This summer, the state of Kentucky came as close as maybe it ever will to playing host to an NBA team.
There was no shortage of NBA talent in and around Lexington over the summer.
You could make a very sound argument that no one has directly benefitted more from the NBA lockout and labor dispute than the University of Kentucky.
Not only did the impending lockout play a factor in both Terrence Jones' and Doron Lamb's decision to return for their sophomore seasons, it has also brought a wave of former Cats in the pros and other top shelf NBA talent to Lexington to workout during the work stoppage.
Unable to use NBA team facilities to practice during the lockout, NBA players including Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and most of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rajon Rondo and several other Boston Celtics' as well as former Cats DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Tayshaun Prince, Nazr Mohammed and others have all frequented the Joe Craft Center at one point or another to run with the current crop of Cats.
UK coach John Calipari said the experience, more than anything, showed his team how hard you have to work, not only to get, but to stay, at the game's highest level, citing both Rondo and Durant as prime examples.
"That's what the good thing was for us. They got to see how hard a Durant works. He works his butt off. I can't tell you how yard Rondo is working. It's incredible," Calipari said.
"You mean to tell me they go work in the weight room for an hour and a half, and then do individual work for an hour and a half? Yeah, and they get a bite to eat and then come back and play for three hours? That's their job. They are professional. They eat and play basketball. That's their job. They go all day. There's no one looking over these guys. They are here working."
But the Cats didn't simply serve as practice dummies for some of the NBA elite. With potentially six first round picks on the roster, freshman point guard Marquis Teague said there was plenty of give and take, even engaging in a little friendly trash talk with the NBA's reigning scoring champion.
"We were just having fun with it. Kevin Durant was scoring a lot, he was talking to us. Me and Doron (Lamb) started talking back," Teague said. "We're not going to back down. We weren't intimidated. We were just competing."
Calipari said the single most important thing Rajon Rondo and Kevin Durant showed the current Cats was what it really takes to be a professional.
But Teague will also be the first to tell you that his overall experience was a humbling one.
"You meet Rondo, Russell Westbrook, you can't be like your stuff don't stink," Teague said. "You're playing against the best players in the world. That humbles you. But it also built my confidence up. They told me they think I can play at a high level."
Another player singled out by Durant and Co. was freshman big man Kyle Wiltjer, who says he came to UK, in part, to push himself every day in practice against some of the best players in the country.
He had no idea that several of those pushing him would be NBA All-Stars.
"I chose the program because of the great recruits coming in and having a great team to push myself," Wiltjer said. "With the NBA lockout, it has pushed a lot of guys to come back and to play against some of the NBA's best, it's really helped elevate our game."
Wiltjer says playing against pros provided an invaluable litmus test and showed exactly how high of a ceiling and how much potential this UK team possesses.
"I definitely think we can compete with them and it really is like a measuring stick. To see them live and in person and play against them, it shows we have a lot of potential," Wiltjer said. "To play against them, it's a great opportunity to see what we need to work on and how we can get better."
But why Lexington and why UK?
"I think they know we have great facilities and a great team," Wiltjer said.
Something a lot of teams on UK's schedule this season are likely to find out as well.
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