What can Kentucky players expect from this year’s NBA draft process? And who might return?

With so many Kentucky players contemplating decisions regarding their basketball futures and John Calipari’s roster for the 2024-25 season largely unsettled, it should be a busy couple of weeks for the Wildcats.

Sophomore forward Adou Thiero was the first of UK’s 10 scholarship underclassmen to make an announcement on what comes next, and his two-part reveal didn’t do much to answer that basic question. Two days after it was confirmed that Thiero entered the NCAA transfer portal, the 19-year-old posted over the weekend that he was also entering the NBA draft, while “keeping all of my options open” — including a possible return to Kentucky next season.

Perhaps future announcements will provide more clarity. There will be a lot of them.

Of the nine other UK scholarship players with remaining eligibility — Tre Mitchell and Antonio Reeves will be moving on from college — seven of those Wildcats have been projected as possible 2024 draft picks at some point over the past few months. That group includes freshmen Rob Dillingham, Reed Sheppard, D.J. Wagner, Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw and Zvonimir Ivisic, along with sophomore Ugonna Onyenso.

That will leave those particular Kentucky players with quite a bit to ponder, and — similar to Thiero’s case — there could be as many questions as answers in the wake of their initial announcements.

Calipari held individual meetings with his current players late last week, and the stay-or-go-or-I-don’t-know decisions should continue to roll in over the next few days. Here’s a look at the timeline for these Wildcats, along with a breakdown of the rather complicated NBA pre-draft process and some deadlines that could put Calipari and his coaching staff in a bind.

The NBA draft process

The feedback from NBA teams can actually take place before a college player enters the draft.

Typically, the first step is to request an evaluation from the NBA’s “Undergraduate Advisory Committee” — a group of league executives that will return a confidential draft projection to any college player who asks for that information. The deadline to make that request is April 18, and the results from the league are sent to both the player and his college head coach.

Calipari usually takes care of this step as soon as the initial individual meetings with each of his players — the ones that took place last week — are completed.

This evaluation will tell the player where he’s projected to be drafted this year, with five different possibilities: 1.) lottery pick (1-14 range), 2.) later in first round (15-30 range), 3.) first half of second round (31-45 range), 4.) second half of second round (46-58 range) or 5.) not drafted at all.

This exercise is available even to players that do not enter their name in the draft, and the feedback from the league decision-makers is typically delivered within 7-10 days of the request, with every player who asks for an evaluation receiving his report by the early-entry deadline.

This year’s deadline to enter the NBA draft is 11:59 p.m. EDT on April 27.

A select number of potential draft picks will receive an invitation to the NBA Combine, which is scheduled to be held May 12-19 in Chicago, and any player whose name is still in the draft pool by the end of the combine will receive updated feedback from the Undergraduate Advisory Committee before the NCAA’s deadline to withdraw.

This year’s deadline for college players to pull their names out of the draft and remain in school will be 11:59 p.m. EDT on May 29.

The NBA Combine will also look a bit different this offseason.

The league is now mandating that any player invited to the combine must attend or be ruled ineligible for this year’s draft. Once there, each player will be required to participate in a skills evaluation, height and wingspan measurements, medical exams, team interviews and media sessions, in addition to other activities. These players are not required to participate in the games during combine week.

The list of invitees is typically released just a few days before the start of the combine, and nearly 80 players were invited to last year’s event. ESPN’s most recent rankings of the top 100 prospects for the 2024 NBA draft included Dillingham, Sheppard, Edwards, Onyenso and Wagner in the top 50, with Reeves, Ivisic and Bradshaw in the top 75, and Thiero and Mitchell in the top 100. That’s 10 Kentucky players, eight of whom have college eligibility remaining.

The NBA draft lottery, which sets the order of picks, will take place May 12, and the draft itself is scheduled for June 26 and 27, with the event moving to two days this year after the 2023 draft lasted nearly five hours.

D.J. Wagner could be an important returnee for John Calipari and Kentucky, if he’s back for another season. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com
D.J. Wagner could be an important returnee for John Calipari and Kentucky, if he’s back for another season. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com

Timeline leaves Calipari in limbo

With several current Kentucky players likely to be NBA Combine invitees, it’ll probably be nearly two months until Calipari knows for sure which of his Wildcats will return for the 2024-25 season.

Any UK player who enters his name in this year’s draft is likely to see out the process through the combine. Last year, Chris Livingston and Oscar Tshiebwe participated in the event while leaving open their option to return to Kentucky. Both of those players ultimately stayed in the 2023 draft after taking the decision to the final day. Reeves also worked out for NBA teams and took part in other pre-draft events before removing his name from consideration on deadline day, though he waited an additional three weeks — exploring other, non-NBA options — before making it clear that he would be back at Kentucky for the 2023-24 season.

The uncertainty around those situations made it difficult for Calipari and his coaching staff to go all-in on players in the transfer portal, and the Wildcats had some misses along the way as their top targets opted for other opportunities that offered more clearly defined roles.

