NEW ORLEANS — He’s not really thinking about what might happen once the season ends, but Kentucky freshman Daniel Orton won’t deny that the NBA could be a possible destination for him as early as next season.
“That is not something I am thinking about, but if I had a good tournament and we won the national championship that would be a possibility,” said Orton Friday. “I would say you would have to think about it. That would be a great way to carry on my career. That is something I have always wanted to do, so who knows what could happen.”
While it has been widely speculated that both DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson would leave UK early for the NBA, Orton’s departure would be a surprise to many and major blow to UK’s 2010-11 plans.
Orton’s numbers wouldn’t seem to indicate he’s ready for the next level. He’s averaging only 3.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per game with 50 blocked shots, including three against East Tennessee State here Thursday. He’s barely averaging 13 points per game.
However, remember he injured his knee before the start of his senior year and missed that season. This year he’s played behind Cousins.
Yet in recent games he’s showing more and more of his game. He had six points on 3-for-3 shooting and two rebounds in 17 minutes in the SEC title game. Against ETSU, he had eight points, seven rebounds, three blocks and one assist in 14 minutes. He’s shown he can run the court, rebound and block shots. His offense game has not been polished, but he’s showing more scoring prowess and moves recently.
Orton thought he would be playing for Billy Gillispie when he signed with Kentucky. Instead, Gillispie was fired and John Calipari hired. Calipari had to re-recruit Orton, an Oklahoma star, and did.
The Kentucky coach told a story Friday about how he asked Orton what Gillispie told him when he was recruited and he said Orton told him he was told he would be a starter and UK’s low-post presence to team with Patrick Patterson. Instead, he’s had to play behind Cousins and has still helped UK win.
“And I'll tell you right now, Daniel will have options at the end of the year to make a decision on what he wants to do. Can you imagine? And I'm not sure that would have happened if he was on a team that was an NIT team. You hear what I'm saying? Now they're looking at him saying this kid is really, really good. And he is,” Calipari said Friday.
“The other side of it is people love his attitude in that he's dealt with it. But he's a talented big player who blocks shots, who rebounds. And he's taken on his role to say I'm going to do whatever I need to do. At the end of the day, like I told him, it's worked out better for you. You're going to be fine. If you choose to do something, it's there for you. If you choose to come back, that's fine, too.”
Calipari admitted he already knew about Orton when he came to UK because he played for the same AAU team that Xavier Henry, now a freshman at Kansas, did and Calipari was recruiting Henry for Memphis.
“I watched him play a hundred times and saw all the stuff. He's very skilled, too. You haven't seen enough of his shooting because of how we played. But you can put him in pick-and-rolls, he can shoot free throw shots, he can shoot 3’s. He's elbow jumpers, he's talented,” Calipari said.
But why has he emerged so much recently?
“I am gaining confidence that I used to have. It’s about confidence in myself and playing within my role,” he said. “I am trying to be more aggressive. Most people don’t think I can score, so I am trying to develop my offensive game better and better. I like a fast tempo, so that has helped, too.
Maybe he was just sandbagging, waiting for the postseason to really show what he can do.
“I think that is pretty much it. I would say so,” Orton laughed and said.
However, don’t underestimate the improvement he’s made or think it is totally unrealistic that a NBA team could be enamored with a 6-11 player with his skills despite his limited playing time this year.
“Daniel has come a long way from his improvement on offense and overall confidence just when he steps on the court. When he comes in the game he provides a lot of energy and makes up for what DeMarcus usually does when he is not in the game. Daniel is a great rebounder and big presence on defense. And he’s just going to get better and better. That’s probably the best thing about him,” Patterson said.