At the time of his move from Texas to Kentucky, Jai Lucas was hired as a recruiting coordinator and off-court special assistant to John Calipari. While updated COVID-19 protocols allowed him to help out on the court this summer and into the fall, along with NCAA guidelines allowing Lucas to maintain loose contact with recruits, there were still several limitations for the new Kentucky assistant.
These limitations were in place not even a month, as Calipari announced last week that he decided to shuffle coaching roles back in September, making Lucas an official on-court assistant.
With the change, Lucas joined Joel Justus and Bruiser Flint as Kentucky’s assistant coaches, while Tony Barbee will now serve as Calipari’s associate head coach.
“Tony’s become the associate to the head coach. He’s like the co-head coach. I want him in my ear whether it be for practices, game, watching tape, our tape, the opponent’s tape, give me gameplans. Focus on that,” Calipari said. “Joel and Jai, I want you on that recruiting ten hours a day.”
The move was made to create specialized roles for each coach, similar to that of an NBA coaching staff.
“It’s a staff of the future. It’s where this game is going. It’s how you can be effective for your young people,” Calipari continued. “I want our staff to have great relationships and great time and communication with these players. You do it through practice where they respect your knowledge, in individual sessions where you’re spending time in the morning, in the evening, showing you care, listening because this is hard. These kids are chasing greatness and you know what, there’s a lot on their shoulders now with COVID and all this other stuff. But we’re here for our guys. We’re a players first program. That will never change.”
As of today, it’s a move that hasn’t changed much for Lucas from an on-court perspective, but it’s been significant on the recruiting trail.
In his short-lived previous role, Lucas could participate in Zoom calls, virtual visits, and respond to phone calls, but couldn’t initiate any calls on his own. Now, everything is fair game for the new Kentucky assistant.
“For me, not really a lot has changed initially, some stuff is a little different. With some of the new COVID rules and the stuff going on, I was on the court before, as well,” Lucas said. “A little bit of it is more so on the recruiting front, some of the stuff I’m able to do now. I can initiate phone calls, which is a big part of it.”
It’s a shuffling of coaching roles that best suits each individual’s strengths and maximizes the team’s potential, Lucas says. Personally, he feels he thrives on the recruiting front, while Barbee is an elite X’s and O’s coach, and they will each be able to focus on their best skills in their new roles.
“It was putting people in the areas that they’re really good at,” Lucas said. “One of the things people underestimate is Coach Barbee, Tony, he’s a great coach. He’s been a head coach in the SEC, he’s been a head coach at other places, and I think that also put him in a role to do that more. With me and Joel [Justus] being younger, being able to recruit ten hours a day as Coach Cal would say, he put us in a role to do that. He’s playing to the strengths of this staff, and it’s going to help the program.”
And it won’t just help the program in 2020-21 as the college basketball world navigates through a season of uncertainty. It’s going to be a permanent benefit for the Kentucky basketball program, keeping them “ahead of the curve.”
“One thing about Cal is that he’s always been innovative, and this is just another way to show that,” Lucas said. “I think it’s a great idea, and it’s something that will benefit us for years to come. … [Calipari] has a vision, and with the landscape of college basketball changing, the landscape of recruiting changing, you have to stay ahead of it. If we want to stay the best at what we’re doing and want Kentucky to be the best, we have to stay ahead of the curve. A lot of stuff is coming down the pipe, whether it’s about name, image and likeness [rules], the transfer rules, you have to be able to adjust and know you have certain people who are attacking certain areas.”
Calipari has never been one to shy away from making significant moves or adjusting on the fly, and the decision to make Lucas an official assistant almost immediately after joining the staff is no exception.