UK Recruiting

Kentucky was top recruit’s ‘dream school’ as a kid. But Duke might be tough to beat.

Major UK recruit grew up watching John Wall and the Cats

Five-star basketball recruit Jalen Johnson says Kentucky was his dream school growing up, starting with John Wall, the star player on John Calipari's first team in Lexington.
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Five-star basketball recruit Jalen Johnson says Kentucky was his dream school growing up, starting with John Wall, the star player on John Calipari's first team in Lexington.

Shortly before his sophomore season of high school began, 15-year-old Jalen Johnson made the trip from Wisconsin to Lexington to take in Big Blue Madness, the annual extravaganza at Rupp Arena that officially tips off Kentucky basketball season.

A year later, Johnson made the same trek.

“I just wanted to witness the experience again, because it was so crazy,” he said. “I was a little shy my first time going, so just being able to socialize with the players more, hang out with the players — I kind of got a different vibe with it.”

One of the top basketball prospects in the 2020 class — No. 3 overall in the 247Sports rankings, to be exact — Johnson is also one of the top players on Kentucky’s recruiting board. And he has been for a while.

The 6-foot-8 forward from Milwaukee was one of the first in his class to land a UK scholarship offer. This past season, he led his high school to its first state championship, averaging 19.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game along the way. UK was one of the first colleges with an opportunity to make an impression on him. It was a good one.

“It’s crazy there. It’s like no other,” Johnson said. “The fans are crazy there, extremely loyal, and they just want the best for their players.”

He’s also taken recruiting visits to schools like Duke, Arizona, UCLA and home-state Wisconsin, so the praise for his Kentucky trips isn’t simply wide-eyed wonder from someone new to the recruiting process. Johnson has been one of the most-pursued prospects in the 2020 class.

UK has also been on his mind since before this process began.

“I like Kentucky a lot,” he said. “That’s been my dream school growing up. Coach Cal, it just meant a lot with him coming to my school like three times this year. Just to show that I’m a priority for them and they really want me, it means a lot.”

John Calipari and UK’s assistant coaches also kept tabs on him throughout the first weekend of the Nike EYBL season — the only time this spring that college coaches are permitted to watch prospects on the court. Johnson had 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in his first game Saturday morning, showing off his unselfish, all-around game on a team that features multiple five-star recruits.

“What I like about Jalen is his versatility,” 247Sports analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “He’s pushing 6-8 and he can handle the ball. He’s a really good passer. He can play some with the ball in his hands. He can play on the perimeter. He can play as a face-up ‘4’. There’s just a lot you can do with him, and I think his versatility and his passing ability are probably the things that stick out to me the most.”

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Johnson said UK’s status as his “dream school” started with John Wall — the star player on Calipari’s first Kentucky team — and grew from there. He mentioned that one major factor in his eventual college decision will be a program’s history of player development. Calipari’s record of getting guys prepared for the NBA checks that box. “That’s like no other,” Johnson said. “Just to see how he’s turned players into, probably, future Hall of Famers. That’s crazy.”

Despite the “dream school” talk, another blue blood has gained momentum for Johnson’s commitment, and it’s a familiar recruiting foe to the Wildcats.

Duke is currently the leader on Johnson’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page, with predictions in favor of the Blue Devils from national analyst Jerry Meyer and a couple of Wisconsin-based recruiting experts. Mike Krzyzewski had a front row seat for Johnson’s first game of the weekend.

“I like Duke a lot, as well,” Johnson said. “Duke has had a similar pitch to Kentucky. Hearing from legendary coaches like Coach K himself, and just telling me straight to my face that he wants me and he wants the opportunity to coach me — that’s special.”

Johnson said he plans to narrow his list to eight or 10 schools in the next couple of weeks — though he mentioned UK, Duke, Arizona and Wisconsin as four that are standing out — and hopes to have a college decision in place before the start of his senior season.

As for a third straight trip to Lexington for Big Blue Madness in October, the 17-year-old smiled at the possibility.

“Yeah, we going to see,” he said. “We going to see.”

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