[Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on KSR on August 28, but with Lucas’ hiring now official, we’re bumping it back up.]
In the dark, weird, underworld of college hoops, there have been two stories that have been talked about more than any others in recent weeks.
One you can probably guess. It’s very simply, “Will college basketball figure out a way to get a bubble going and get games on the floor this winter?” The answer seems to be “yes” but really, it’s anyone’s guess at this point.
The other is one that only a college hoops nerd would love, but one that also has coaches all over the sport buzzing: “Is Jai Lucas really going to Kentucky?”
Yes, it sounds crazy that an assistant coaching move would create so much interest among other coaches. Still, many have been left to wonder why one of the most well-liked and respected assistant coaches in college basketball, a feared recruiter who seemingly knows everyone in the state of Texas would leave a solid, Power 5 assistant’s gig for an off-the-court role. Even if Kentucky is the quite possibly the bluest of all blue bloods, this is one that has left many scratching their heads and saying “Hmm.”
We’ll get to the “why” in a second, but it’s important to note that this very conversation, “Why would Jai Lucas leave Texas for Kentucky” speaks to just how much respect he’s earned in the world of college basketball. The fact that people care this much (and believe me, in the college hoops world they care) shows just how big the shockwaves were when this story first began to circulate a week or so ago.
On Wednesday, KSR spoke to one of the most well-respected grassroots figures in Texas high school basketball about this very topic. Out of respect for his private conversations with Lucas, he asked that his name not be used. But when it was time to discuss Kentucky’s new Special Assistant to Men’s Basketball Coach/Recruiting Coordinator, the coach couldn’t help but rave.
“One thing about Jai is, he does a phenomenal job of relating to the kids,” the coach said. “He’s a young guy, I think he’s 31-years-old, not far removed from playing the game and he’s a good person. He’s always been respectful, he’s a ‘Yes sir, no sir’ kind of guy.”
“He’s someone that AAU guys respect. They know he’s been in the trenches. And he’s a guy that leads with integrity and great character. He’s a good person. And I think in this business when you’re a good person, you can go a long way. There’s no a**hole in him. There’s no a**hole in that guy at all.”
To show just how down to Earth Lucas is, the coach joked about a conversation he had with him a few days ago.
“I teased him,” the coach said. “He said ‘What’s up coach?’ And I’m like ‘Man, you answered the phone? I thought now that you’re BBN, things would be different.’ And he was like ‘Nah, I’m the same guy coach.’ But he’s always talked to me with respect. I like him a lot, man. He’s just a good person.”
If nothing else, that is what Lucas will bring to Kentucky. A person that is universally liked, beloved and respected in basketball circles. A person that, as this grassroots figure would later say, is “a young go-getter. He is going to come into the office everyday and work his butt off.”
If Lucas brought nothing else to Kentucky other than an infectious personality and success as both a former player and assistant, that’d still be a heck of an addition, specifically in an off the court role. Of course we know he will bring much, much more.
Specifically, he brings deep recruiting ties to Kentucky. They’re all over the country really (noted by Kentucky’s scholarship offer to Daimion Collins on Wednesday). More specifically however, in the state of Texas.
Understand that for as much success as Kentucky has had in the state (Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, Tyrese Maxey), you can never have too many eyes and ears in a place that is producing talent at an extraordinary rate. Just over the last few years, here are just a handful of names who’ve come from the area: Cade Cunningham, RJ Hampton, Greg Brown, Maxey, PJ Washington (via prep school), Jarrett Culver, on and on and on. The more eyes and ears you can have in a place with that much talent, the better. It allows you to identify players earlier and build relationships with potential recruits faster. Those are two things that are absolutely paramount in the recruiting world.
And really that is the part that a lot of people are either missing, or simply don’t understand about this move for Lucas to Kentucky: While some might view it as a “demotion” it really isn’t at all. One, as KSR’s Jack Pilgrim pointed out earlier this week, even in an off-the-court role, Lucas is still allowed to be in all virtual recruiting meetings. Considering that all recruiting is being done virtually right now, and could be for the foreseeable future, that is no small thing.
Furthermore, in talking to multiple college assistant and head coaches in the last week, Lucas can take on even more of a traditional recruiting role that many realize.
By NCAA rule, he is allowed to talk to any high school or AAU connections he has – just not recruits and their parents. Therefore if Kentucky hears about a kid in Texas they might be interested in, Lucas is allowed to use his vast array of contacts to gather information on him.
But even that rule has been loosened, and get this: According to multiple assistants I spoke with this week, primary recruiters who know the NCAA rulebook inside and out, Lucas is allowed to talk to recruits – as long as the player initiates contact with him first and not the other way around. Make fun of the bizarre nature of these NCAA rules if you want (many will), but the broader point largely remains the same: While he can’t go to high school or AAU games once he gets to Kentucky, he can still largely stay in touch with his wide range of contacts across Texas and college basketball. As Jack pointed out, he can talk to all players who are already committed, but also talk to players who are uncommitted, just as long as they reach out first. And even if he is simply talking to an AAU or high school contact about a potential player Kentucky should look into, he can always pass along the name and information to Tony Barbee, Bruiser Flint or Joel Justus to make the call themselves.
That’s why, despite some confusion around college hoops, many in the know – including the person interviewed for this story – don’t believe that Lucas is taking a step back at all. One, the coach joked, “I’m guessing it’s not a step back in pay,” and it really isn’t that much of a step back in responsibility at all. Especially for as long as all recruiting is being done virtually.
Most importantly, it’s not a step back in prestige. And when asked one simple question, “Why did Lucas choose Kentucky,” the coach gave a direct, succinct answer.
“It’s Kentucky,” he said. “That word on your resume, it’s pretty loud in the game of basketball. And it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Kentucky and learn under Coach Cal.”
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Lucas, and according to the coach, also an opportunity that was too good to pass up for Kentucky either.
“He’s a young star in this game,” the coach said. “Kentucky is lucky to have him.”