A few minutes before the start of Saturday morning’s session at USA Basketball U18 training camp, John Calipari strolled into the gym where many of his top recruiting targets were getting ready to compete.
It was the first day that college coaches were permitted to attend the camp, but — if Calipari was looking solely to add a UK recruiting presence — he should’ve just stayed home in Lexington.
Tyrese Maxey had him covered.
Maxey, one of UK’s early commitments for the 2019 class, has been the Wildcats’ most enthusiastic recruiter since he announced his pledge to the program last month. Those efforts have carried over to USA Basketball camp, which started Wednesday evening and features several high school players with UK scholarship offers.
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Recruiting analysts in attendance agreed that Maxey — a 6-foot-3 guard from Texas — has been one of the best players on the court through the first few sessions of the camp. He’s been plenty productive off the court, as well, working the gym like a politician, promoting UK basketball to anyone who will listen.
He mapped out his recruiting efforts in an interview with the Herald-Leader.
“My pitch is, ‘We can all do something special. We can get together and do something special.’ I feel like I’ve been playing against some of these guys for a long time, and it would be cool to finally come together and play with each other. And try to build something special.”
Asked to name one player who he’s been recruiting the hardest on UK’s behalf, Maxey’s exuberance took over. He named two.
Brooks — a 6-7 small forward from Indiana — was one of the first players in the 2019 class to land a UK scholarship offer. Indiana and Michigan State have also been discussed as possible favorites in his recruitment, but UK continues to generate buzz as a potential landing spot.
Maxey and Brooks have known each other since grade school — “We’re like brothers almost,” Maxey said — and the UK commitment is a big fan of his five-star classmate. He said he sat down and watched Brooks play a full game on the Nike circuit recently.
“And he was killin’ it, of course,” Maxey said. “He was doing really good. He’s worked really hard, I can tell. And he’s trying to increase his stock. He thinks he’s better than what he’s ranked, and I feel like he is.”
Brooks smiled when approached the next day with details of that conversation. When asked who he thought Maxey said was No. 1 on his target list, Brooks shook his head.
“I know he gave you my name,” he said, correctly. “He texts me all the time. He’ll just text me randomly and say, ‘BBN’ out of nowhere. And then say nothing after that. Every time he sees me, he’ll just wink and say, ‘BBN’ or something like that. He’s been on me real hard. He’s been on me ever since he committed.”
Brooks confirmed that the two players have been competing since fifth grade, often matched up against each other at various AAU events over the years.
“Tyrese is like a brother to me,” he said. “We’ve been playing against each other for so long. Here at USA, getting a chance to play with each other now, it’s been great. He’s very outgoing. He’s easy to talk to. We always talked about recruiting before he committed, and ever since then, he’s been trying to get me to go to Big Blue Nation.”
Is it working?
“I won’t lie to you. Me and him have such a great relationship,” Brooks said. “Now that he’s committed, I’m not going to say it’s not intriguing to want to play with Tyrese in college. I have thought about it some.”
Anthony — a 6-3 guard from New York — had similar things to say about Maxey, and Anthony is a player who says very little about recruiting in general. It’s a testament to Maxey’s personality that he would even acknowledge UK’s presence on his list.
“That’s my boy,” Anthony said. “Me and Tyrese, we talk a lot, obviously. He keeps pushing Kentucky on me. Obviously, we’re going to consider Kentucky. … I could obviously see myself playing with him.”
Maxey has also talked enthusiastically about playing with other UK point guards, and he obviously isn’t afraid of sharing the backcourt with other talented players.
“It’s just the way he plays,” he said of Anthony. “We can feed off of each other. He doesn’t have to always have the ball in his hands, and I don’t always have to have the ball in my hands. And he’s just a really good guy off the court, also.”
After apologizing for naming two players he’s recruiting hard instead of just one, Maxey went into greater detail about others in the class he’s been pursuing.
That list starts at the top of the 2019 rankings.
“Of course, James,” he said, referring to No. 1 overall recruit James Wiseman, who is expected to choose either Kentucky or Memphis.
“James is really difficult, because of the situation with him I feel like it’s probably 50-50. He’s just really good. Like, you sit down and watch him and he wows you every time.”
Maxey has a personal touch for his recruiting conversations with Wiseman, who played for new Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway in both high school and on the Nike circuit. Maxey reminds Wiseman that his own father was part of the basketball staff at Southern Methodist, at one time considered the leader in Maxey’s recruitment because of that tie, when he decided to commit to Kentucky.
“My pitch to him is, ‘Follow your heart.’ Everybody’s saying he’s been with Coach Penny for a long time — which I really respect — but if you feel like there’s somewhere else that you want to go …” Maxey said. “Like I did, I followed my heart. My dad was a coach at SMU and I didn’t feel like it was a good situation for me.”
Maxey didn’t offer a prediction on Wiseman’s destination.
“He’s very difficult to try and get a read on what he’s thinking,” he said. “He talks, but he doesn’t really talk much. He’s kind of quiet. But he’s really cool. He’s a really cool kid.”
Sitting at No. 2 in the composite rankings for 2019 is Vernon Carey, another major UK target and, as a result, another major Maxey target.
Carey — a 6-10 forward from Florida — has narrowed his list to UK, Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State and Miami.
“Vernon, now he’s the toughest one,” Maxey said. I’m not even going to lie to you, Vernon is probably the toughest one. He doesn’t really give you much at all. He kind of laughs at you. Way tougher than James. James will give you a response, laugh with me, talk with me about it. But Vernon, none of that’s going on.”
Maxey said Brooks, Anthony, Wiseman and Carey were the main four players he’s been talking to, and then five-star guard Jalen Lecque walked by.
“And this kid right here,” Maxey said, reaching out and grabbing Lecque by the shoulder. “I talk to him, too.”
Lecque smiled at the mention of Maxey’s name, same as everyone else.
“That’s my guy. That’s my guy,” he said. “He likes me a lot. He says he wants me to be his point guard, and I talk to him a lot about it.”
Matthew Hurt — another top-five national prospect with a UK scholarship offer — said Maxey actually started texting him before he publicly announced his commitment to the Cats so he could talk up Kentucky’s program.
“His personality is great,” Hurt said. “He’s a great all-around character, off the court especially. He’s always trying to have fun off the court. On the court, he’s a great teammate. He makes you feel like part of the team. I think that’s what a great point guard does.”
Josiah James, yet another five-star recruit in the 2019 class, hasn’t even heard from Kentucky yet, but Maxey is already on the case.
“We’ve become really good friends over these past couple of days, just talking to him not only as a player but as a person, getting to know him. He’s very outgoing. He’s always cracking jokes. He always has so much energy,” James said. “If I don’t go to Kentucky and become teammates with him, I’ll definitely still have a great relationship with him.”
That’s what Maxey is looking for most in potential teammates.
Talent is important, yes, but how that talent will come together at UK two seasons from now is something he’s keeping in mind as he helps the Wildcats’ coaching staff construct the program’s next five-star class.
Maxey’s idea of a perfect UK teammate?
“Of course, someone who’s unselfish,” he said. “Everybody out here is really good. That’s not a question. But the things that stand out to me are off the court. People skills. You’re going to be down here with these people for however long you’re in college, and you gotta be friends with them. You can’t just be on the court with them and then not talk to them off the court. You have to have a good relationship with them off the court. That’s huge.”