The road to the NBA

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During the Jim Calhoun era, UCONN was one of the leading programs in the country at producing NBA talent. Currently there are nine former Connecticut players on NBA rosters, 31 who have been drafted, and more than a dozen lottery picks – Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Ray Allen, Rudy Gay, Donyell Marshall, Richard Hamilton, and Kemba Walker.

Players from Connecticut historically have made an immediate impact in the league with that tradition continuing in 2014-15. Second year guard Kemba Walker averaged 17 points and five assists a game with the Charlotte Hornets and Andre Drummond, also in his second year, became a beast on the boards, averaging more than 13 rebounds a game and regularly grabbing more than 20, and already drawing comparisons to Dwight Howard at his most dominant. And UCONN players have staying power – Cliff Robinson and Ray Allen both played 18 years in the NBA, Donyell Marshall 15, Richard Hamilton and Kevin Ollie 14, Caron Butler 12, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon 10 and counting.

What’s most impressive about Calhoun’s track record of NBA successful players is that he was not blessed with the top recruiting classes every year like Duke or Kentucky. He was lucky to get one McDonald’s All-American to stumble into the fold while schools like Kentucky and Duke might land a starting lineup. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, for the second year in a row had the best recruiting class and just signed the most sought after power forward in the country in Brandon Ingram. That should ease the pain of losing three freshman to the NBA draft. Kentucky also lost three freshman and for the first time in history has seven players entering the draft. For Kentucky and Duke it’s never rebuild or regroup it’s reload. Calhoun and UCONN never had that luxury. They didn’t have an Anthony Davis or John Wall or Jabari Parker or Jahlil Okafor like Kentucky and Duke respectively. Those four freshman were near NBA ready after high school and made the obligatory pit stop in college before entering the draft and becoming lottery picks. “One and done” has become a familiar refrain in college basketball but not at UCONN.

Calhoun had to scratch and claw and beat the bushes to find kids who were under recruited and then develop them into NBA stars – he didn’t inherit NBA stars. And that was his calling card. Find kids who had a chip on their shoulder, could play multiple positions, had a motor that never stopped running and a killer work ethic. He could work miracles with that package. When Calhoun recruited Reggie Lewis to Northeastern, he wasn’t even the BEST player on his Dunbar high school team yet Calhoun transformed him into one of the BEST players in the country and a future NBA star before his untimely death from a heart condition.

What Calhoun preached stayed with most of his players long after they left the UCONN campus.

Ray Allen – “Once you get to the NBA you almost hear his voice in the background. You know he’s watching and you want to make him proud. The intensity of a practice in the NBA is nowhere like it was at UCONN. He was always the disciplinarian. He was the guy who pushed me, gave me the tools to want to go higher, to be greater than I was at that moment.”

Quinnipiac Coach Tom Moore – “Ray Allen believes that guys are successful in the NBA because coach was so hard on them in college. And most feel they’ve never had a coach as demanding as Calhoun. Some of the things players do in the NBA, they do out of habit from college. Preparation for practice, get there early, stay late and keep your body right.”

Ray Allen – “I was always the first one in the gym and the last to leave.”

Jake Voskuhl – “I played in the NBA for nine years and I can tell you no one ran a practice like he did. Every drill, every water break was scripted out.”

UCONN Coach Kevin Ollie – “Coach Calhoun taught me a ferocious competitiveness that I took with me to the NBA. I didn’t care if there were three point guards ahead of me, I still believed I could overcome it. I knew my outcome. And that’s the thing about coach, he knows the outcome before he even starts. I didn’t know I would play 13 years in the NBA but he did.”

Jake Voskuhl – “When he recruited me he said, ‘Jake would you like to play in the NBA?’ “Well of course every player dreams of playing in the NBA so I said yes. He said, ‘Well I can tell you right now you’re not good enough. But if you come to UCONN and work hard and do the things I tell you, you will have a chance to make it and sure enough it worked out for me.”

ESPN Analyst Seth Greenberg – “Calhoun could see the best in you. He’d say, ‘You’re even better than you think you are. I’m going to help you get to somewhere you didn’t even think you could get to.”

Assistant coach George Blaney – “Jim didn’t allow them to be satisfied. He would get them to a level and demand more. That’s why his players kept getting better in the pros.”

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski – “The way Jim’s teams played was a pro style system. His better players always had the freedom to show their skills so they got better. When his players got to the pros they had learned how to work hard, they had learned how to listen to a coach and they had learned how to win. What else is there? Every NBA coach would like that package from every one of his players. That’s why Jim has had so many players who have stuck and become outstanding players.”

Jim Calhoun – “ Life is not a polaroid, it’s a motion picture that goes on and on. And that theory, you’re averaging 20, well you need to improve your defense, your rebounding and by the way we want 25 a game. Whatever it is, we want more. And that thirst to get better every single night becomes not something you’re told, it becomes a way of life.”

Chris Martens
Excerpts from “Born to Lead:Jim Calhoun”

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