.
1971- Tom Payne Better known for becoming the first black player in Kentucky basketball history, Tom Payne was a physically imposing post player with endless potential. At UK, Payne made a big splash as the team’s starting Center. He finished the season with averages of 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. He was named First Team All-SEC and entered the NBA via the Hardship rule. Payne was drafted 2nd overall in the 1971 Hardship Draft by Atlanta.
Despite all the opportunity and big dreams, Payne’s career ended abruptly. Soon after his first professional season, Payne was arrested and convicted of rape. While he was eventually released from prison and made another attempt at basketball, Payne was not very successful. To stay in the world of athletics, he became a boxer. He failed to remain a free man, however, as he wound up in prison again due to another rape crime. Tom Payne was thought to be a future superstar basketball player, but his career and life hasn’t turned out in the most ideal way.
2009- John Wall Just watch one minute of this.
—The one-and-done wasn’t common until the late 90’s. Before then, first-year players rarely left college and went pro. In several of these rare instances, those players came from UK. It turns out that Anthony Davis wasn’t the first one-year UK player to be named National Player of the Year, as LeRoy Edwards did it nearly 80 years prior. And Nerlens wasn’t the first Noel at UK to be a one-and-done, as Paul did it during World War II.
Some will argue that the one-and-done “hurts college basketball” and “kills tradition”. Not so much at Kentucky. While academic success and player development have been mainstays for UK for decades, players leaving early is also part of its history. I guess that happens when you consistently have good players- or when a 20 win season is a “down year”. Seems like the tradition UK basketball finds most important is the winning tradition.
With James Young and Julius Randle in the NBA Draft, UK has upped its total to 17 one-and-done players.