It began with a text. Kentucky coach John Calipari sat with Bam Adebayo at the NBA draft in 2017 as names went off the board. With the Miami Heat’s pick approaching at No. 14, Calipari texted team president Pat Riley:
“Are you taking my guy?”
A minute passed. Two minutes. Then, just before the Heat picked, Calipari got a one-word response from Riley:
Thus began the short answer to why the Heat are the surprise of the NBA this year. Adebayo, in his third year, has stretched his wings to the edge of superstardom. Tyler Herro, drafted at No. 13 last summer, has excelled in his opening months.
Two Kentucky players. Two one-and-done college stars. Two developing NBA talents who, as Calipari sees it, got the perfect fit from Kentucky.
“Our culture is their culture — grinding, hard work, being part of a team,” Calipari said. “They learn they’ve got to play defense, because if you can’t, the other coach will go at you 12 straight times at that level and you’ll get taken out of the game.”
That leads to a story about Herro.
“I used to bust him down a little bit in practice, and he’d look at me like, ‘There’s nothing you can do too hard — give me more,’ ” Calipari said. “I’d say we’re doing extra work for March. He’d say, ‘Do more.’ He was in there every night. He was obsessed with being in a gym.
“That’s why I said, ‘Miami’s perfect for you. You’re into basketball. That culture is perfect for you.’ And look how good it is.”
Each morning, Calipari is greeted on his desk by a report of the previous night’s games for the 31 NBA players he coached at Kentucky. Who starred. Who struggled. He’ll then send an occasional text as warranted.
“Bam, I see the things he’s doing — they’re taking him to places we didn’t have time for,” Calipari said. “I used to see him in the open court, and I’d shake my head at what he could do. But he first needed to learn to play 7 feet in (to the basket). That’s all we did with him. He first needed to learn to play the pick-and-roll.
“That’s we worked on. And he worked hard. Now, what they’ve done in Miami, oh my gosh. Knowing his skill set and seeing they said, ‘You can guard five positions’ — that’ll make you an All-Star. Now he’s one of the better players in the league at that (center) position because he’s a playmaker.”
There’s a third Kentucky guy with the Heat, of course. Riley starred on coach Adolph Rupp’s so-called Rupp’s Runts in the 1960s. Riley and Calipari are too much in the moment to go through scrap books, though.
They talk of today. Riley, in fact, gave what Calipari calls, “the best compliment I can receive,” in one talk:
“Your players come here as great teammates.”
That covers a lot of ground about why the Heat are a surprise. The trusting. The passing. The unselfishness. Calipari reflects on this with a story about Adebayo: At halftime of a big game, Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox (now with Sacramento) and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball were putting on a show.
“What do you guys see?” Calipari said at half.
“Give it to De’Aaron, we’ll ride him home,” Adebayo said.
They did, too. The point is the win-oriented Adebayo the Heat see is the one Calipari saw first. Herro, too. The general concern about him coming into the NBA was the same for every great, young shooter: Defense.
“He worked so hard in practice at defensive fundamentals — how you get the feet lunging, not sliding like in high school because you can’t stay in front of anybody,” Calipari said. “We did a defensive tape of him to show players (this season).
“I sent it to him. He (texted) me back saying he never thought anyone would make a defensive training tape of him. I sent it to his dad, too. He said, ‘I’m amazed.’ But that’s the player he became here.”
Calipari has mastered winning in college and developing players for the NBA. Teams like the Heat, he says, watch college practices with a simple question: Who will fight — who won’t simply trade baskets?
Kentucky plays South Carolina next. It’s in the heart of the Southeastern Conference season. But Calipari has a final line of insight into this Heat start:
“They got two guys from here who won’t be trading baskets, they’ll fight,” he said.
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