California has landed two, top-five players at the end of the 2015 cycle, and while other prospects have been impressed, none have spoken directly to the impact of the signings of Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown more than 2017 five-star Jaylen Hands.
“It definitely leaves an impression on players, especially me, because it shows that, not only can they produce with a team that didn’t have as much star power as they have now, but when they get what they have now, they can compete with top schools, like the Kentucky’s and Duke’s. It’s just impressive,” Hands says, “and enticing.”
That’s exactly what Cuonzo Martin is aiming for. When asked at the introductory presser for Brown why two players like Brown and Rabb would come to Cal, Martin said:
“Why not? You’re talking about the No. 1 public institution in the world, so why not? You’ve got great academics and great athletics, so why not? That’s what people should say.”
And that has Hands, and his father Ronnie, thinking, particularly when you have coaches like Arizona’s Sean Miller saying that the Bears could win the national title.
“The coaching staff, even if they didn’t win a game, the class that they displayed, it catches you,” says Ronnie. “They have a vibe, and it’s pretty apparent. You can tell that they know what they’re doing, they know how to get there, and they’re making that transition. When Jaylen talks about that program, that is something that he always brings up: They just get it. They play loose and free, and they play with a lot of heart.”
Hands scored his Cal offer on April 15, and since then, Martin and Yanni Hufnagel have been doing right by the Hands’s.
“Oh, awesome. Yanni and Jaylen have a really good relationship,” says Ronnie. “We’ve talked to coach [Martin] quite a bit. It’s really awesome to watch how that program is becoming a go-to program, and it’s happening the right way. Even when we watched the games during the year, they were always prepared, and scrappy, and played with a lot of heart.
“When we’re watching games, there’s always that stern confidence, but at the same time, it’s a loving vibe that he gives off. It makes it feel comfortable, and that’s a comfortable trait to have in a coach.”
Heart is something that Ronnie sees in Martin, as well as a reflection of himself, which makes the possibility of handing his son over to the Purdue alum an easy proposition.
“Cuonzo Martin, just speaking to him, his presence, and knowing his story, his sickness and everything else he’s gotten through, for me, it’s similar to the guys I grew up with,” says Ronnie, who, like new assistant coach Wyking Jones, grew up in Inglewood, Calif. “[Martin]’s whole demeanor, and the way he goes about things, he easily could have grown up where I grew up, so I really get that. That’s comfortable.”
In fact, Ronnie and Jones crossed paths many years ago on the playground courts of Rogers Park. They were never friends, but the elder Hands is familiar with the newest addition to the coaching staff.
[READ MORE: California Rising]
“We were very competitive,” says Ronnie. “Back in the day, there really wasn’t AAU ball, like there is now. You played basketball in the park, and we all played at Rogers Park. It was always putting you off the court, and it took a while to get back on it. We had a respect for each other, as opponents. Seeing him get hired there was like, ‘OK, I can see.’ He’s a competitive guy, with a drive, but still love for the game. That’s a good hire, right there. That’s one of the things that struck me, even more so, about the program.”
Ronnie played for Inglewood High, and never matched up against Jones’s St. Bernard High School. After high school, Ronnie played one year at Mesa Junior College, before matriculating to Cal State San Marcos. His son will have a markedly different path.
Jaylen Hands is the No. 19 player overall in the 2017 class, the No. 5 point guard and the best player in his class in the Golden State, and with Tyrone Wallace leaving after next season, and Sam Singer being a senior in 2017, there’s definitely a conspicuous hole in the lineup that will need to be filled.
“It’s still early, so I don’t have a direct opinion on that, because I’m only a sophomore,” says Hands, already polished in dealing with media. “They told me that they really like that I’m a point guard, and a very dynamic point guard, that I bring a lot of things to the table as a point guard, that most can’t do. They like my athleticism, my length. They think that I can help the program win.”
Hands wasn’t always so polished. A year ago, he was gearing up for the Team USA U16 tryout, when he was still a relative unknown.
“When I went down there to USA, I didn’t have as much pub as I do now,” Hands says. “Off the court, I hung around a lot of people that were around my age, so I didn’t interact with the older guys that much.”
He did exchange some thoughts with the likes of Brown, but it was only on the court, as the U16 team and the U18 team practiced together. After not making the U16 team last time around, Hands is hoping that, after tryouts start again on May 28, he’ll be wearing the red, white, and blue.
“If I make it, we go to Argentina,” says Hands, who’s only been as far as a cruise to Mexico, when it comes to traveling outside the country. “I’m excited about being able to compete with people that have got the same opportunity as me, and being able to put my country on the map, and being able to be known as someone who helped Team USA win a gold medal.”
When Hands initially got his offer, it was after Rabb committed, and Wallace declared that he would return for his senior year, but before Brown made his intentions known.
“I was excited,” says Hands. “This was before the Jaylen Brown thing, so to know that they got Ivan Rabb in there, and that they came up to me, that was exciting … What they’ve done recruiting-wise, the past month, is amazing.”
The offer actually came as Ronnie was on the way to file his taxes.
“Cuonzo called me, and it was funny, because he wanted it understood: He said, ‘I hope you understand that we offered Jaylen a long time ago, but I guess we just never said those words,’” says Ronnie. “I was on my way to my tax person. We were talking about it, and I gave Jaylen a call and let him get on the phone with coach, and he went over their plans, the recruiting class, and the things he wants to get Jaylen to understand about Berkeley and wanting him to come up there and wanting to let him know what their plans are for him. It was a very informative call, a very unexpected call, but a great call.”
The staff has continued to build on its 2015 momentum in the recruitment of Hands, and he sees in the staff just what his father does.
“I would probably say, for Cuonzo, I really like the fact that he seems like a nitty-gritty, down-to-earth, get-the-job-done person, and he instills a lot of toughness in his players,” says Hands. “Yanni, he’s the same way, but he’s very energetic. He’s a fun coach to be around. I like the relationship I have with them, because they’re easy to talk to, and they really get down to business, and they get their work done.”
Though it’s still at an early stage, Hands recognizes what the staff is trying to do in Berkeley, and, if his schedule allows, wants to visit at some point this summer, between his potential Team USA obligations and AAU ball.
“I’ve visited UCLA, SDSU and Arizona, so far, and I plan to take other visits,” Hands says. “In terms of Cal, I’m excited to see the campus, meet some of the players, get the whole vibe. That’s what I’d like to see.”
“We’re going to try to do it by the end of the summer,” says Ronnie. “We’re going to visit up there by the end of the summer. We’ve been talking to Yanni about that, and we’re going to make plans to come visit no later than the end of summer. Jay’s schedule is pretty packed, with all the travel ball and the USA tryouts, and even a couple of camps. We’re trying to fit it in, somewhere in there, and it’ll be before the end of summer.”