College basketball recruiting is a year-round, 365-day grind, one that never really ends for coaches and their assistants. Fans spend years tracking the players that their favorite school is after, yet by the time one class signs, the coaching staff is already onto the next class. And frankly, the one after that too.
That’s also what made Kentucky’s recruitment of five-star wing Johnny Juzang so fascinating to follow this spring. Yes, Juzang was a well-known player nationally. But publicly he was assumed to be a member of the class of 2020. And publicly the list of colleges he was interested in appeared to be defending champion Virginia, Kansas, and a couple others on the West Coast.
Instead, in a matter of weeks, Juzang went from “member of the 2020 class” without a Kentucky offer, to a member of Kentucky’s 2019 recruiting class.
So how did it come together so quickly?
Over the last couple days, KSR sat down with Juzang’s father Maxie to get some answers.
And to get those answers, you need to put aside everything you think you knew about Juzang’s recruitment, according to Maxie Juzang. Kentucky didn’t “come into the picture late” and reclassification wasn’t a “last minute decision,” according to the elder Juzang.
So much for narratives, huh?
Starting with reclassification, the elder Juzang explained that it wasn’t something that came up last minute, but instead it was something that had been discussed, at least informally, in the Juzang household for years.
After a standout performance at the Pangos All-American Camp following Juzang’s freshman season, a number of recruiting writers came to the Juzang family with a simple question: Was Juzang really going to stay in the class of 2020? Did he really need three more years of high school basketball to reach his goals?
“We started pinging out a couple schools that he was serious about just to see what that [reclassification] kind of looked like,” Maxie Juzang said. “We told them ‘we might consider this’ and the response was overwhelming in terms of the schools saying ‘Is this real? Would you really consider this?’”
It was indeed something the family was considering, but reclassification or not, Juzang’s list of college choices had seemed pretty set for a while. He had taken official visits to Virginia and Kansas this past season (in what turned out to be his last year of high school ball) and local schools like UCLA and USC were always in the mix too.
Yet at the same time, the narrative that Kentucky came “late to the party” isn’t factually correct either. Assistant coach Joel Justus had been tipped off to Juzang a while back (not that it was any big secret – Juzang had long been considered a five-star recruit in the class of 2020) and regularly popped in to see him when he was on the West Coast looking at other recruiting targets.
“A lot of people don’t really know this,” the elder Juzang said. “But Joel Justus had been tracking him from over a year out, and he had already been out to visit us at the high school two or three times. So there had already been a relationship there with Kentucky.”
The issue, however, and the reason that Kentucky had never really been publicly linked to Juzang, was in part of because of John Calipari. Calipari is of course famously deliberate in handing out scholarship offers. And Calipari had spent so much time focused on the class of 2019, that even after this past season ended in March, he hadn’t fully turned his attention to the class of 2020.
— Compton Magic (@Compton_Magic) April 19, 2019
It wasn’t until Justus alerted Calipari that Juzang was seriously considering a move to 2019 that Calipari decided he needed to hop on a plane to Los Angeles.
“[Calipari] said ‘if you’re serious, we’re coming out,’” Maxie Juzang said.
From there, Calipari met the family, a scholarship was offered and movement on both sides intensified.
Unbeknownst to everyone (even Calipari), there were things working in Kentucky’s favor that no one fully realized at the time. Especially when it became clear that Juzang was headed for the class of 2019.
Once the 2019 move became official, a few of Juzang’s early suitors fell by the wayside. Juzang had really liked UCLA early in the process, but when Steve Alford got fired it pretty much took the Bruins off the table if Juzang was serious about playing college basketball next season. There simply wouldn’t be enough time for the player and family to get to know Mick Cronin and the new UCLA staff before enrolling (feel free to insert your “What would have happened if John Calipari had taken the UCLA job?” jokes here).
Moving to 2019 also put USC on the back-burner. Throughout his recruitment the Trojans were a serious threat to get Juzang thanks to his ties, via friends and coaches from his AAU program, the Compton Magic. His Magic teammates Isaiah Mobley and Onyeka Okongwu are set to be freshmen at the school, and had Juzang stayed in 2020, it seems as though his teammate Evan Mobley (the No. 1 ranked player in the 2020 high school class) would be there as well. The Mobley brothers’ father Eric is an assistant coach there.
Had Juzang stayed in 2020, the Trojans were very much in the mix.
But heading into this season (the 2019-2020 campaign), USC returns its top wing player and three-point shooter Jonah Matthews, who averaged almost 13 points per game last season. Had Juzang gone to USC this fall, there wasn’t a clear place for him to slot in.
Which is also the second thing that worked in Calipari’s favor entering the home-stretch of Juzang’s recruitment. The fact that Tyler Herro left after one season opened a major void on the wing for Kentucky, and when Jemarl Baker entered the transfer portal it only intensified the fact that Kentucky needed perimeter shooting. Shooting is, of course, Juzang’s strength.
Shortly after receiving his offer, Juzang announced his reclassification. And with other suitors falling by the wayside, he took a visit to Lexington in early May.
Once there, he had just one real question for Calipari.
“His only real serious question was, ‘Do I have a fair shot? Are there any politics, any seniority that says that if I’m the best player, I won’t be on the floor,’” the younger Juzang asked Calipari. “That was his only question. As long as he had a fair shot, he would go for it.”
Next Chapter ?? pic.twitter.com/Uf39A6DWmN
— Johnny Juzang (@JohnnyJuzang) May 10, 2019
And just a few days after getting the answer he was looking for, he committed to Kentucky over a handful of schools, most notably Virginia. In the end, the same thing that appealed to Herro a year ago when he decommitted from Wisconsin, appealed to his replacement. Juzang wanted to go to a school where, if he was good enough to leave after one season, he’d be encouraged.
“The whole program at Kentucky and how they train you to be a pro [was why he committed],” the elder Juzang said of his son’s decision. “They can train you to go one, two or three and done… Johnny just feels like, ‘If I’m good enough and I’m killing it, I really don’t want to be at a place where they expect me to be there four years.’”
The elder Juzang continued.
“Johnny would have been pushed at Virginia,” he said. “Bennett was a phenomenal coach from a skill-set perspective. But Johnny felt like he was going to be jumping into the fire at Kentucky. That got Johnny excited. He said, ‘I want to go in there every day and compete against the best, and that’s what’s going to challenge me the most.”
Just like that, Juzang was a Wildcat.
If only the hard part was done.
That’s because while “reclassification” has become a common phrase in college basketball the last few years, the process of making up an entire year of high school is way tougher than most fans realize. It’s a bit easier if the plan is put in place a full year in advance (like say, how Georgia’s Anthony Edwards decided last summer to leave the class of 2020 for the class of 2019), but much harder when the process starts so late. And while the Juzangs had informally discussed the process of reclassifying for years, they didn’t jump in fully until this spring.
Once the decision was made, Juzang had to complete an English class – essays, papers, tests, everything – as well as two other electives in about a six-week span. It was rigorous even for someone like Juzang, who went to Harvard-Westlake High School in California, an elite college preparatory school. Even when that was done, he still had to get his transcripts to Kentucky and the SEC to be cleared by the NCAA, before he could enroll in Lexington.
“It was brutal,” the elder Juzang said.
In the end though, the work got done and Juzang made his way to Lexington. In just a few months, he’s already getting comfortable with his new teammates and coaches.
“He loves it man,” the elder Juzang said. “He loves the facilities, he loves Calipari and Joel and Payne. He’s excited.”
So are Kentucky fans for the final addition to their 2019-2020 roster.
Maybe even more so, now that they know what it took to get him there.