3 Kentucky NBA Draft prospects who can rise or fall in the SEC Tournament

Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham weren't the two highest-rated recruits in Kentucky's 2023 freshman class, but after one season coming off the bench, the backcourt duo will cement themselves as NBA lottery picks in the SEC Tournament.

Kentucky Wildcats guards Rob Dillingham (0) and Reed Sheppard (15)
Kentucky Wildcats guards Rob Dillingham (0) and Reed Sheppard (15) / Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports
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Even more than his 2012 national title, and maybe to paper over the mounting years since leading Kentucky back to the mountaintop, John Calipari boasts about all the NBA talent that he’s produced over his 14 years in Lexington. For Coach Cal, the NBA Draft is even bigger than Selection Sunday, and it seems like a first-overall pick is more important than a Final Four. 

Calipari has dominated the one-and-done era like no other coach, producing 46 NBA draft picks since taking over in 2009 and 10 of those have turned into All-Stars at the next level. Cal got back to his one-and-done roots this season, bringing in a loaded freshman class that ranked No. 1 in the country and included five-stars Justin Edwards, D.J. Wagner, and Aaron Bradshaw, along with four-stars Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham. 

That class brought back visions of the legendary 2014 class that featured Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis, and Devin Booker. Like that group, a few key pieces from this season’s team will need to stick around another year in Lexington to prepare for the NBA. Surprisingly, it’s Sheppard and Dillingham who are the surefire first-round picks and they, along with Edwards, have an opportunity to boost their draft stock in Nashville at the SEC Tournament. 

Justin Edwards. 3. player. Justin Edwards, F. 528. . Freshman. . 6'8" 203 lbs. Justin Edwards, F

This year’s crop of NBA talent was always a bit weaker than is typical, and certainly less tantalizing than last year’s Victory Wembanyama sweepstakes. Coming into this college basketball season, Justin Edwards was billed as the potential prize to the NBA’s tanking teams, but he disappointed Kentucky fans and the league’s scouts, pretty much from the first moment he appeared in Wildcat blue. 

Kentucky’s first showcase game of the season was at the Champions Classic in Chicago against No. 1 Kansas. Edwards was the first collegiate athlete to sign an NIL deal with Rich Paul’s Klutch Athletics apparel brand, and with Paul, Lebron James’s long-time business partner, in attendance, went 0-6 from the field and finished with one point, two rebounds, and one assist in 29 minutes. 

Edwards has had a few bright spots throughout the season since that debacle on the big stage, but he’ll need to perform on the big stage and under the bright lights of the SEC Tournament to get back into the first-round discussion. Edwards is averaging 9.0 points and 3.5 rebounds and hasn’t looked comfortable with the ball in his hands all year. Still, a strong offensive output or an impressive defensive showing against a player like Dalton Knecht, who scored 40 points against the Wildcats in the regular season finale, could turn a few heads in the league. 

If the moment once again looks too big for the freshman, then his best option will be to return to Kentucky, and Paul’s first foray into college hoops will have been a bigger flop than any of Lebron’s best on-court performance art.