LEXINGTON, Ky. — Joel Justus was coaching high school basketball this time three years ago. Tonight, when second-ranked Kentucky opens the 2016-17 season against Stephen F. Austin at Rupp Arena, he’ll sit beside John Calipari.
“You wake up energized,” said Justus, who after two years in more administrative-type roles with the Wildcats will make his debut as a full-time, full-fledged assistant coach. “You feel like this is almost a little bit of a dream. But I thought that from the day that I came here, working with Cal, being able to learn from him, watch him in different settings, and really just take copious notes on what it takes to be successful.
“So it’s one of those things where you just kind of wake up every day feeling extremely blessed.”
Justus, 33 years old at the time, came to Kentucky before the 2014-15 season after six years as a high school coach in Virginia and North Carolina — and previously as an assistant at Elon University from 2004-08. He’d played college ball at UNC Wilmington, where Calipari began his own playing career, and gone to two NCAA Tournaments and an NIT there.
Now he’s on the biggest stage in college basketball, but Justus said that wasn’t the appeal.
“I loved being a high school coach. I wouldn’t have left being a high school coach if it hadn’t been an opportunity to come work for Cal,” he said. “If Cal would’ve been the head coach at Kentucky State, I would’ve left to go work for him at Kentucky State. It had nothing to do with the University of Kentucky. I love Kentucky and what this place is, but it’s about John Calipari and what I felt he could do for me.
“What he’s done for me has been tremendous in every role that I’ve been in.”
Justus joined UK’s staff two years ago as director of analytics, a position Calipari created especially for that team, to help manage egos on a 10-deep squad that platooned its way to an almost-perfect record. Justus’ reports helped Calipari explain to a roster full of future NBA draft picks that smart basketball people would see their value regardless of minutes or traditional stats.
Make no mistake: That was also about recruiting, because Kentucky’s coach knew he’d need to pile up another group of elite prospects soon enough and would need to convince them to play selflessly, too.
“The forward-thinking, cutting-edge approach to recruiting — but also building a brand — is something that is fascinating to have a front-row seat for,” Justus said.
Last year, Justus was promoted to “special assistant to the head coach,” adding to his duties some opponent scouting and whatever Calipari could dream up for him. Then this summer, the big move: he replaced longtime Calipari lieutenant John Robic as a full-time assistant. Robic slid into his previous role and remains on staff, still heavily involved in breaking down the Xs and Os.
“I need John around me more anyway,” Calipari said. “And then 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.”
Therein lies the key piece of Justus’ new job: He can hit the road recruiting now. And boy, has he.
While it might sometimes seem like Kentucky cherry picks whoever it wants from the top of the national recruiting rankings every year, that’s really not so. Duke has risen up as a formidable challenge, snagging arguably more of the truly elite prospects lately than even the Wildcats. And other rival recruiters all across the country, tired of losing to the charismatic Calipari and all his resources at “the gold standard” program in college basketball, have increasingly gone negative in their pitches against Kentucky.
So Justus’ mission is to plant earlier-than-ever seeds of a positive message about the Cats.
“We want to tell our story first,” Justus said, “not let someone else tell it and twist it before we get in there.”
To that end, Justus has helped UK spread the good word to a slew of top high school sophomores and juniors, even before the Cats have hit the halfway point on wrapping up their 2017 signing class of seniors.
From Scout.com’s rankings, Kentucky is already all over No. 1 Marvin Bagley, No. 3 Romeo Langford, No. 4 Cameron Reddish and No. 10 Immanuel Quickley in the Class of 2018. Also: No. 1 R.J. Barrett, No. 5 James Wiseman, No. 6 Balsa Koprivica, No. 10 Bryan Antoine, No. 12 Vernon Carey and No. 16 Scottie Lewis in the Class of 2019.
While Calipari and his other two assistants, Kenny Payne and Tony Barbee, focus on the current class, “by putting Joel where he is and having him focus on who we need to hone in on, we’ll be more prepared than we’ve ever been, which is scary,” UK’s coach said.
If Justus’ rise looks meteoric from the outside, it hardly surprises those who know him best. He grew up in the game. Justus’ father, John, was sports information director at UNC Wilmington when Calipari arrived there as a player — they stayed in touch over the years, eventually helping make a connection with his son — and later at Wake Forest.
Joel Justus went to Wake practices when Dave Odom was the coach and the likes of Rodney Rogers, Tim Duncan and Muggsy Bogues starred for the Demon Deacons. They treated him like family. When Bogues went on to the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, he once gave middle school-aged Joel a pair of his game-worn sneakers.
“They were about the same size,” John Justus said. “The players and the coaches were very kind to him. They always made Joel feel welcome and played a significant role in his early development. The assistant coaches then were Jerry Wainwright and Ernie Nestor; Jerry later signed Joel to a scholarship at UNC Wilmington and Ernie eventually gave him his first job as an assistant at Elon.”
Around that time, in 2006, Calipari invited Justus to interview for a job on his staff at Memphis. It didn’t go great, but it set Justus on a path toward tonight.
“I’m not going to hire you for this job, but I want to get to know you,” Calipari told him. “Maybe down the road I’ll hire you.”
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