Korey McCray didn’t need to frantically dial through his Rolodex after UCLA ousted coach Ben Howland in March.
No, the 34-year-old assistant coach had an offer to stay on in regal Westwood and slide into an administrative role. Instead of scurrying for his next gig, the former coach of the Atlanta Celtics, who double as AAU royalty, could carefully cast his glance and survey for the ever-changing professional landscape.
“They were going to groom me there,” McCray said. “That’s not bad. So I was able to be a little picky. I was not going to go back to college coaching unless it was an unbelievable situation.”
Picking up the phone when LSU coach Johnny Jones, shopping for replacement after Robert Kirby decamped for Memphis, turned out to be the proper set of circumstances.
Yes, Jones found his replacement for Kirby, who carried the reputation as one of the better recruiters in the southeast, with McCray’s ties to the fertile Atlanta hoops scene. But McCray sees his duties expand to wooing elite talent, off-the-court player development, and more in-game coaching experience.
“He wants me to be involved in all aspects, not just recruiting, from game planning to Xs and Os,” McCray said. “Coach Jones wants to develop me to one day become a head coach. I know I’m going to have more of a role than I did at UCLA when it comes to Xs and Os.”
McCray’s diverse résumé as a reason for Jones making the hire, which came after a sit-down interview and the lone face-to-face meeting between the pair.
Before spending two seasons on Howland’s staff, McCray was an assistant during the 2008 season at Mercer — his alma mater — along with a stint as an assistant at Chipola Junior College in Florida. After wrapping his playing career at Mercer, the Decatur, Ga., native spent two seasons on Leonard Hamilton’s staff at Florida State.
He also crafted offseason workout plans for NBA players such as Dwight Howard, John Wall, Jarrett Jack, Acie Law and Von Wafer. Since 1999, he served the head coach of the Celtics, a vaunted AAU program founded by his father, Karl, in 1999 and known for churning out elite prospects such as Dwight Howard, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Javaris Crittenton.
“Getting a coach is like recruiting,” Jones said. “You have to do a good job of making sure you find guys that fit your program and team. We think we were able to do that in coach McCray. He’s a guy who has a tremendous background in terms of AAU coaching.”
Those deep ties led Howland, seeking to build an East Coast pipeline, to make the move of adding McCray to his staff. The hire paid off quickly. McCray served as lead recruiter in coaxing Atlanta-area prospects Jordan Adams and Tony Parker — both top 75 recruits — to the West Coast as part of Bruins recruiting class ranked No. 2 nationally by Rivals.com.
Georgia is a reliable source of elite talent, averaging around 10 prospects that land in Rivals’ Top 150 annually. Moreover, those recruits aren’t married on the idea of leaving the state. Georgia Tech has proven reliably at keeping some kids home, but only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been a notable pick-up for Georgia in recent years.
Drawing some of that talent west to Baton Rouge will clearly be a high priority for McCray, too.
“That’s just part of the deal, though.” he said. “I had the opportunity to go to UCLA, but it’s the same standard as it will be LSU: You’ve got to produce.”
Yet McCray said there’s a tendency to gloss over the rest of his résumé and focus solely on his recruiting ties. He consistently reinforces the notion he can develop talent once players drop their bags after arriving on campus.
“You’ve got to bring in players, but you’ve got to develop them once they get there,” McCray said. “People overlook that. You aren’t getting a finished product. That’s why they’re here. It’s something I bring to the table.”