After weeks of speculation, Jai Lucas’ addition to the Kentucky basketball program is official, with the school announcing his hiring on Monday.
Coming on as a special assistant to the head coach and recruiting coordinator, Lucas sat down with the media this morning to discuss his decision to leave Texas and join John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky.
What did he have to say about his move to Lexington? How excited is he to join the Kentucky basketball program? What will his role look like on staff?
Check out KSR’s complete transcript of the conversation below.
I think your recruitment, along with Patrick Patterson was maybe the first of the modern era for a lot of Kentucky fans with the interest level and all the fascination we’ve seen the last decade-plus. Can you look back on that a little bit? How close were you to committing Kentucky? What were your takeaways from the fan base at the time and how interested they were in what you were going to do?
I was coming. I was coming to Kentucky until Coach Smith left and took the Minnesota job. That left me in scramble mode because I had made my mind up for months and then that’s kind of how I ended up at Florida because they were the next school to call me at the McDonald’s game, so I kind of ended up with them. They had the momentum with Billy Donovan and winning two National Championship, but this place has left an impact on me ever since I took a visit and just through the whole recruiting process. If you’re about basketball and everything that comes with it and the whole experience of college basketball, it’s hard to say no to Kentucky.
What were your thoughts on the Black lives [matter] video that the players put out on Twitter and the reaction to it. It seemed to have a lot of sharp reaction, pro and con.
Yeah, I think the video was amazing. I’ve just started to meet the players and am getting to know them, but I think just for them to have that message and do it together, it’s a big statement on its own. I think the biggest thing with everything that’s going on in our society and in the country is that people need to come together, just have communication, have conversations whether you’re for it or against it. I think if you are a Kentucky fan, if you’re a fan of whatever university, you are a part of it and your team has a message that they want to be heard and speak about. I think you should at least have the opportunity to just come and listen to see what they have and their concerns. That’s how the family and the community comes together, through conversation and through communication.
What are a few things about yourself that the fanbase likely does not know?
That’s a great question. I mean, I’m a people person. I love people. I will never not talk to anybody, not say hello, not have a conversation with anybody, so if anybody sees me anywhere, you can come up say hello. I’m not stand-offish at all. I love people. I also really love my job and what I do. My opportunity to impact young men who I see a lot of myself in and things that I’ve been through, being able to play basketball with my experiences, that’s probably my favorite part about coaching and being around these kids. Just being able to give them messages that I could have had or could have helped me when I was their age.
Have you and Patrick Patterson have stayed good friends during all this time. Exactly how much did you all talk during your recruitments? Was it as much as we all thought?
We’ve stayed in contact, I got to see him every now and then when he was in Houston with the Rockets, they had training camp in Austin. We always connected when he came down there. We talk through social media every now and then. We were really close during the recruiting process, especially down the stretch. I would say we probably communicated about it every day, especially down the stretch. But we were really tied together because of a lot of the schools, the two main schools in Florida and Kentucky, that’s when we talked a lot. I think I had decided before him, maybe. After that, I really pushed him to come with me.
I got a message, I think it was the same message he put on the school’s Instagram account. He texted me and said, “You finally joined the right team, even though it was years later. Welcome to the family.” It’s been really exciting, I’ve gotten a bunch of different messages from former players, people tied with the university. I’ve been really appreciative of that.
How excited are you to play against your former coach, Rick Barnes, at Tennessee?
I’m always excited, he’s done a great job at Tennessee. [Rick Barnes] is somebody that I still communicate with a lot and I talked to him about this whole process, deciding what I was going to do and coming to Kentucky and stuff like that. He helped me tremendously here recently and he’s just somebody I know I can always call and he’ll always pick up the phone. You know, playing against him and his teams, you know what they’re going to bring, so I’m excited about that competition. A couple people on staff at Texas with me [are there, too] so it’ll be exciting to see them, as well.
You talked about the fact that you were on your way here as a recruit and then things change. Tell me a little bit about being recruited by John Calipari to take this job, because it’s not exactly a full-time assistant job, but it looks like you’re going to be pretty busy.
