Kentucky Basketball: The 13-year recruitment of assistant coach Jai Lucas

For longtime Kentucky Basketball fans, the addition of assistant coach Jai Lucas is more than just another hire.

The figurative ink on Jai Lucas’s e-contract with Kentucky is still wet. That doesn’t mean his relationship with the school is new. The Kentucky Basketball assistant has a unique, oddly nostalgic history with UK, tracing back more than a decade. This history makes the Lucas hire especially meaningful to Wildcats fans – more meaningful than if some other young coaching prodigy had taken the role.

In 2007, Lucas was the center of a frenzy that marked the early age of recruiting forums. This hysteria, manufactured mostly by Kentucky fans suppressed by years of substandard recruiting, billed Lucas as the point guard of the future. A five-star recruit, he was UK’s best potential commit since Rajon Rondo in 2004.

Led by new head coach Billy Gillispie, Kentucky had a blueprint to restore its program. Lucas – along with fellow blue-chip recruit Patrick Patterson – was the cornerstone of this plan. Beyond 2008, Kentucky’s guard depth was looking, well, vulnerable – to put things nicely. Adding Lucas would provide stability and defense at point guard. He would be the floor general creating plays for to Patterson and Jodie Meeks.

So Lucas committed to Florida.

A year passed. Lucas was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Kentucky overcame injuries to three of its best players and made a late-season push to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. Unrest, however, was on the horizon for both parties.

For his freshman year, Lucas had been moved to shooting guard so that Nick Calathes could be the primary ball-handler. Calathes was sticking around for at least another year, and Lucas decided there were greener pastures for his future as a point guard.  Meanwhile, in Lexington, UK had lost nearly 2,800 career backcourt points (Ramel Bradley/Joe Crawford) to graduation. Derrick Jasper, the point guard heir apparent, transferred to UNLV. At least UK had Patterson and Meeks returning. In that offense, somebody with Lucas’s skill set would have led the conference in assists.

The opportunity for Lucas to find his new home was there for the taking. Coach Gillispie was shaking the keys to the big blue Ferrari. He just needed someone to skilled enough to drive it.

So Lucas committed to Texas.

Due to transfer rules, Lucas sat out the 2008-09 season. Over at Kentucky, a collapse was in progress. The Wildcats led the SEC in field goal percentage, an advantage wasted by averaging 17 turnovers per game. The latter was predictable without a reliable point guard. This didn’t bode well for the Wildcats’ future at that position, either.

A deteriorating season ended with the weirdest March in UK history. Stories arose about Gillispie’s mistreatment and mismanagement of players. In numerous games, he told Jodie Meeks to quit shooting (for context: Meeks shot 41% from three and broke numerous school records that year). On the day he was fired, Gillispie was chased into the team office/practice facility by a local sports broadcaster – a surreal exchange with the coach pretending to talk on his phone and the newsman stutter-stepping as he held out a mic.

Jai Lucas’ path to Kentucky

In April 2009, Kentucky hired John Calipari, whose point guards have proceeded to earn contracts that dwarf other countries’ GDPs. Since Calipari’s hiring, Kentucky has more wins than any other program. Safe to say things worked out in the Bluegrass.

Lucas played two years at Texas in a support role followed by several years in the NBA G-League. In 2016, he returned to Austin and joined Shaka Smart’s staff. This began a promising career in coaching. Fast forward to summer 2020: Still, on the Texas staff, Lucas built a reputation as a brilliant recruiter.

A few states over, Calipari’s top assistant and lead recruiter, Kenny Payne, took a job with the New York Knicks. Once again, a spot was open at Kentucky, requiring the exact skills that Lucas possessed. To help keep his recruiting edge, Calipari set his sights on the 31-year old rising star. For the third time, Kentucky made itself available for Jai Lucas.

So Lucas committed to Kentucky.

It only took 13 years and three tries.

In another universe, had Lucas attended Kentucky – either out of high school star or as a transfer – would any of this have happened? Maybe he ends up in the backcourt for several Final Four teams. Maybe a butterfly effect keeps Billy Gillispie in Lexington, creating a continuum that involves recruiting eighth-graders and obscure JUCO transfers, making Lucas Kentucky’s last-ever blue-chip recruit. Maybe Lucas becomes an NBA assistant – who knows?

The way events unfolded – from Jai Lucas’s recruitment to Calipari’s hiring to the present day – the current universe is probably the best version of what could have happened to Kentucky, and career-wise, for Lucas. In all likelihood, Lucas committing to Florida and subsequently transferring to Texas had a greater impact on Kentucky than on the schools he attended.

Now that Lucas is finally in Lexington, a unique feeling of completeness has set in within Big Blue Nation – a feeling that could only be created by the successive anticipation, panic, and nostalgia of the last 13 years.

Kentucky finally got their guy. As for Jai Lucas, he just secured one of the best assistant coach positions in the country. Weird how things work out.