LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari’s summer job officially starts Sunday when he opens training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., as the coach of USA Basketball’s under-19 team. With that part-time gig comes some huge potential benefits to Calipari in his full-time role as the University of Kentucky’s coach.
Three of the Wildcats’ incoming freshmen and five of their 5-star 2018 recruiting targets are among the 28 players who’ve accepted invitations to try out for Team USA. Training camp runs June 18-25 — with a couple of rounds of cuts — before the final 12-man roster heads to Cairo, Egypt, for the FIBA World Cup, which starts July 1.
Calipari and Co. will be trying to earn USA Basketball its third consecutive U-19 gold medal in the biennial event, but what’s in it for the Kentucky coach? Quite a bit.
Start with Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox and P.J. Washington coming to camp in Colorado. That’s potentially three of the Cats’ five starters for the 2017-18 season — all of them freshmen — who’ll get a jump-start on learning what Calipari wants and how to play together.
“It’s huge. I mean, 10 days of practice, traveling with your team, it’s similar to the [foreign] tour” that college teams are allowed to take every four years in the summer, ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said. “Because now [Calipari] is with those kids and they’re going to get a better feel for him, but more importantly, he’s going to get a better feel for their strengths and weaknesses. So as he’s forward thinking and forecasting with his team, he’s going to be able to put things together earlier in the season: ‘Hami likes it here and P.J. wants it here.’
“The time he will spend with them this summer will be really, really valuable.”
Maybe even more important: The recruiting piece. From Scout.com’s 2018 class rankings, No. 2 Bol Bol (7-foot-2 center), No. 4 Cameron Reddish (6-8 small forward), No. 5 Romeo Langford (6-4 shooting guard), No. 10 Immanuel Quickley (6-3 point guard) and No. 12 Louis King (6-8 small forward) are trying out for Team USA. All but King already have Kentucky offers.
“Those first four are guys Kentucky has prioritized and is recruiting really hard,” said Evan Daniels, Scout’s director of recruiting. “I would classify them as the leader for Quickley. With Bol Bol, Kentucky and Arizona seem to be at the top of his list. Cam Reddish has played his cards close to the vest, so I’m not as sure what he’s going to do, and with Romeo Langford, it’s Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, Kansas and a couple other schools. So this is an opportunity for Calipari to show those guys who he is, what he’s about and how he coaches.”
That has worked out great for Arizona coach Sean Miller and Texas coach Shaka Smart in the past. They both coached top recruits in the USA Basketball program, which helped Miller land 5-star guard Alonzo Trier in 2015, and Smart beat Kentucky for 5-star center Mohamed Bamba in 2017.
“Any time you can be around a guy and build a relationship in a setting like that, it’s a positive,” Daniels said. “But the reverse can be true, too, where it impacted them with certain guys they were recruiting because they cut them. So it can go either way, but it obviously has a chance to be a real advantage.”
In the summer of 2015, 5-star forward T.J. Leaf backed out of a commitment to Arizona shortly after Miller cut him from Team USA. That will be an interesting tightrope for Calipari to walk, but there might not be a better coach in America at managing egos.
“How are you going to coach a kid you’re recruiting? I think he has that conversation with the kids before: ‘I’m going to coach you hard. This is an opportunity for you to get better. This is an opportunity for you to see what it takes to be successful at the very highest level,’ ” Greenberg said. “I’ve talked to NBA guys who’ve been to USA Basketball practices and say that guys that are recruiting guys on the team weren’t as demanding. Well, that’s not going to be the case with John Calipari.”
During ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on Calipari this spring, he can be seen shouting down superstar Anthony Davis during a 2011-12 practice at Kentucky, telling him that he doesn’t care about his 5-star status or NBA draft projection. But in the same film, Davis explains what a charmer Calipari can be in the recruiting process — and you can bet the Cats’ coach will break out some of that magic, too, in Colorado.
“He’s good at this type of stuff,” Daniels said. “He’s good at building relationships with players, and he’s going to have an opportunity to do that in a different way than the other coaches recruiting them, and that’s a positive for him.”