American college super-coach John Calipari talks to Ben Stanley about the progress and NBA prospects of Kentucky’s new Kiwi basketball recruit Tai Wynyard.
He has coached four No. 1 overall NBA Draft picks, led two different schools to three NCAA Division I Championship Finals in the last eight years, and last year he was inducted into the Naismith College Basketball Hall of Fame.
In short, John Calipari – head coach of the University of Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team – is college basketball royalty. In fact, outside of ‘Coach K’ (Duke’s famed boss Mike Krzyzewski), there’s arguably no better college coach in the States.
So when he talks about the potential of a young college player, the basketball world sits up and pays attention.
Right now, that world is clearing their desks and straightening their chairs to hear about a teenager from West Auckland.
Tai Wynyard signed with Kentucky – the most successful college in NCAA Division I history – in January as the first member of their 2016/17 recruitment class.
The 18-year-old seven-footer moved to Lexington earlier this year, but stayed on Calipari’s bench so he wouldn’t lose a year of eligibility playing ball.
Speaking exclusively to The Spinoff on the eve of the NBA Draft late last month, Calipari preached patience and perspective on Wynyard’s talents.
However, the college super-coach admitted that he had seen enough in the young centre to remind him of New Zealand’s finest-ever basketball export, Oklahoma City Thunder’s Steven Adams.
“He reminds me exactly [of Adams],” Calipari says.
“Let me say this, though: every one of these kids are on their own path. I’ve had a bunch of kids leave after a year, and I’ve had others leave after two or three. I’ve had others leave after four.
“Everyone is on their own path. That’s what I want everyone in New Zealand to understand. I’m not comparing to anyone on our team. I’m just saying – let’s become the best player we can be.
“Tai has the size. Adams – and the way he plays – shows you ‘look, you can do this’ but you have to really work. It’s a process.
“Big guys develop a little slower than guards – that’s always how it is. But Tai is developing at a good rate now.”
After emerging as a high school star for Rangitoto College, Wynyard – son of world champion woodchopper Jason – played for the Super City Rangers in the NBL before debuting for the Tall Blacks and signing a developmental contract with the Breakers in 2014.
After leading New Zealand to the FIBA Under-18 3×3 World Championship in Hungary last year, he caught the eye of a number of American college scouts.
Though he was courted by a number of schools – Texas and Villanova reportedly made big plays for him – it was Kentucky that won him over. At the time, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla compared Wynyard to NBA centre Enes Kanter, a teammate of Adams at the Thunder.
Calipari was impressed with Wynyard from the moment he saw him: “you have a player with size that has a bounciness to him.”
“He’s physically tough, and is young,” he says.
“His game is all ahead of him. He’s a great kid. He always has a smile on his face and comes from a great family. He’s a really coachable young man, which makes it easy for us.”
If Wynyard harbours any dreams of rising through the college ranks to the cusp of the NBA, he’s with the right coach.
Since taking over at Kentucky in 2009, Calipari, a long-time University of Memphis boss, has coached 28 future NBA Draft selections including three number one picks in John Wall (2010), Anthony Davis (2012) and Karl Anthony-Towns (2015).
Calipari also coached recent New York Knicks recruit Derrick Rose, who went No. 1 in 2008, at Memphis.
So, ‘Coach Cal,’ does Wynyard have the skills to be a top NBA Draft pick?
“Sure, but [the thing is] I want these kids to stay in the moment,” he says.
“I don’t want them to worry about being an NBA player. Worry about being the best college player you can be every day.
“Stay in the moment. Don’t look out a year or two years into the future – it doesn’t do you any good.”
For his services at Kentucky this coming season, Calipari will make US$7.25 million (around NZ$10 million). To put it in a Kiwi perspective, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen won’t even make NZ$1 million.
Yet despite his own high profile and the massive media attention college sport gets in the United States, Calipari says you can never take basketball – and your place in the sport – for granted.
“This game keeps you humble, especially when you’re playing against some of the best players in the country,” he says.
“It humbles you. The game does that. My job is to keep challenging him to be his best version every day. Keep challenging him to use self-discipline.
“Sometimes, things won’t be going good or you might be behind another player, you just keep fighting. You fight. You keep self-evaluating. You keep pushing yourself, a little bit at a time.
Wynyard will headline a raft of Kiwis competing in America’s college ranks next year.
Along with a handful of players in lower divisions, Auckland’s Matt Freeman (Oklahoma) – a 3×3 teammate of Wynyard’s – and Jack Salt (Virginia) will also be playing at top tier schools. Both Oklahoma and Virginia reached the NCAA Elite Eight last season.
With the college regular season not starting until mid-November, Calipari says it’s too early to say what Wynyard’s role will be for the Wildcats this year.
“We’ve got a brand new team so we’re trying to figure everything out,” he says.
“But my hope is that he is the best version of himself, and puts himself in the best position to play and help his team.”
If Calipari’s idea of the best version of Wynyard holds true, Adams could have some Kiwi company in the NBA before you know it. Imagine that: Adams vs Wynyard in an NBA tip-off.
As they say: stranger things.
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