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Jasper Johnson on Mark Pope at Kentucky: "He was in my shoes at one time"

Jack PIlgrimby:Jack Pilgrim05/24/24

Mark Pope said when he arrived in Lexington he’d continue to bring “one and done, Burger Boys” to Kentucky, stressing the need to sign McDonald’s All-American-level talent at the winningest school in college basketball history. Elite programs deserve elite talent.

He also said keeping the state’s best prospects home was a top priority, proving that after the fact by signing both Travis Perry and Trent Noah — the Nos. 1 and 5 all-time scorers in KHSAA history.

“These young men that grow up in Kentucky, they bring a spirit to the team that cannot be fabricated or replaced,” Pope said at the time. “And it helps us to win, and we will continue to recruit them.”

Lexington native Jasper Johnson fortunately fits both categories as the No. 10 prospect and No. 1 combo guard in the 2025 On3 Industry Ranking. Now, Pope gets to recruit a future McDonald’s All-American from his own backyard, the five-star’s father conveniently an All-SEC football player at Kentucky under Hal Mumme.

Building a relationship with Mark Pope

Needless to say, Pope and his staff have prioritized the Link Academy standout in a hurry, essentially from the minute he took the job. That’s just one you’ve got to have, even if you plan on balancing high school and portal talent a bit more than John Calipari did in Lexington.

“It means a lot, having a head coach that really trusts me and believes that I can impact his team from day one,” Johnson told KSR. “He’s going after portal kids, but that’s what you need to win at the next level, mixing (young) talent with grit and experience. That’s a really good thing that he trusts and believes in me.”

Pope has led the charge alongside UK associate head coach Alvin Brooks III, who have been calling and reaching out regularly in recent weeks. They’re in the relationship-building process now with visits down the street to the Kentucky facilities in the near future now that he’s home from Link for the summer.

“We’re getting there,” he said of his relationship with Pope and the staff.

Knowing what it means to be from Kentucky

One thing he’s noticed quickly: Pope’s pride as the Kentucky head coach, knowing what it means to be a Wildcat more than just about anyone. Why? Well, he was one, a captain for the 1996 national championship team, widely seen as one of the best groups in college basketball history.

Pope knows what winning means in Lexington and just how important it is to Big Blue Nation. That’s something that intrigues the five-star guard.

“Being from there, there’s always pride playing with Kentucky,” Johnson said. “They get everybody’s best game. Him coming in first year, he’s got high expectations, but they’ve built up a good roster and I’ll be interested to see what they do … He was in my shoes at one time, he played there. Knowing that he understands the game and that he believes in his players, as well — I know there’s a difference with the SEC, but they’ll have a good season this year.”

When Pope says something about Johnson’s game and what it takes to win at the highest level in college, there is very real trust there. He’s experienced it, climbing to the very top of the mountain during his playing days with the Wildcats.

“He’s been there. So hearing his message and putting it into my game, it always helps having a coach who has been there,” Johnson said.

An open recruitment

It’s not a one-man race in the five-star guard’s recruitment, though. Johnson is completely wide open with a long list of suiters, that number growing by the day at this point. That happens when you average 18.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per contest on the EYBL circuit, this past weekend being a live period with in-person evaluation. Thousands of coaches flooded to Indianapolis to see the nation’s best up-and-coming talent in person, Johnson among the top prizes in the field.

“I know a lot of coaches have been wanting to see me play in person, different schools and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s good not only for me, but for my teammates, as well. I know it’s an opportunity for them, they’re trying to pick up offers and take care of their families by hooping in front of these coaches, so it’s a great experience.”

Among the schools he noticed in attendance for his games, along with those clearly prioritizing him at this point?

“Baylor, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, Ohio State, Florida State, Auburn — a lot of schools are reaching out and trying to build a relationship,” Johnson said.

The No. 1 point guard in 2025?

He’s at USA Basketball Men’s U18 National Team training camp in Colorado Springs this weekend in hopes of making the 12-man roster for the 2024 FIBA U18 Men’s AmeriCup scheduled for June 3-9 in Buenos Aires.

Once training camp wraps up this weekend and he finds some breathing room with his hectic AAU travel schedule, he’ll begin the visit process with a few destinations already in mind.

“I’m trying to plan a few whenever I’m free. It’s hard with AAU and travel,” he said. “Going up to Baylor, Illinois, Arkansas, a couple of others. Ohio State — I can’t really think off the top of my head.”

Until then, he’ll continue doing what he’s doing on the EYBL circuit, proving he’s among the best prospects in high school basketball at this stage.

And if you ask him, he’s the nation’s top point guard in 2025.

“I’ve felt like that my whole life, I feel like I’m the best point guard,” he told KSR. “Being able to showcase that here on the EYBL, it tells me a lot by playing against a lot of the top players. I feel like I’m definitely the best point guard in my class.”

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