LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s a strange thing to have to tell a kid who just finished his sophomore year of college, but the message University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino gave to Ray Spalding this past spring was an accurate one:

Your time is running out.

That’s the world that top-level college basketball players face when it comes to the first round of the NBA Draft.

“If you reach your senior season, they want to know what’s wrong with you,” Pitino told me back in the spring. “They’ll draft a great player as a senior, but you face a lot of questions.”

In the most recent NBA Draft, only two seniors were selected in the first round – Colorado’s Derrick White and Villanova’s Josh Hart – and they were taken with the final two picks of the round.

 Suffice it to say, the wake-up call apparently hit home with Spalding, a 6-foot-10, 210-pound forward out of Louisville’s Trinity High School.

Spalding has boundless talent. By the end of his senior season, he had Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and others looking in, but never wavered from his early commitment to the hometown school.

He showed flashes in his first two seasons. He had 18 points and 11 rebounds in a win over Syracuse last season. He just didn’t show that kind of all-around effort consistently.

In summer workouts, though, Pitino says that has changed. In his latest blog update at RickPitino.net, the coach graded Spalding a 5-plus (out of five) in the most-improved category, and said he has been the best player on the team in offseason play.

“Better late than never,” Pitino wrote. “The light has really come on with him. He’s working hard and reaching his potential. Spending the time to improve all phases of his game. Jump shot improved and very active at both ends.”

That’s on the heels of high praise he offered Spalding right after the start of workouts.

“He’s finally gotten real serious about his game. And he needs to get serious about it because he’s entering his junior year,” Pitino told Terry Meiners shortly after the start of individual instruction. “I just think I think Ray got very comfortable being a local kid. Donovan Mitchell was totally tuned into being a pro. He spent the summers working. He said, ‘I came in here with a flat jump shot, I’m going to leave with a great jump shot. I came in without point guard skills, I’m going to leave with point guard skills.’ He asked me after his freshman year, what do I have to be a pro? I told him three things, he went to work on them, and he came away a pro. He was the 13th pick in the draft and it’s something we’re very proud of.”

Spalding, though not as physically strong, has a skill set that could be like Duke’s Jason Tatum, who just went with the third pick in the draft. What he hasn’t had is Tatum’s drive, or his consistency. Perhaps a sense of urgency has changed that.

As Pitino referenced, Spalding wouldn’t be the first to make a “Louisville leap” in recent years. Chinanu Onuaku rode a dramatic improvement earned in the offseason before his sophomore year into the NBA Draft. Terry Rozier rose from a solid freshman campaign to the No. 16 pick in the NBA Draft a year before Onuaku went.

Mitchell was not viewed as a lottery-type player when he entered U of L. But that’s where he left.

Those are some good examples for Pitino’s current team – which is loaded with players who have the potential to climb into the first round. And it’s also a powerful recruiting pitch for Pitino, who has established a resume of players who came to Louisville with NBA potential and turned that into reality.

Among others Pitino is hoping to see take that leap this season, sophomore-to-be V.J. King has stood out.

“Has gone from a timid freshman to a physical sophomore,” Pitino wrote of King. “Stronger and now loves contact. Scores with and without the ball. Has to improve his passing but really pleased with his progress.”

For a team that Pitino calls his most athletic at Louisville, the more guys who make a leap, the better the Cardinals will look.

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