Yeah, definitely. This place recruits itself, you know? I mean, if you are passionate about being at the highest level there is in basketball, especially college basketball, it’s hard to say no to Kentucky in general, no matter if it’s as a recruit or coming back in a staff position. Just talking to Coach Calipari, someone I’ve followed forever, I know everything he’s about. He’s been a family friend for a while, him and my dad. A lot of the stuff he preaches about and coaches, it’s how I was raised through my dad. He’s a truth-teller, he’s going to tell you the truth, and he’s going to get the most out of you. He’s someone I knew I would automatically connect with.
What is your recruiting philosophy?
My philosophy is that, the biggest thing is just building relationships with the recruit, his family and the people around him because that’s the main thing because most people that you’re able to recruit here at Kentucky are going to be high-level players that are able to go anywhere in the country. You have to be able to get them to trust you and understand that when they come here, the staff will not only have their back and will be able to push them, but also be there to listen to them and talk to them and let them know that we’re here to help you completely as a whole person, not just as a basketball player. I think the biggest thing here that is a little bit different than everywhere else is most of the kids are going to be NBA players and this is the closest experience to being that, so that’s one of the advantages here. You’re getting ahead of the curve in terms of the pro experience.
What is it like to go head-to-head with Kentucky on the recruiting trail? You just had one with Greg Brown when you were at Texas, and the perception was that those were the two finalists.
When you’re going against Kentucky in a recruiting process, it’s happened at least a couple times with me at Texas, you have to kind of draw a different contrast. You can’t sell a lot of the things that Kentucky has, you can only sell some of them. It’s kind of like I stated earlier, a big part of what I was trying to sell was just the relationship piece with me and Coach Smart, my boss back then. Just trying to do that with guys like Greg, or even like a Myles Turner or a Jarrett Allen, guys like that. You have to tie that into it, because if you go head-to-head straight up [with Kentucky], it’s almost impossible to win.
Following up on the video from the players, people talk about keeping politics out of sports. What do you think about that sort of thought? Do you think the negativity that was directed at the players could hurt recruiting?
It’s not much of a concern. For the players, it’s their message and what they want to put out. Our job as a staff is to support them and educate them, and I think the message of what they were saying, in my opinion, is not as political as it is being received. I just think they’re talking more so about themselves and their experiences and people that look like them. I think that’s a big part of it.
The recruiting part of it, it goes both ways. As a university, you know most of the kids, the student-athletes on the team are athletes of color. Those kids are watching to see what each university is doing and how they are responding to what’s going on, and it is a big thing that he’s out in the media eye right now. You just have to be educated when you’re recruiting kids and tell them the lay of the land, what’s around them, be honest with them. We have to let them know that no matter what, we are here to support you and protect you. That is not the opinion of everybody who’s associated with the program or even with the state of Kentucky or anything, you’re going to have people who have their opinions.
With AAU events and camps being canceled this summer, how has that affected your ability to scout recruits?
The biggest thing is that it’s completely different from anything you’ve experienced, and most college coaches are creatures of habit. College coaches love to see players in person, that’s the best way to get a feel of like actual size and height. It’s also good for the coaches to see how the players feel about you because you can tell if he’s out there looking over at you or the family’s waving at you, stuff like that. That’s a big part of it. But a lot of the stuff is being streamed online now, so that’s another good glimpse of watching them, just having a good network of people that you trust. Being able to call them and ask them, “What do you really think of this guy? How good is he really? What was he like in high school? How did his high school year go?” I can talk to schools, ask if I can get film, high school stats, stuff like that. You just have to do a little more digging than you usually do, but it’s been pretty good.
What is the one big misperception about the Kentucky program you’re going to have to dispel as you’re going around convincing these guys to come here?
I don’t think there’s anything you really have to dispel with the program. I mean, they had the number one recruiting class in the country last year, so it’s pretty hard to say that things aren’t going as well. But I think the biggest thing is just, you have a shift, and I think the big shift is just finding ways to use and continue to use social media. I think that’s the biggest presence right now, and I think other schools who Kentucky usually competes against have done a good job of that, as well. I just think about figuring out how we can use that in a better way and enhance that. I also think a lot of recruiting is going to change here in the next couple of years with some of the rules and stuff passing in the NCAA, so it’ll be a whole different landscape here probably this time next year.
