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Jai Lucas talks new role, PG play, NBA bubble Cats’ success, and more

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Jai Lucas believes the former Cats thriving in the NBA bubble has made a big impact for UK.

UK Athletics

The 2020-21 college basketball season begins later this month. In the meantime, Kentucky players and coaches continue to meet with the media to preview the upcoming season.

On Monday, it was new assistant coach Jai Lucas’ turn to have a preseason Q&A session. One of the big talking points was his new role with the team, as he was promoted from an off-court role to a full-fledged assistant coach recently.

“I think a little bit of it is more so on the recruiting front,” Lucas said of the change. “Some of the stuff I’m able to do now, like initiating phone calls is really a big part of it.”

The addition of Lucas has clearly made a big impact on the recruiting trail for Kentucky. highlighted by the commitment of top-10 recruit Daimion Collins last week. Lucas recruited Collins heavily at Texas before joining Kentucky’s staff this summer.

But it wasn’t just Lucas that helped Kentucky land Collins. How well former Wildcats performed in the NBA summer bubble also has made a positive impact on the recruiting trail.

“It’s been huge,” Lucas said of the Cats’ bubble success. “I think with the bubble, it’s been one thing that can really put a spotlight on us here at Kentucky is just the production rate of when they get there and how early they are able to perform.”

Here is a recap of what Lucas had to say via UK Athletics.

On the play of the point guards so far …

“They’re doing good. I think one of the biggest things that you learn when you get up here right away is just the competition level and how everyone pushes each other. I think that’s a little bit of what’s going on with Devin (Askew) and Davion (Mintz) as well. With Davion being older than Devin and been through some scars and battles and him putting that pressure on Devin, I think they’re both getting better just from going against each other every day.”

On Isaiah Jackson …

“I mean, he is a special, special shot blocker. I think he is probably one of the ones that is going to surprise a lot of people this season, just how he’s been playing and his development from the last time that I saw him and where he is today. I think he is a name that people will start to talk about and mention as we start playing games.”

On how his role has changed with the recent staff shuffling …

“You know, for me not really a lot has initially changed. There’s some stuff that’s a little bit different. With some of the COVID rules and stuff that was going on, I was on the court before as well. I think a little bit of it is more so on the recruiting front. Some of the stuff I’m able to do now, like initiating phone calls is really a big part of it.”

On how the play of former Wildcats in the NBA bubble has helped thus far in recruiting …

“It’s been huge. I think with the bubble, it’s been one thing that can really put a spotlight on us here at Kentucky is just the production rate of when they get there and how early they are able to perform. A lot of that comes from being here for that year. With the environment they’re put in and the coaching, and how Coach Cal coaches them and just everything they go through it really prepares you for that. When you get there, you are able to perform and then that’s how you’re able to stay for a long time.”

On if it helps the staff to have focused roles and positions …

“It’s great. One thing about Cal is he’s always been innovative. I think this is just another way for him to show that. I think a big part of that is what he had in mind and what he wanted to do with this staff and I think it’s a great idea and is something that will benefit us for years to come I think if he keeps it this way. But I think with him shuffling around and what he’s doing, who knows it could get reshuffled or whatever he wants to do. He’s the boss, so whatever he wants to do is what we’re going to do. So, that’s a big part of it too. I think it’s a good thing that he tells people exactly what he wants and what he wants from them.”

On how specifically the staff change can be beneficial for years to come …

“Because I think he (Calipari) has a vision and I think with the landscape of college basketball changing, the landscape of recruiting changing, I think you have to, like he said, you have to stay ahead of it. So, if we want to stay the best at what we’re doing and want Kentucky to be the best then we have to stay ahead of the curve. A lot of stuff is coming down the pike, whether it’s name, image, likeness or the transfer rules, you have to be able to adjust and know that you have certain people that are attacking certain areas of what you’re trying to accomplish.”

On if the roles are now more defined …

“Yeah, and I think it was also a little bit of putting people in their areas that they’re really good at. I think one of the things that people underestimate is Coach Barbee, Tony, is a great coach. He’s been a head coach in the SEC and he’s been a head coach at other places. I think that also put him in a role to do that a little bit more. With me and Joel (Justus) being younger, and being able to recruit 10 hours a day, as Coach Cal would say, something that he put us in that role to be able to do that. So, I think he just kind of saw what could play to the strengths of the staff and to help us as a program.”

On the difference in demeanor of Olivier Sarr and the team once he was declared immediately eligible to play by the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference …

“Yeah, it did for everybody, especially for him because he was waiting on it for it for a while. And then when it finally became official, you could see him kind of just take a deep breath. Us as coaches as well too because he’s a really good player and he’s been playing really good and he’s gotten better. His body has changed in the time since I’ve been here and he’s gotten better since I’ve been here as well. So, you could kind of see everybody start to relax more because if he wasn’t available or something happened, it changes the whole landscape of the team, so you have to kind of change how you play and where you’re going to put people in positions there. We’re all excited for him to be here as well as Jacob (Toppin).”

On how much it has helped to have Sarr and Davion Mintz to provide experience and leadership with all the young guys …

“It has just played out in them getting the guys ready for practice. That may be one of the biggest things. When you have younger kids and younger teams, some of the stuff from high school takes a while to get rid of. That’s the one thing I don’t know how this staff and Coach Cal have done this for so long with coaching so many freshmen and so many underclassmen every year. It is something completely different than what I have been used to. But I think the one thing that those two have done is just been able to kind of add that sense of seriousness, if that’s the right word, to getting prepared for practice and what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish for that day.”

On how he will try to develop a young frontcourt at Kentucky given his track record for developing big men at Texas, his previous coaching stop …

“A lot of it is just spending time and getting them to realize what they’re trying to do as a big. Most bigs and some guards too are are kind of caught in between not wanting to be a big and being on the perimeter. You’re trying to just get them to understand, what is your strength and what can you do. I think the biggest thing is just through time spent the gym. If it’s watching film and stuff like that, I think it kind gets them to understand there is an avenue and there is a role for bigs still. You don’t have to want to pick and pop and shoot 3s. If you’re good at something, do what you do best a lot, and then you build off of that.”

On how they as a staff get out ahead of the upcoming transfer rule and how they plan for anyone being available next year …

“It’s difficult right now. We’re still trying to figure that part of it out because it’s hard because you don’t want to tamper or be in communication with anybody when they’re playing for somebody else or any other team. So, it’s really just wait-and-see mode. You kind of have to pay attention to what’s going on everywhere and just see what happens after the season is over and see who becomes available. So, you just kind of have to keep an eye and a pulse on all of college basketball to kind of see what’s going on out there and who is performing well and what conferences and stuff like that.”

On what his reaction was to drawing Texas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge …

“[Laughs]. It was just kind of—I kind of just shook my head. I’ll be excited to see everybody down there. I still keep in contact with a lot of the players and the staff and stuff like that. I was telling some of the people here, they have a really good team. They have a Final Four team as well. I think we do have a good team here too, so I think it will be a really good game.”