Kentucky's first-round NBA Draft dominance is being challenged by Duke

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A dozen years ago, after a night in June 2010 when five Kentucky players were chosen in the NBA Draft first round with even a guy who barely played for the Wildcats included, Wildcats coach John Calipari was compelled to declare, “I’d like to say it is the biggest day in the history of the program.”

This was not well received by those who follow the program and treasure the program’s eight NCAA championships, but nuance rarely gets its due.

Although there is no trophy awarded to the college basketball team or coach producing the most NBA Draft choices, or the most first-rounders, or even the most lottery picks, there is a reward for all of this. It’s how that helps to land the next bunch of draft choices, first-rounders and lottery picks to aid in the pursuit of the Final Four and NCAA championship. You do get trophies for those.

MORE: Grades for every first-round pick

Kentucky has not been collecting those lately. That’s in part because Duke has caught up – at least – in the recruiting game.

When four Blue Devils became first-round picks Thursday night in the 2022 NBA Draft and Kentucky produced two (including Shaedon Sharpe, who actually never saw the floor in Lexington), Duke trails UK 49-45 for the most first-rounders since the draft was shortened to two rounds in 1989.

And it’s possible Duke could pull even closer next June with three of the top four prospects in high school basketball joining the 2022-23 Blue Devils: No. 1 Dereck Lively, a 6-11 center; No. 2 Dariq Whitehead, a 6-6 wing, and No. 4 Kyle Filipowski, a 6-11 center.

Duke associate head coach Chris Carrawell played for the Devils in the 1998-99 season, when they lost just two games all season, fell in the NCAA championship game and had four players selected in the first round. Carrawell wanted this group to beat that because, “Now, when I go into a recruit’s home or something, I’m like: Man, I coached that guy. So it helps.”

Although the stats on the two-round draft go back to 1989, the contest between Duke and Kentucky hasn’t lasted that long. Of UK’s 47 first-round picks, 34 of them came through the program since Calipari was hired to coach the Wildcats in March 2009.

Mike Krzyzewski had 10 first-round picks at Duke in the 90s, eight in the 00s, 21 in the 10s and now five this decade. With only point guard Jeremy Roach returning from the rotation of this season’s Final Four team, it’s almost certain forward Wendell Moore, Jr., chosen at No. 26 by Timberwolves, will be the last first-round pick signed by Coach K.

NBA Draft - Duke vs. Kentucky
First-round picks since 1989 (Two-round era)4549
Top 10 picks since 19892317
First-round picks since 2009 (Calipari arrives)2734
Top 10 picks since 20091316

* - stats include Enes Kanter and Shaedon Sharpe, who never played in a game

But 18 of those first-round picks came since 2015, after Duke chose to increase its emphasis on one-and-done prospects with the recruiting class of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils won Krzyzewski’s fifth NCAA championship that season. Including that season, they’ve had 10 top-10 picks in eight years. That helped produce two Elite Eight finishes and the record-breaking 13th Final Four for Krzyzewski.

MORE: Duke stars tell what's its like to be recruited by Coach K

In that same period, Kentucky has produced 19 first-round picks, six of them going in the top 10, and have been to the Final Four once and to the Elite Eight twice more. But Duke’s surge in recruiting high-end players has impacted the Wildcats.

Kentucky’s knack for landing the most coveted players was affected by Memphis’ entry into that space, as well. Such players as James Wiseman in 2019 and Jalen Duren in 2021 might have been Wildcats before Penny Hardaway took over the Tigers.

Duke, though, has successfully built on its connections to USA Basketball, almost ironic given how great the concerns were, originally, that time away from the recruiting road for Krzyzewski and his assistants was costing them the ability to sign big-time players. When the program began a run of three consecutive Olympic gold medals, with such icons as LeBron James and Kevin Durant investing heavily in the national team program, that association helped elevate Duke’s appeal even beyond the Gothic architecture, the elite education, the inherent cool of Cameron Indoor Stadium and the enduring record of success Krzyzewski had established.

Kentucky is bringing in two players with a chance to be first-round picks in 2023 with successful freshman seasons: 6-4 guard Cason Wallace, ranked No. 8, and 6-6 wing Chris Livingston, ranked. No. 11.

The Wildcats also return reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, but if he were a likely first-rounder, he’d be in the draft now. In the UK rotation, only forward Jacob Toppin and Damion Collins would seem to have a chance at earning such a position, and it would require extraordinary improvement from either.

So we may be talking a year from now about Duke passing Kentucky in terms of first-round picks in the two-round era.

The bragging rights most Wildcats fans want to gain, however, are distributed in March. And, especially, April.