Justus Ready for Next Chapter in the Rapid Ascent of His Career
Three years ago Joel Justus was a high school basketball head coach. Today, he’s the newest assistant coach at the winningest basketball program in college basketball history.
No matter how you cut it, it’s been a rapid ascent for Justus, who started at Kentucky just two seasons ago as the director of analytics.
“I think every day you have to feel blessed to work with a great head coach, first and foremost, in Coach Cal, someone who takes the time to mentor the people on the staff,” Justus said Thursday at UK’s annual Media Day, his first appearance in front of the media as a UK assistant coach. “(Coach Cal) has reached out to me and really tried to help me, and I think every day I’m grateful for that. But not only Cal, it’s Robes (John Robic), it’s Kenny (Payne), it’s Tony (Barbee). Everybody here is – you’re on a big team. It’s also a blessing to work with such great kids that we’ve had in the two previous years and this group we have right now. You wake up energized and you feel like this is almost a little bit of a dream.”
Justus gained additional responsibilities last season as he served as the special assistant to the head coach. In that position, he maintained many of his previous duties while also helping scout opponents and handle other duties to aid Coach Cal’s game preparations.
After Justus got his feet wet in the recruiting waters over the summer, head coach John Calipari felt he needed to make the change permanent. With his elite skillset in scouting and game planning, Calipari felt it would be best to have Robic by his side more as a special assistant and let Justus continue recruiting and make inroads with younger prospects.
“I wanted to give John some time,” Calipari said. “His father had passed away, and one of the things I found out was we were really able to do stuff with younger guys, it was going to be important to us. And then the other side is the more I thought about it, I need John around me more anyway.
“So having John with me 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.”
One of Justus’ top priorities will be to make sure the narrative with Kentucky isn’t already established in the minds of younger prospects around the country before the UK coaches can talk to them. Justus said his goal is to find the players who see themselves as fits for Kentucky and who trust Coach Cal and the staff with their future development.
“I think what we need to continue to say is that this is a great place to come where you can be your best,” Justus said. “Whatever your best is, is different than his best or my best. I think that takes the load off of the expectations of being a one-and-done. What we want to do is create the narrative that this is a place where you come to get better, you want to be around other players, you want to be challenged every day, and be around a group of great guys.”
Justus played his college ball at UNC-Wilmington, the same school where Coach Cal started his career. It was there that Calipari met Justus’ father, who was the sports information director for the Seahawks. The two stayed in touch and Calipari would later interview Justus for an assistant coaching position at Memphis while Justus was an assistant at Elon University.
“That’s a long story I can tell you another time,” Justus said, “but basically he flew me in and said, ‘I’m not going to hire you for this job, but I want to get to know you and maybe down the road I’ll hire you.’ ”
From there, Justus became a head coach at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and then Davidson Day High School in North Carolina. He loved being a high school head coach, but when Coach Cal called it was an opportunity he knew he had to pursue.
“I loved being a high school coach,” Justus said. “I wouldn’t have left being a high school coach if it wasn’t the opportunity to come work for Cal.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned basketball wise (from Coach Cal) is the daily preparation for basketball and for basketball practice. Taking a look at how he plans a practice, I mean obviously I was a head high school coach so I spent six years planning my own practices, then to go back and learn a different way other than the way I had been doing it, or the way the coaches I had played for had done it, has been fun. Off the floor, just the forward thinking, cutting edge approach to recruiting, but also building a brand is something that is fascinating to have a front-row seat.”
Now, after two seasons at Kentucky, Justus will begin his third season as an assistant coach. It’s the next step in his burgeoning coaching career, and he is continuing to learn as much as he can throughout the entire journey.
“Working with Cal and being able to learn from him and watch him in different settings, and really just take copious notes of what it takes to be successful,” Justus said. “It’s one of those things where you just wake up every day extremely blessed.”