These days, Joel Justus goes into high school gyms and players’ homes wearing University of Kentucky gear, recruiting on behalf of arguably the most powerful program in college basketball.
It wasn’t too long ago that he was on the other side of such conversations.
Before coming to UK two years ago as the program’s new director of analytics, Justus spent the previous six seasons as a high school basketball coach in North Carolina and Virginia.
He hosted college coaches for open gyms at his school, and he spoke Thursday of the circus that goes along with a visit from a big-name coach like his boss, John Calipari.
“I’ve told him, ‘Cal, man, you’re a big deal when you walk in someone’s house or you walk in someone’s school, it’s a big, big deal,’” Justus said. “You’ve got kids that don’t even know where the gym is at a high school, and they’re finding out where the gym is. They’re poking their head around and looking in. It’s funny.”
One of Justus’ primary roles moving forward will be to make sure the players Calipari is coming to see on such visits have the full picture of the coach they’re about to meet and the program he represents.
Calipari announced last month that Justus had been elevated to the role of assistant coach after spending the previous two seasons in a support role. The new job title means, among other things, that Justus will be representing Kentucky on the recruiting trail, something he was doing over the summer on a temporary basis.
It was in those past few months that Calipari noticed Justus could be a major asset to UK’s program as a recruiter, especially with younger players still years away from starting their college careers. Calipari noted that — with UK basically recruiting a brand new team every year — his coaching staff hasn’t always had time to build relationships with the younger prospects.
“Putting Joel in a position to really attack and establish us with some young kids — at least have our presence known with young kids — I thought was important,” he said.
At this point, pretty much any recruit worthy of a UK scholarship offer knows of the program’s success under Calipari, both in terms of victories and NBA Draft picks. But the lack of communication during those recruits’ early years allows other programs to paint a picture of UK or Calipari that might not be totally true.
UK officials have noticed an increase in negative recruiting against them over the past couple of years, and they’re looking at proactive ways to combat that.
“What we are trying to do is get out and create the narrative before it’s written by someone else,” Justus said. “Because we have a special story to tell. And Cal wants to make sure that we are the first ones to tell that story. That we don’t have to then come in and take the eraser and erase chapters of stories that are not true, partially true, cloudy.
“We’re able to come in and create the message.”
That’s what Justus has been doing since the start of the fall recruiting period on Sept. 9. He estimated Thursday that he had seen about 20 prospective recruits in that time, many of them underclassmen who UK would like to build relationships with early in their high school careers and then monitor for possible scholarship offers down the road.
“Here, we’re looking for the right fit,” he said. “The right person who wants to come in and embraces the type of player that comes to Kentucky.”
Justus, who spent four seasons as an assistant coach at Elon University before becoming a high school head coach, said Thursday that he wouldn’t have been ready for his new role when he first came to UK two years ago. “There’s no way I could have done it — not at Kentucky,” he said.
He talked about learning something new from Calipari every day in the two years since, and praised John Robic, Kenny Payne, Tony Barbee and former UK assistant Barry Rohrssen for their guidance during that time.
There are some obvious benefits to recruiting at a school like UK, Justus said, but it also has its unique challenges, especially when you’re trying to build the bulk of a roster from scratch every year.
“Recruiting is about relationships, and I think if you’re a genuine, trustworthy person, you can recruit at a lot of places,” he said. “But it takes a little bit of a study guide … to do it here.”