BY DANIEL MARKS
Ever since the NBA raised its minimum age limit from 18 to 19 years old in 2006, the one-and-done phenomenon has taken off. Since players can no longer jump right from high school to the pros, many elite basketball programs are now mere checkpoints for top players on their way to the NBA. In the last few years, no program has personified this one-and-done phenomenon more than the University of Kentucky.
Since John Calipari took over the program in 2009, 10 Wildcats have only spent one year on campus during his four seasons there. This includes John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins andAnthony Davis. Coach Cal recruits players with the expectation — both from the player’s standpoint and his standpoint — that they will likely only be in Lexington for one season. Sometimes this philosophy pays off as it did with a national championship in 2012, and sometimes, like this past season, it does not. However, no matter the results, with six McDonald’s All-Americans heading to campus next season, Calipari’s philosophy is not changing any time soon. That is what makes the case of Julius Mays so unique.
See Mays, Kentucky’s elder statesmen this season at 23 years old, was also a one-and-done for the program, but his path to Kentucky was much longer than the one his freshmen teammates took. Coming out of high school, Mays was a lightly-recruited shooting guard out of Marion, Indiana who chose to attend North Carolina State over offers from Xavier, Western Michigan and Ball State.
After two disappointing seasons in Raleigh, he transferred to Wright State, a mid-major school in the Horizon League. Per NCAA transfer rules, Mays had to sit out his first season at Wright State before becoming eligible during the 2011-12 season. During that year, he averaged 14.1 points before deciding to transfer again after the season.
Even as his team’s leading scorer, Coach Cal was not interested in Mays initially despite losing his top six scorers from the 2012 national title team. Graduate transfers were not part of the way he put his teams together, and he wasn’t really intrigued by Mays. Instead, the best recruiter in college basketball had the tables turned on him. Mays recruited Calipari.
“He really wanted to be with us,” Calipari says. “At the time we were talking to him, we didn’t even think he would start for us, and that he would be coming off the bench. We didn’t know what position he would play, and we told him he would likely be in the top eight, but we couldn’t even promise him that and he wanted to come anyway.”
Without promises, Mays still wanted to enroll at Kentucky because as a self-described competitor, he wanted to prove he belonged with the best. Unlike most of Kentucky’s one-and-dones, Mays would only have one year on campus regardless of whether he wanted to or not. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis could have stayed on campus for four years if they really wanted to, but Mays’ time was limited. He was in the last year of his NCAA eligibility, having played at two other Division I schools.
Upon arriving at Kentucky, Mays was initially overwhelmed.
“Nothing compares, nothing at all,” Mays says. “All those other places kind of got me semi-ready, but I still didn’t know what I was in for going to the University of Kentucky with their fan-base and going into every arena and being everybody’s Super Bowl. So it was some type of preparation at those other places, but not the type one would need. Going to Kentucky is big. You have to have a lot of mental toughness in order to handle the scrutiny you are going to receive, both positive and negative.”
For many people, both Kentucky fans and those in the media, it is easy to expect greatness each year from the Wildcats. Prior to last season, Calipari’s teams had reached the Elite Eight, Final Four and won the NCAA title. Expectations were no different this season as the team started the season ranked in the top five. However, this team was different in that it was younger than any Calipari team before. All of his prior teams had veteran leaders with significant playing experience. In 2009-10, it was Patrick Patterson. In ’10-11, it was Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson, and in ’11-12 it was Miller and Terrence Jones. Last season, there was nobody.
No player on that team had ever played more than 20 minutes per game in college besides Mays and Ryan Harrow, and their playing experience didn’t come at UK.Kyle Wiltjer played just over 11 minutes per game in 2011-12, but other than that, this team had zero experience. Mays was the natural candidate to tackle the leadership void. He just wasn’t ready to do it right away.
“It was tough at first because this past year I played a position I had never played before really by playing the two-guard, and coming off a lot of screens and off-ball action as opposed to playing the point guard,” he says. “So I was learning the ropes and the roles myself. It was such a shaky season and a lot of guys weren’t buying into what Coach Cal was saying so I felt like I had to step up because I knew the message he was trying to get across.
“And if Coach Cal wasn’t getting the right response from them, I felt like it was my job as the older guy to be that leader and carry coach’s message to the other guys. I feel like toward the end of the season I really became comfortable in that leadership role, but I probably waited too late to get into that because I was not totally comfortable at first with my on-court role and our system.”
By mid-season, Mays became the undisputed leader of the team. He was the only player Calipari truly trusted, and despite the initial doubts about how much he would play, Mays ended up leading the team in minutes. The team had their ups and downs throughout the year, but without Mays the season would have been even worse.
He provided a sense of stability and calm to a team that was incredibly volatile, and his on-court game reflected that. Mays is not flashy and relies primarily on his high basketball IQ and deceptiveness to be effective. In a high-pressure environment, like playing with Kentucky, Mays demonstrated a remarkable amount of poise in the face of constant adversity, and gained not only the respect of Calipari, but most importantly from his younger teammates. At one point during the season, Archie Goodwin told the media that Mays was the type of person he would be in touch with for the rest of his life.
“It means a lot,” Mays says about his relationships with last year’s freshmen. “I’m the baby in my family, I have four older sisters, and I never had any brothers growing up. So the bond I was able to have with those guys, and their willingness to accept me immediately and treat me like their big brother, and they were my like my little brothers, was really special. It’s something I will always cherish.”
In addition to his relationships with Cal and the younger guys, Mays had a kinship with the fans. Kentucky fans are a special breed. As Mays says, “They live, die, eat, sleep and breathe Kentucky basketball.” They fill up Rupp Arena for every game, regardless of the opponent, and inject their energy into the team. They treat the players like royalty and stick with them through thick and thin. Yet even at a place rich with history, dealing with the one-and-done system presents its challenges.
One of the criticisms of a one-and-done is that the fans don’t get the opportunity to get attached to the players, and that the players don’t appreciate the opportunity they have to play college basketball. This conundrum is particularly difficult to handle at Kentucky. On the one hand, the one-and-done players have restored the program to the expected level of success, but on the other hand their time on campus is short-lived.
Despite winning a national championship, the 2011-12 team will never go into Kentucky lore quite like “The Unforgettables” who, along with Rick Pitino, rescued the team from the depth of probation and took it to a regional final before losing on the classic Christian Laettner shot. It is why players like Darius Miller, a Kentucky native who stuck around for four years, was universally beloved. The same goes for center Josh Harrellson, who was there for three years.
One season really isn’t enough to understand what Kentucky is all about. Mays was different. He had been elsewhere. He had seen other schools, so when he got to Kentucky he was able to appreciate all it had to offer. That’s why the fans grew attached to him. They even coined the nickname “Uncle Julius” for him. So while Mays was only there for one year, and may or may not make the NBA, his impact will be felt for a long time.
“To me, the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, but the experience was great,” Mays says. “That’s how college basketball should be. Even a lot of the guys at this workout were asking me what it was like to play there, and I’m sure they played at big schools with their own tradition, but Kentucky is one of a kind. There is nothing like it, you are like a rock-star living in Lexington and playing for UK. If I could have made the decision again, I would have made it 10 out of 10 times.”