Practically speaking, high school basketball star D.J. Jeffries has known for a while now that he would be committing to play for the University of Kentucky.
In reality, Jeffries — a junior at Olive Branch (Miss.) High School, which is located just across the Tennessee border from Memphis — has wanted to play for John Calipari for more than 10 years.
“Since I was a kid, I always dreamed of playing for Coach Cal,” Jeffries said Monday night. “So this is just a dream come true.”
The 6-foot-8 forward from the Memphis area followed through on his childhood dream a few minutes earlier, announcing that he was committed to the Cats as the first member of the program’s 2019 recruiting class.
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Jeffries made the decision to pick UK a while ago. On Sunday — one day after leading Olive Branch to a state championship — he called Calipari with the news.
“He was excited,” Jeffries said. “He said he couldn’t wait to get me on board.”
As soon as he tweeted his commitment message Monday night, Jeffries got a text message from UK assistant coach Tony Barbee.
“Welcome to the family,” it said.
Jeffries recounted growing up a Memphis fan, watching and rooting for Calipari’s teams as they made their runs through the NCAA Tournament. He recalled watching the 2008 title game with his uncle — the one Memphis lost in overtime — as an 8-year-old kid.
“That kind of hurt me a little bit,” he said. “But I always told myself that I wanted to play for Coach Cal. So to be able to do that is a great feeling.”
When Calipari moved to Lexington a little more than a year later, Jeffries’ fandom moved north with him. “I’d been a Memphis fan, but I was more of a John Calipari fan,” he said.
Fast forward several years, and Jeffries is one of the most highly touted basketball recruits in the 2019 class. He’s No. 26 nationally in that group, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, and he’s been much higher on Calipari’s board for a while now.
The UK coach extended a scholarship offer to Jeffries back in September — on the first day he started passing out offers to 2019 recruits — and then he hosted him for a recruiting visit to Big Blue Madness a month later. Since late November, Calipari has watched Jeffries play or visited with him and his family on four separate occasions, including a trip to see him play in the state playoffs last week.
Jeffries knows that’s rare. Calipari often keeps tabs on high school juniors, but it’s highly uncommon for him to show such an interest in players that early in the process.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to have someone like Coach Cal be interested in a kid like me,” Jeffries said. “You know, he can go after any kid in the nation. But he just chose to stick by me and recruit me the hardest and believe in me. It’s a good feeling that somebody like that believes in me and wants me to come to their program.”
The early, sustained interest paid off for Kentucky.
“That was part of the reason why I went ahead and committed. He usually doesn’t do that for a lot of kids. So for him to do that for me, it just made me feel special. So I went ahead and jumped on board.”
In the past, Jeffries has said that Calipari particularly likes the hard-nosed play and energy he brings to the court. That’s something scouts and recruiting analysts have noticed, too.
“He’s a combo forward that can impact the game with his energy and his rebounding,” 247Sports analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “He scores it well around the basket, and there’s some versatility there, too. I think he’s a really intriguing prospect.
“He has some ability to step out on the floor and handle the basketball. He’s a good passer, too. But I think it’s his energy that he really hangs his hat on.”
Jeffries is capable of playing and defending multiple positions, and he’s continuing to work on his outside game as he hones his skills near the basket, where he often overmatches competition with his tenacity on the boards and ability to score in the paint. He’s also an athletic prospect who can play in transition.
“I think shooting is an area that he can continue to get better at,” Daniels noted. “Keep in mind that he’s still very young. He lacks a little polish in some areas. I’d like to see him develop his back-to-the-basket game some more, and really fine-tune some post moves. But, obviously, when you have that type of versatility and ability to play inside and out, it’s promising.”
Jeffries, who made it clear he is not considering a move to the 2018 class, is also a Nike league teammate of top UK recruiting target James Wiseman, the first prospect from the 2019 class to land an offer from the Wildcats. Jeffries told the Herald-Leader he would be recruiting Wiseman to Lexington as soon as his friend wraps up his own high school season this weekend.
The two play for Team Penny, coached by Penny Hardaway, who has been rumored as a possible replacement for Tubby Smith as the head coach at Memphis.
The commitment from Jeffries to UK on Monday night is not yet binding — he won’t be able to sign with the Cats until November — but he said Memphis hiring Hardaway to be its next head coach wouldn’t impact his recruitment.
“Now that I’m committed, I just wish Penny and Memphis the best,” Jeffries said. “Penny was a big help, because he taught me a lot during the summer. And I’ll still learn a lot from him this summer. But, now, I’m all about Kentucky.”