After earning signatures from Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney, and Dontaie Allen in the early signing period last fall, Keion Brooks Jr. announced his commitment to Kentucky in March, followed by Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina joining the fold in April.
Fans had the opportunity to learn about Maxey and Whitney at the McDonald’s All-American Game, with Brooks joining for the Jordan Brand Classic. With Allen, his story was covered well as a local star and Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky. Even with Sestina, we had background of his game and personality from his time at Bucknell.
When it comes to Kentucky freshman guard Johnny Juzang, though, his story isn’t necessarily a familiar one to the Big Blue Nation. Making the decision to reclassify to the class of 2019 back in late April, followed by a commitment to UK on May 10, Juzang missed the hoopla being a committed high school senior going through the All-American circuit. Fans knew of his biography – 6-foot-7, 200-pound small forward out of Studio City, CA – and ranking – consensus four-star top-35 prospect – but the rest of the puzzle was left for the average fan to put together on their own.
After watching film and checking out his stats – Juzang averaged 23.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game during his junior season at Harvard-Westlake – you’d quickly learn he was an elite shooter and scorer at the high school level.
But what about now? After finishing up some academic work early this summer to make his reclassification official and arriving on campus a few weeks later than the rest of the roster, what does John Calipari expect out of his freshman forward this season?
“Johnny’s another one, can shoot the ball, learning to defend, learning to be the rebounder he can be because of his size,” Calipari said at UK Media Day on Tuesday afternoon. “The best thing is, when Johnny shoots it, everybody thinks it’s in. He shoots the ball — look, there are shooters and there are makers. We have had some makers, we have also had shooters here. Go 1-for-8. When he shoots it, you think the ball’s going in. And he’s a natural scorer.”
Can Juzang confirm Calipari’s scouting report?
“Uh, yes,” he said with a laugh. “I definitely like to think [I’m a good 3-point shooter]. I like to shoot. I’ve always kind of had that touch, to be honest. I’m not trying to blow myself up, but I’ve always naturally had a [shooting] touch. It’s something that I work on extensively.”
The 6-foot-7 freshman credits his trainers back home in Los Angeles for grooming him as a shooter over the last several years and fine-tuning his mechanics.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have great trainers, especially over the last several years,” he said. “To have a lot of help in terms of being efficient and working on mechanics, stuff like that. It’s one thing to have a lot of repetition, but if you’re not working on the right stuff, then it’s kind of counter-productive.”
Oddly enough, Juzang feels he’s a better shooter from beyond the 3-point arc than he is closer to the rim.
“It’s kind of weird, sometimes it feels that I shoot the three better than a mid-range or something,” Juzang said. “It might just be because I shoot so many of them, I guess. But I’d say my best shots are pull-up [jumpers] or threes.”
As much as he embraces his status as a promising shooter for Kentucky this season, Calipari has stressed that there will be no defined roles on the roster and that he wants his players to get outside of their comfort zone a bit. Juzang may be an elite shooter, but the Kentucky head coach wants him to be more than that during his time in Lexington and beyond.
“With this program, it’s not really defined roles,” he said. “But I do feel like being a shot maker is definitely something that can get you on the floor [here]. Having that gravity to open up the floor. There are no defined roles, though, that’s something they really push us on. They push you to be an all-around player, something I’m really grateful for. I came in as a shot maker, but they’re pushing me to be something even bigger, an all-around threat.”
With summer workout sessions over and practice officially underway, Juzang admits that it’s definitely an adjustment going from being the star of the show at Harvard-Westlake last season to competing against future NBA players every day.
At the end of the day, though, that’s why he signed with Kentucky this summer. That’s why all the players on the roster opted to spend their college basketball careers in Lexington.
“It’s an adjustment for sure, but it’s a great challenge,” he said. “It’s a ton of fun, first of all, playing with all this talent, all these guys that can really, really play. But it’s a challenge with all of us pushing each other, we all get so much better from it at the end of the day. In high school you get away with things, you’re that guy, but then you go to a place like this, and you realize why you went there in the first place. To be able to compete every single day, day in and day out, that’s why we all picked this place. It’s been really rewarding so far.”
All in all, he’s just thankful to be in the position he is in where he can compete at the highest level and play for a coach that will likely put him in position to make it to the NBA sooner rather than later.
“I love it. It’s an incredible feeling, like every day we’re blessed with such an amazing opportunity, and I think we all feel the same way,” he said. “Knowing the position that I’m in is really an inspiration. It just keeps you going and shows you what’s possible. I think that us being around each other, there’s such a talented group of guys always pushing each other and competing against each other, I couldn’t have asked for a better spot.”
Outside of the scouting report and known aspects of Juzang’s game on the court, the Wildcat freshman was made aware of his status as the very first player of Asian descent to play varsity ball at the University of Kentucky.
Juzang, who is Asian-American – his mother is Vietnamese – said he finds it “awesome” that he is the first to break that barrier.
“Wow, I didn’t even know that now that I think about it, but yeah that’s awesome,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of guys who come from the west coast even, so it’s nice to break that stereotype and represent my city. It’s always good to all that support, especially from my mom’s side, my grandma and all. It’s starting to come full circle.”
As for Calipari, he thinks Juzang will have fans all across the country due to his status as an Asian-American, but at the end of the day, he signed the five-star guard because he’s a great player and person.
: Well, you would have to ask him. For me, all these kids, there’s a couple things I don’t look at. I never look at their feet, what they have on their feet. And I never look at tattoos because I’m looking at their eyes. And by looking at their eyes, I don’t care if they’re black, brown, white, yellow, it doesn’t matter to me. Is he a good teammate, can he help us?
“I would say there’s going to be people across the country where their children are going to look up to Johnny Juzang. I believe that,” he said. “When you hear their family story, you are rooting for this kid. When you hear the family story, I don’t care what his background is. When you hear the story, you want this kid to do well. And he has an inner fire and a fight in him and he’s skilled and he’s smart. He’s here because he can really play basketball and he’s a great kid and a great teammate.”
More from KSR’s preseason previews:
- Dontaie Allen still recovering from injury and living the dream as a Wildcat
- Keion Brooks needs to be big when Kentucky goes small
- Immanuel Quickley ‘not even the same player’ as last year
- Tyrese Maxey on why he never stops smiling
- Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey are like “two dogs with one bone” in practice
- Nate Sestina’s mission to be the perfect teammate
- I like the word Ashton Hagans used to describe this team
- UK players name which coach they would room with on the road
- Players reveal who has the messiest room on the UK Basketball team
- 5 Fun Moments from John Calipari’s Media Day Press Conference