Around this time last year, John Calipari announced that he was promoting basketball staffer Joel Justus to the role of UK assistant coach, in part, to help the Wildcats establish relationships earlier in the process with some of the nation’s top young recruits.
In reality, Justus was already doing that, and the seeds of those early efforts are starting to show.
Last summer — while assistant coach John Robic was taking some time away from the program after the unexpected death of his father — Justus filled in as UK’s third assistant coach on the recruiting trail.
It was during that summer that Justus first made contact with a young, promising point guard named Immanuel Quickley, who was just wrapping up his sophomore year at John Carroll School (Md.) and starting to get noticed as one of the best point guards in the class of 2018.
Quickley told the Herald-Leader last June that Justus had been the point man in UK’s recruitment of him. The UK assistant traveled to Spain later that month to watch Quickley and others represent USA Basketball at the FIBA U17 World Championships.
As the recruitment wore on, Justus would communicate with Quickley on a near daily basis, occasionally popping up at his school or on the sidelines of his games during the open recruiting periods.
On Friday night, Quickley announced his commitment to Kentucky, becoming the Wildcats’ first pledge for the 2018 class.
As with many, perhaps all, of UK’s recruiting victories these days, Calipari — and his track record of getting talented prospects to the NBA quickly — was the catalyst for Quickley’s commitment. But Justus deserves some of the credit, too.
“Joel targeted Immanuel Quickley early on — pretty early in Quickley’s recruiting process,” Scout.com’s Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “He did a good job of not only identifying him as a player but also identifying the key decision-makers in the recruitment. That’s half the battle — building a relationship with that player and his family, and then getting your head coach in position to do the same.
“And he did just that.”
This series of events is exactly how Calipari explained the blueprint when he decided to make Justus a full-time assistant coach last year.
UK’s basketball brain trust had started to sense a shift in the perception of the program on the recruiting trail. Calipari and his assistant coaches would go into players’ schools and homes and often have to spend initial meetings fighting back against things that coaches at other schools had been saying about the Cats.
“Negative recruiting” was becoming a bigger problem for UK, and Calipari was starting to see that the narrative of his program was being written before he ever got any face time with the players he wanted to recruit.
Former UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua had earned the reputation as a master of selling the Wildcats’ vision to younger recruits and their parents, but he had since left Lexington to become the head coach at South Florida.
Calipari needed someone to fill that void, and he picked Justus to do the job.
“Putting Joel in a position to really attack and establish us with some young kids — at least have our presence known with young kids — I thought was important,” he said at the time.
Quickley was one of the first recruits — perhaps the first recruit — on Justus’ radar.
UK’s coaches aren’t allowed to talk about Quickley or any other class of 2018 recruit until that player signs with a school — the early signing period begins Nov. 8 — but Justus did talk in more general terms about his new role last fall.
“What we are trying to do is get out and create the narrative before it’s written by someone else,” Justus said then. “Because we have a special story to tell. And Cal wants to make sure that we are the first ones to tell that story. That we don’t have to then come in and take the eraser and erase chapters of stories that are not true, partially true, cloudy.
“We’re able to come in and create the message.”
The message went through to Quickley, and it seems to be resonating with others.
Last week, five-star power forward James Wiseman — the No. 1 player in the ESPN rankings for the class of 2019 — became the first junior to receive a scholarship offer from Calipari, and his recruitment is following the same path as Quickley’s early on.
Wiseman, like Quickley, was targeted very early in the process by Justus, who established contact with Wiseman’s camp earlier this year and traveled to Argentina to scout him during USA Basketball’s gold-medal run at the FIBA U16 championships.
Justus’ first stop of the fall recruiting period earlier this month was Memphis, where he visited Wiseman, who shortly thereafter became the first 2019 recruit to land a UK offer. Wiseman has also had great things to say about the Cats’ program in recent months, mentioning “Coach Joel” as UK’s main man in the recruitment.
“Here, we’re looking for the right fit,” Justus said last fall. “The right person who wants to come in and embraces the type of player that comes to Kentucky.”