As tough as the last offseason was for Calipari, this one is likely to be even more difficult. Some of his current players will probably clearly state from the get-go that they intend to remain in the draft, but others will undoubtedly draw out those decisions until they have all the information regarding their possible draft projection. And some of those deliberations are likely to last all the way until the May 29 deadline.

Calipari knows he has six high school recruits coming in, but he’s already stressed the need to “get older” and become a more physical, defensively sound team for the 2024-25 season, and his new freshmen obviously won’t check the first box and will be hard-pressed to live up to the standards of the second.

To achieve Calipari’s goal, Kentucky will need to return some of its current players and/or pluck some talented, experienced competitors out of the transfer portal, which opened two weeks ago and already features more than 1,000 names. College players can enter the portal up until May 1, and some high-profile transfers have already started committing to new schools.

Obviously, the more uncertainty there is around Kentucky’s roster as the month of May stretches on, the harder it will be for Calipari to convince top-notch transfer targets to come to Lexington. If the possibility remains, however slim it might be, for current UK players to return and play major roles next season — think Sheppard, Wagner and any of the bigs, for example — other coaching staffs competing with Kentucky for key transfers will use it as ammo to better position their own schools.

UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart referenced the dilemma in his joint TV appearance with Calipari last week. “Our (situation) is unique. And for no one to recognize that is baffling to me,” Barnhart said, adding that, “if there’s someone that can figure out how to adapt to that” it would be the Kentucky head coach.

It’s not an easy position to be in while pursuing top players in the portal, but that’s the situation Calipari created by bringing in so many potential draft picks in last year’s recruiting class.

Kentucky’s outlook for retaining players could be even worse this offseason, with those who closely follow the NBA draft forming a consensus opinion that the 2024 class is among the worst in memory. That means there could be more to lose than gain — from a draft position standpoint — by returning to college for another season.

Who will be back at Kentucky?

With Mitchell and Reeves out of college eligibility and Thiero already announcing the next step in his future plans, that leaves nine current Wildcats with decisions to make. Here’s a quick rundown:

Rob Dillingham: Projected as a top-10 pick (with the possibility of being drafted in the top five). However he frames his announcement, Dillingham will ultimately stay in the NBA draft.

Reed Sheppard: Also projected as a top-10 pick, Sheppard has deep and obvious ties to the UK program, but there’s not much he could do to improve his stock in another year in college, and returning for a sophomore season might even highlight weaknesses in his game, especially with Reeves and Dillingham no longer playing alongside him. Turning down the 2024 NBA draft would mean turning down a net gain of millions of dollars — even taking NIL possibilities in Lexington into account — and delaying a second contract, which would be even more lucrative, by another year. As much as he loves UK, that would be an extremely difficult decision to make.

The NBA draft decisions of Zvonimir Ivisic, left, and Reed Sheppard will be closely watched in Kentucky basketball circles this spring. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com
The NBA draft decisions of Zvonimir Ivisic, left, and Reed Sheppard will be closely watched in Kentucky basketball circles this spring. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com

Justin Edwards: Still projected as a possible first-round pick, Edwards is most likely to enter his name in the draft and stay there.

D.J. Wagner: Updated projections from ESPN and The Ringer have Wagner at No. 47 and 51, respectively, this year. Still 18 years old, the point guard could raise his stock with another season at Kentucky — a return remains a real possibility — though he’s likely to at least go through the draft process, which would almost certainly include a combine invitation.

Ugonna Onyenso and Aaron Bradshaw: Rated No. 46 and No. 73, respectively, on ESPN’s latest list, both UK bigs are likely to go through the draft process before making a final decision. Both would probably be invited to the combine, and the transfer portal will also remain an option — though neither has entered his name there yet — even if one or both returns to college.

It’s worth noting here that players who stay in the draft through the combine will need to enter their names in the portal before the May 1 deadline to keep that as an option, so it’s likely that there will be several players — and perhaps multiple Wildcats — that go into the combine with the possibilities of staying in the draft, returning to their current school or transferring to a new college all on the table. The month of May will be an eventful one.

Zvonimir Ivisic: A unique situation, Ivisic has already entered the NBA draft twice and withdrawn both times. So, according to league rules, if Ivisic enters this year’s draft he will not be permitted to remove his name a third time and will no longer have any NCAA eligibility. Ivisic will have to make that decision before midnight April 27, so he could be one of the first Kentucky players to reveal a firm answer on his future this offseason. He’s not widely projected to be a draft pick this year, though he has flashed lottery potential in his appearances with the Wildcats.

Jordan Burks and Joey Hart: Late recruiting additions to UK’s 2023 class, Burks and Hart played relatively little to not at all down the stretch, respectively, and obviously neither has any NBA stock this year. Burks, in particular, drew Calipari’s praise at various points in the season and, according to practice observers, showed strides over the past few months, though there was no opening for minutes at the end.

In both cases, a return to UK or a move to the transfer portal are possibilities.

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