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Kentucky's recruitment of Jasper Johnson has been two years (and two coaches) in the making

Zack Geogheganby:Zack Geoghegan06/18/24

ZGeogheganKSR

Today, class of 2025 five-star point guard Jasper Johnson is taking an unofficial visit to the University of Kentucky. A native of Lexington who started his high school career at Woodford County in Versailles, Johnson has been on the Wildcats’ radar for nearly two years now, dating back to the previous coaching staff led by former head coach John Calipari.

Fast forward to today, new head coach Mark Pope and his fresh batch of assistants continue to make the Bluegrass-born prospect a top priority. There are plenty of suitors for the talented 6-foot-4, five-star scorer, who currently attends Link Academy in Missouri, but Kentucky is in a great position as we enter Johnson’s final high school season.

So, how did we get here? Let’s back up a bit first.

Jasper’s father, Dennis Johnson, was an All-SEC defensive end for Kentucky during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Born in Danville, KY, Dennis spent a couple of seasons in the NFL before ultimately returning home and accepting the head coaching job of the Woodford County football program, a position he’s held since 2015. Dennis is also the athletic director of the school.

Additionally, Jasper’s mom and Dennis’ wife, Nyoka, was a standout hooper in her own right, too. She’s even related to former Kentucky football star Craig Yeast.

Go back even further and we learn that Dennis’ father, the late Alvin Johnson, was a local legend, spending over two decades as the head football coach at the now-defunct Harrodsburg High School. Alvin was even brought on as an associate athletic director at UK for a stint and was a highly respected member of his community.

In short, the Johnson family’s blood runs blue.

Once Jasper began to shine on the hardwood in the summer of 2022, it was natural that Kentucky would express interest. Former assistant Orlando Antigua sparked the conversation with Chin Coleman, another Calipari assistant, also helping the cause. Antigua continued to recruit Johnson from there, attending a handful of his high school games while remaining in regular communication.

“Coach Antigua told us, ‘Man, early in the recruiting process we really like him. We’ve got so many people that have told me about him,’” Dennis Johnson told KSR in Oct. 2022. “He got to see him in Orlando (FL), the first session of the EYBL and watched some of his video. So just getting in the gym and seeing him more, he said I’m gonna come to some games and get him over to a few games to watch us.“

At the time, the likes of Xavier, Cincinnati, Ohio State, and Alabama had already offered Johnson. Kentucky, as the staff routinely did under Calipari, slow-played a scholarship opportunity. But following a sophomore season at Woodford County that saw him average 20.1 points per game and make a state semifinal appearance, the Wildcats began to ramp things up. Once Johnson performed well on the Nike EYBL circuit the following spring (while playing up a year in competition for Team Thad), Kentucky coaches had seen enough.

On May 5, 2023, Johnson announced that he had received an offer from UK. Calipari even brought him to Lexington to extend the scholarship in person after watching him play multiple times. This wasn’t a case of recruiting an in-state prospect just because he’s from the Bluegrass. Johnson was legitimately good — and he’s still getting better.

“It means a lot,” Johnson told KSR shortly after receiving his Kentucky offer. “I’ve been really working, basically since I can remember — five (years old) maybe? I’d be waking up before school for workouts that start at 6:30 (AM), after school practice, followed by another workout. I’ve been doing that my whole life. It just makes me sit and realize all of the work I’ve been doing is paying off for me.”

“This one was definitely big, I’d say,” he added. “For my family, my community, I grew up here and I know everybody wanted me to have the chance to be able to play at Kentucky. That makes a big impact.”

A month later, Johnson would make the biggest decision of his life up to that point: leaving his hometown for the opportunity to play for a national prep program. Johnson transferred to Missouri’s Link Academy in June 2023, which had just won the GEICO Nationals championship. Rumblings of a possible reclass to 2024 began to pop up around this time, but Johnson remains committed to sticking in 2025. An impressive performance at the annual Peach Jam tournament that July put him on the map even more.

Johnson would take another unofficial visit to Kentucky in Oct. 2023, mentioning an expected commitment announcement coming at this summer’s Peach Jam. The Wildcats remained as one of the clear frontrunners.

“Coach Orlando (Antigua) reaches out to me probably every day,” Johnson told On3 in Dec. 2023. “He wants me to come back home for my college season.”

Johnson cut his list of top schools down to 10 this past January (shortly after raining down 10 threes against fellow five-star Darryn Peterson in front of Calipari and Coleman during a special event back home at Woodford County): Kentucky, Kansas, Alabama, Auburn, Baylor, Missouri, Lousiville, North Carolina, Southern California, and West Virginia all made the cut.

His first official visit to UK happened a month later in February. West Virginia (Sept. 2023), Missouri (Nov. 2023), North Carolina (Feb. 2024), and Auburn (Feb. 2024) also received official visits for the five-star floor general.

You probably can guess what happened next. Calipari shocked the college basketball world in the spring by leaving Lexington for the Arkansas Razorbacks following another early NCAA Tournament exit with the Wildcats (and he wasn’t the only head coach on the move this offseason with interest in Johnson). How would new head coach Mark Pope approach recruiting the same caliber of five-star recruits the Big Blue Nation had become accustomed to over the last 15 years?

Turns out, not all that differently, albeit without leaning as heavily on a rotating crop of incoming and outgoing freshmen. Johnson was one of the very first high school prospects to hear from Pope and the new staff at UK once they settled into the position.

“(Pope) said he might not recruit as many freshmen as Cal did but he wants me to be one of those freshmen that come in and (makes an) impact from day one,” Johnson told KSR in April.

Along with Pope, associate head coach Alvin Brooks III is also aiding in Johnson’s recruitment. Slowly but surely, the relationship between both sides is growing to the level it was under the old staff — if not more so. Johnson intends to spend the majority of his summer in Lexington, meaning routine stops at UK’s campus are just a short 15-minute drive. He’ll even jump on the radio with the KSR crew on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. to talk about his visit.

During today’s stop on campus, he’ll get the chance to sit on a practice — just the second for Pope and his 12 brand-new roster pieces. The staff will surely have plenty to discuss with Johnson once he and his family sit down for some personal conversation. Johnson is shining on the EYBL circuit once again this spring and is coming off a gold medal-winning trip to Argentina as a representative for Team USA earlier this month.

It’s possible a commitment could still come around Peach Jam, which takes place from July 13-21. We could get more clarification on that during tomorrow’s radio appearance. Regardless, we’ll be coming down the home stretch of his recruiting process soon enough.

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2024-07-19