The NBA Finals are a Bluegrass Series

The 2020 Eastern Conference Championship belongs to the Miami Heat. Yes, the fifth seed Miami Heat are playing for an NBA championship against the Lebron-led Los Angeles Lakers. 

There are a plethora of narratives this Finals matchup holds, however, it’s hard to look past the fact that there are six former Kentucky Wildcats between both organizations: Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Pat Riley for the Heat and Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo, and Frank Vogel for the Lakers.

For this series, the players making the biggest impact — Davis, Adebayo and Herro — played for head coach John Calipari. Although Kentucky hasn’t won a National Championship since 2012 when they were led by Anthony Davis, its roster is continuously loaded with McDonald All-Americans and 5-star players year after year. Calipari focuses on player development and preparing his players for the league, perhaps at the expense of team success. Calipari wants his players to succeed at the next level and achieve their dreams of making it to the NBA, but most importantly making an impact in the NBA. Of course he wants his team to experience winning basketball, but it’s through sacrifice. It’s evident Calipari has done an amazing job readying his players for the NBA. 

A prime example is Tyler Herro, who has made an immediate impact as a rookie averaging 19.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 4.8 RPG on 52/35/100 splits in the Eastern Conference Finals against the talented Boston Celtics. In Game 4, Herro exploded by scoring a career high 37 points on 14/21 shooting as part of a brilliant all around game. Herro was a late lottery pick, going 13th to the Miami Heat. Those who followed him since he was a junior in high school had as much belief and confidence in him as he did himself. When Herro decommitted from Wisconsin and committed to Kentucky, many thought he would never touch the court at a program so prestigious as Kentucky. But, Calipari recruits with intention and purpose. He wants players who want to be at Kentucky. He wants his players to embrace the grind and fall in love with the process.

Calipari tells every single recruit that it’s not easy at Kentucky: You’re not going to be the guy. You’re a 5 star player that will probably shoot 10 times a game rather than 18. The room for mistakes at Kentucky is small. Calipari is a true believer that practice will improve your craft but without demonstrated performance, your confidence will waver. He values players with the “dog” mentality, and, that is just what Herro had. 

It all started when Herro scored 16 points in the first game at the Big Blue Bahamas Tour. His playmaking and offensive talent was on display, and Calipari mentioned multiple times he hadn’t had a team that could shoot as well as his 2018 team. But, Calipari being the blunt and truthful coach he is, made it clear to Tyler he wouldn’t play if his defense didn’t improve. After Kentucky’s defensive meltdown to Duke, Calipari had to go back to the basics. The most basic defensive drills. They did defensive slides and an array of close out and box out drills. Calipari made it clear to his team — and to Herro — that if they cannot stay in front of the ball, they will never be a good basketball team. Fast Forward to NCAA March Madness. Herro, a former defensive liability, is guarding Wofford’s best player, Fletcher Magee, until then a big time 3-point shooter. Magee scored 8 points and shot 0-12 from the three.

Here’s the thing though: Tyler asked Calipari if he could guard Magee. He wanted the hardest defensive assignment. Tyler wanted to be in the spotlight, but on the defensive end. This speaks volumes to how Calipari’s system develops winning players. Herro learned to expand his game on both ends on the court. It’s safe to say Tyler made strides as a defensive player and earned his coach’s trust. Although Tyler didn’t put up crazy numbers in college, Calipari knew he wouldn’t meet a high level of success in the NBA like he is now without being able to defend. That is why it is not surprising seeing his playmaking and scoring ability on display here in the playoffs. It’s not that he couldn’t, it’s just that in college he was limited, due to the presence of numerous other star level players. 

Bam Adebayo has a similar story. He played a role at Kentucky. He also was a late lottery pick. And, he also has had early success in the league. At Kentucky, he was a high energy, rebounding machine with versatile defensive presence. Many were surprised to see Adebayo’s playmaking surface playing for the Heat. Again, it’s not like he couldn’t bring the ball up the court and be the center of the offense, it’s just not what was needed from him at Kentucky. 

There tends to be a common trend with Kentucky players. They are good teammates who can defend, and are coachable. Calipari builds the foundation for these players, but at the end of the day, it is the players’ drive and commitment to their craft that earns them respect around the league. There should be no surprise if these players thrive in the finals. They were built for moments like this, and they live for moments like this.


Jamie Levy (@JamieLevy_) attends the University of Florida. 

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