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NBA Draft caps 'impossible' turnarounds of Harrellson, Liggins

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DeAndre Liggins (left) and Josh Harrellson averaged a combined 5.3 points during the 2009-10 season. Now, after helping Kentucky to the Final Four in 2011, they're the two most unlikely of UK's nine draft picks over the last two years. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics) DeAndre Liggins (left) and Josh Harrellson averaged a combined 5.3 points during the 2009-10 season. Now, after helping Kentucky to the Final Four in 2011, they're the two most unlikely of UK's nine draft picks over the last two years. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by the selection of Josh Harrellson on Thursday night by the New York Knicks with the 45th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Perhaps we should have known all along that the Orlando Magic would select DeAndre Liggins with the 53rd pick when he announced he was leaving Kentucky a year early.

After all, it was John Calipari who molded a record five first-round draft picks a year ago, including the diminutive Eric Bledsoe and seldom-used Daniel Orton. In a sense, maybe we should have come to expect Thursday night.

But when it actually happened at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., particularly when Harrellson's named showed up seemingly out of nowhere on the draft board, this writer couldn't help but pick up his jaw off the floor.

If someone would have told you before the season that both Harrellson and Liggins would go in the draft, what would have called them? Crazy?

"Impossible," is how an emotional Liggins described it by phone Thursday night.

Before the year, Harrellson was as likely to be drafted in the NFL as he was in the NBA. He averaged a measly 1.3 points and 1.2 rebounds his junior season and was relegated to a bathroom stall during one of his games his sophomore year.

Even as Harrellson took on a more prominent role when Enes Kanter was ruled permanently ineligible, few could have imagined he was worthy of an NBA spot.

But as the NCAA Tournament wore on and Harrellson won matchups with Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, Harrellson started to warrant draft consideration and earned workouts with NBA teams.

One of the teams was the New York Knicks, who acquired the 45th pick from the New Orleans Hornets via cash. With a shortage of centers -- Ronny Turiaf is the only center under contract for next year -- the Knicks decided to go with Harrellson, who averaged 7.6 points and 8.7 rebounds last year.

"That's a good pick for them," Liggins said of the Knicks drafting Harrellson. "He worked his butt off to get to where he got at. I'm proud of him."

Harrellson couldn't be reached for comment Thursday night, but he sent out a tweet sending his appreciation to all of his fans.

"Headed to New York tomorrow morning..." Harrellson said on Twitter. "Thank you everyone for all your support through the years I couldn't be more proud!! Love the #BBN(.)"

Only Harrellson's unbelievable turnaround could overshadow Liggins' three-year journey.

If you can remember back to his freshman season, Liggins endured a much-maligned first year under former coach Billy Gillispie. There were rumors of a possible transfer when Calipari took over, and Liggins sat out the first nine games of his sophomore season. Some people called him a cancer and suggested Calipari rid himself of Liggins.

Soon thereafter, Liggins bought into Calipari's system, reinvented his game and became one of the best defenders in the country. Liggins improved his shooting this year, hitting 39.1 percent of his 3-point shots while averaging 8.6 points.

Now he'll join Orton in Orlando as UK's ninth draft pick in the last two years.

"It just shows that you never give up on what you do," Liggins said. "Everybody goes through things, whether it involves basketball or life. I've been through both. I've been through a lot on the court and off the court. I never gave up on my dream to play basketball. I continued to get better. Coach Cal did a great job preparing my game as did the rest of the coaching staff."

Liggins watched the draft from his hometown in Chicago and was admittedly anxious as the draft got closer and closer to the 60th and final pick.

"It was nerve-wracking," Liggins said. "I was watching it the entire time. It was getting towards the end of the draft so I was getting kind of nervous, but I know how hard I've worked all year and knew someone would call my name at some point."

In the end, Liggins was drafted by a team he never worked out for. The Magic interviewed him at the NBA Combine in Chicago, but Thursday night's text message from his agent was the first time he considered Orlando.

The moment he read the text ranked right up there with making a Final Four, Liggins said.

"Being part of that team, I always tried to help the team win and bring energy and toughness," Liggins said. "That's what I want to bring to the Orlando Magic. I know I'm not going to be a superstar in this league, but I'm a winning player. All I care about is winning."

On a team that features NBA veterans Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu, in addition to superstar center Dwight Howard, Liggins still views himself as a defensive stopper.

"I've got to," Liggins said. "That's what they drafted me for is my defense and my toughness, but I'm going to tell them that I'm going to get better as a player and work on my weaknesses. I'm going to try to work on other aspects of my game."

Second-round draft picks are not guaranteed contracts, meaning Liggins and Harrellson aren't out of the woods yet. Although they've landed with a team, they'll have to prove they deserve a roster spot.

That may become increasingly difficult this offseason with a possible lockout looming. The NBA has already canceled its annual summer league in Las Vegas, which would have been a prime opportunity for both Liggins and Harrellson to prove they warranted their selections.

"It just gives me more fire," Liggins said. "I'm just trying to prove that I belong in the NBA."

To even have that chance seemed utterly unlikely a year ago. But as we've all come to learn with Calipari and Kentucky, nothing is impossible anymore.

"If you work hard, you never know what's going to happen, and that's what me and Josh did," Liggins said. "We worked our tails off. We know who we are."

They're now, believe it or not, NBA Draft picks.

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3 Comments

Congratulations to all our Boys. They have worked so hard to get to this level and done so much for our team while here at Kentucky. I'm so proud of each and every one. GO BIG BLUE!! Way to go Cal!!

Congratulations to the draftees, but I'm no fan of one and out basketball. College basketball is the minor leagues for the NBA. Dropping out after one year means learning "real" basketball while still trying to make the pro team. Liggens isn't likely to stay very long, and neither is Orton. What will they do when the NBA has rejected them? We didn't even get to see Kanter play in the Big Blue uniform. What a waste of UK money that was. Stay in college, learn the fundementals, and get a degree so you have something to fall back on when the NBA team drops you. Coach Cal is doing these young men a disservice by not encouraging them to get the degree first.

Money speaks louder than words my friend.

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  • Trent41647: Money speaks louder than words my friend. read more
  • Norm hershfield: Congratulations to the draftees, but I'm no fan of one and out basketball. College basketball is the minor leagues for read more
  • Don Maher: Congratulations to all our Boys. They have worked so hard to get to this level and done so much for read more
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