By LARRY VAUGHT
PADUCAH — When Jaylen Hoard decided to come to the United States, Wesleyan Christian (N.C.) coach Keith Gatlin knew he was getting a good player — but he didn’t know how good.
“I knew he was good, but not this good,” said Gatlin, the former Maryland standout. “He is a phenomenal player. Very skilled, knows how to play. Very cerebral player. We are blessed to have him.”
The 6-8 Hoard and Wesleyan Christian face The Conrad Academy of Florida tonight in the McCracken County Mustang Madness at 8 p.m. CST. It’s part of The Grind Session. He’ll also play Saturday at 7 p.m. CST against Prolific Prep and Duke signee Gary Trent Jr.
Hoard is ranked as a top 10 junior by Scout.com. He averaged 22.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game playing for France during last summer’s Fiba 17 under World Championship.
“Jaylen is a great kid and really studies the game. He can play the one or the two if we need him to. He’s just a skilled guard,” Gatlin said. “He needs strength and he’s having to learn to play defense every possession. In France, you play one game a week. We played last night, traveled, and now play Friday and Saturday. It’s a new experience for him, but he loves it. But it is a grind for him to understand the American way of basketball.”
His father, Antoine, played at Murray State and then professionally over season. His mother, Tia, played at Washington.
“We have been friends for over 20 years. I played against his dad in France. We have been best of friends. Jaylen was watching us on YouTube and his dad said he knew me. That’s how it all happened to get him here,” Gatlin said. “He speaks fluent English. All of his family has dual citizenship.”
Hoard said he knew he needed to come to the United States to prepare for college basketball.
“I knew the exposure would be better and I thought it would just be a better fit. I thought it was time to come play against the best like I am now,” Hoard said. “I want to show I can play here just like I could in France. The best players are over here, so that’s where I needed to be.”
He says he’s trying not to feel the pressure of increased recruiting attention and still make sure basketball stays fun. But he’s had to adjust.
“The mentality is different here. Every team we play they try to come and kill you. In France it’s more like a team sport. In America guys want to prove they are better. But it’s good and I like that a lot,” he said.
Gatlin says “everybody” is already recruiting Hoard and he thinks that will only intensify. Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus has been to see him along with teammate Aaron Wiggins, a 6-5 junior.
Hoard says he’s happy with any scholarship offer he gets, but he wants to focus on playing well this season before starting to really consider college options next summer.
“Kentucky is a great program. I know that,” he said. “They get guys in the league each year and I know it is a great school. I like Kentucky, but I just have not really thought that far ahead. In France, it was hard to really follow a school. I would more follow certain players. I watch more games now than I did in France, but mainly I just want to work on my game.”