Could Johnny Juzang's NCAA Tournament affect Kentucky basketball transfer decisions?

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – For the second time in the last three NCAA Tournaments a former Kentucky basketball player will play for a different school in the Final Four.

Like Charles Matthews at Michigan in 2018, Johnny Juzang was named Most Outstanding Player in his team’s region as he led UCLA to the Final Four. Juzang averaged 21.6 points per game in the No. 11 seed Bruin’s first five tournament wins. He scored 28 points in the regional final upset of No. 1 seed Michigan.

If Juzang and UCLA can end Gonzaga’s undefeated season on Saturday, he’ll have a chance to extend the Bruin’s 11-8 lead over Kentucky for most national championships.

Still, Juzang’s former Kentucky teammates and coaches appear to be rooting for his success.

“Congratulations to Johnny Juzang for his performance last night and for this season,” UK coach John Calipari tweeted Tuesday. “I’m so happy for him and the UCLA team/staff. Go win it all, Johnny! Always #LaFamilia and got a lot of people back here rooting for you!”

Juzang’s UCLA breakout has drawn added scrutiny following Kentucky’s abysmal 9-16 season. As Calipari looks to shape a 2021-22 roster good enough to bring the program back to Final Four contender status again, his struggles to keep players who might not be immediate stars in Lexington around long enough to develop into key contributors has been a frequent topic of conversation for Kentucky fans.

The No. 33-ranked recruit in the high school class of 2019 after reclassifying to graduate from Harvard-Westlake High School a year early, Juzang averaged just 2.9 points in 12.4 minutes per game as a freshman at Kentucky.

Johnny Juzang: How NCAA Tournament star ended up at UCLA after playing for Kentucky

The Los Angeles native played in 28 of 31 games for the Wildcats last season, but he scored in double figures just twice. He did not score at all in 10 of his 28 appearances.

Calipari has typically been reluctant to give significant minutes to players who only contribute on the offensive end of the court. Juzang's defense was considered a weakness, and he did not shoot well enough to force the issue.

Juzang did improve as his freshman season went along. After hitting just 3 of 16 3-point attempts in non-conference play, he hit 11 of 27 3s (40.7%) during SEC play. Juzang closed the year with one of his best performances with 10 points in a season-high 33 minutes at Florida when normal starting point guard Ashton Hagans did not play.

When Juzang entered the transfer portal shortly after the season, Calipari issued a statement making it clear Juzang would be welcomed back to Kentucky if he changed his mind about leaving, but the Hall of Fame coach also acknowledged Juzang's family had expressed a desire for him to move closer to home. Two weeks later, Juzang committed to UCLA after considering Arizona, Notre Dame, Oregon, Texas Tech and Villanova as transfer options.

On the season, Juzang leads UCLA in scoring (15.5 points per game) while shooting 34.7% from 3-point range.

Asked Friday about the biggest improvement Juzang had made compared to what he saw on film of Juzang’s time at Kentucky, UCLA coach Mick Cronin pointed to the heart of the dilemma Kentucky faces in keeping players like Juzang on campus.

“Not a lot of tape at Kentucky, not a lot of playing time” Cronin said. “I saw Johnny play some AAU and I watched some of his Harvard-Westlake stuff. At Kentucky, it was what it was. He was behind a great player. Wasn’t it Tyrese Maxey and (Immanuel) Quickley? And he passed up his senior year in high school.

“He probably wasn’t ready. He goes and he’s got two NBA guys in front of him. I didn’t judge him off of that, because he probably should have been playing at Harvard Westlake. But I did look at it like, ‘what a great senior year to learn.’ There was no doubt in Johnny’s talent levels. It wasn’t like I had to evaluate him. It was all about when he put his name in the portal trying to make sure he came to UCLA.”

Kentucky basketball roster:After Kellan Grady's transfer, these 2021-22 questions still need answers

It is difficult to argue with Calipari’s decision to allocate the majority of the backcourt minutes at the two and three to Maxey and Quickley. Both were selected in the first round of the NBA draft after the season. Quickley was named SEC Player of the Year.

Juzang’s transfer decision cannot be boiled down to a lack of minutes alone either. Kentucky has struggled to keep role players from the West Coast on campus, and Juzang acknowledged battling homesickness during his time at Kentucky. The COVID-19 pandemic added additional motivation to move closer to home, and UCLA cited a “personal family situation” in Juzang’s waiver request for immediate eligibility, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The presence of consensus top-10 recruits Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke, who both played Juzang’s position, in Kentucky’s 2021 recruiting class likely played a role in the decision as well.

Neither Boston or Clarke lived up to their recruiting hype, and Juzang vastly exceeded their performance at UCLA.

Little-used freshman forward Cam’Ron Fletcher entered the transfer portal after Kentucky’s 2020-21 season ended, but that move seemed likely since he was briefly suspended from the team in December. As of now, the rest of Kentucky’s role players have indicated they plan to return to Lexington next season.

But as Calipari looks to boost the 2021-22 roster by adding high-impact transfers like former West Virginia center Oscar Tshbiebwe and former Davidson guard Kellen Grady, those Wildcats will have to continually evaluate their chances of earning significant minutes next season. It would not be a surprise to see one or more of the players further down the bench ultimately decide to enter the transfer portal if more transfers or high school recruits are added at their positions.

Juzang has proven leaving Kentucky can be the right move to jumpstart a career. Kentucky basketball will survive even if players on the current team decide to follow his lead.

But Calipari’s job in preventing further letdowns like this season will be much easier if he can convince them that development can happen at UK too.

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