With the freshmen Kentucky’s got coming in this year, you probably saw a lot of them play during the recruiting process. What do you think about that group?
I think the guards in the backcourt with BJ [Boston], Terrence [Clarke], and Devin [Askew], I can’t imagine a better trio of freshmen than those three right there. I’m really excited about the opportunity to just be around them and get to work with them and help them grow, I know that. Isaiah [Jackson] is also someone who is just continuing to get better, he’s going in the right direction. This is just outside looking in, I haven’t been able to be in the gym with them yet , but I’m excited about that. Then you look at Cam [Fletcher], you know, somebody who I think will develop into a really good player, he’s got all the athletic traits everything, the size, the mentality. This is a really good class, but in college basketball, you’re only as good as your guards, so to have those three guards, it’s always a good feeling.
What’s it like to be replacing a coach like Kenny Payne, especially being a younger guy? How are you able to identify and relate to those players in a different way than the older guys on the coaching staff?
I think they’ve done a good job of building a relationship with the players, I know that is a big thing, hearing how people talk about Coach Payne, that is what he was really good at. I feel like that’s something I’m really good at. It’s kind of like I was saying earlier, with me playing at a similar level – Kentucky’s a different level than a lot of places – but playing at a similar level, being highly recruited, being a McDonald’s All-American, understanding some of the pressures that come with that stuff, playing professionally, being in NBA training camps and growing up in NBA locker rooms, and being around that, it’s a good perspective that I can give them. Like, “OK, I know what you’re going through. I know what you’re thinking right now. Let this go, let that go, do this, do that.” The biggest thing is that I’m still not too far removed from playing and then being close to where they were, so that’s something that I think I have that I can bring to the program.”
How has your dad [John Lucas] helped mold you into the person, coach, and professional that you are today?
He’s molded me completely. I mean, every lesson he has given me. When you’re younger and you’re going through it, and he’s in the gym yelling at you, you don’t really appreciate it then, but you understand it as you get older and become a father and stuff, what he was doing. I’m very appreciative of everything he’s done for me. The biggest thing he’s given me is the mindset that nothing is free, you have to work for everything and if you want something done, you can do it yourself. That is the biggest thing, watching him get up at 5 o’clock in the morning as long as I can remember, and not coming back till 9 o’clock. He’s just out working and helping people and trying to get people to be better people. That’s one thing I’ve really taken away from him, just a tremendous work ethic.
Did John Calipari recruit you out of high school? How has your relationship with him developed since then?
No, he didn’t recruit me out of high school at all. Then I had one conversation with him when I was transferring out of Florida, but he didn’t recruit me overall. Growing up, my dad would always work with him at his Fantasy Camp when it was at Memphis. We would always go to that. And then back then, they would play Rice back whenever, I think it was with Conference USA if I’m not mistaken. We would always go to practice and stuff the day before, so it’s just kind of, my relationship with him is through other people. You know, Dajuan Wagner was somebody who my dad drafted when he was with Cleveland, so it’s just little things like that through other people.
Your title is “recruiting coordinator” at Kentucky. What does that mean exactly?
For me, it’s just a way to help streamline everything with the staff. By being an assistant coach before, you know how hard it is to recruit, take care of players on campus, get ready for games, scouting reports, stuff like that. My job and how I see it, I will need to streamline everything, so if it’s schedules or if we need to communicate with recruits, what games we need to go see, who coach needs to be talking to, kind of just manage all that for the staff and everything so they can take a little bit off their plate and focus a little bit more on the guys. Your recruiting is only going to be as good as your team is, so if you’re competing for SEC championships and playing for Final Fours, recruiting is going to be going pretty good. They had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country last year, so I’m not trying to come in here reinvent the wheel or anything like that, but if I can come in here and help streamline stuff get more efficient, and then hopefully add some stuff over time as I get my feet under me, then I think it’ll go pretty good.