Jaycee Cruz: Crazy Faith!

by | Jun 10, 2024 | Basketball, NCAA Basketball

“Working with Jaycee everyday was a privilege. When he was tasked with something, he would take great responsibility of that project as if it was his own. Jaycee is punctual, creative, organized, and prepared in everything he does — he would be an asset to any company or organization immediately.”

Franklin Miskelly, Director of Video and Analytics, K-State Men’s Basketball

North:Where are you from and how did you get started with basketball?

Jaycee:I’m from Toronto, grew up in Rexdale and got started with basketball through my school and the community I lived in. I actually wanted to play hockey as a kid, but all my friends hooped so I learned to hoop too. It became my way of hanging out with them, but I eventually learned to love it for myself. My 8th grade teacher was a huge basketball fan so she got us connected with some Raptors events during the Chris Bosh years. I did walk-on tryouts at the University of Arkansas in 2017 just to test myself and do it for my bucket list. Basketball was one of the main ways I developed relationships with people throughout my life. It’s how I related to people that I otherwise had little in common with.

North: How did you get to K-State? 

Jaycee: It’s a God story. 

Divine intervention through strategic relationships and risk-taking. 

I took risks early on in my college years to spend summers in the States instead of always choosing the conventional route of staying back home and getting an internship etc. There’s nothing wrong with that—I just had different dreams. I had no idea these relationships would lead to Division 1 basketball, but that’s the beauty of it. I just kept up genuine relationships through the years and life took its course as I began

I did my undergrad at McMaster and worked at an inner-city camp my first two summers. It was run by a Christian couple who lived in the community near Father Henry Carr. Their goal was to make sports and science accessible to kids of a different demographic while still bringing high-quality instruction and experience. The couple had connections to churches in Arkansas and Oklahoma and so college students from those states would come up to Toronto to help at our camps. I developed good relationships with them and decided to visit the south in 2015 to see what it was like. I felt an instant connection to Northwest Arkansas specifically, worked at a camp called New Life Ranch in 2016 and 2018, and then landed at the University of Arkansas on a full-ride for my master’s from 2017-2020. It really felt like God’s plan the way all the dominoes lined up.

Through one of my good relationships from New Life Ranch, I learned about being a GA. My friend Austin Carpenter and I worked closely in operations/leadership at that camp in 2018 and he landed at Baylor as a GA where he was blessed to be part of their National Championship team in 2021-2022. He also worked under Coach Tang at Baylor. 

Following their National Championship, K-State hired Coach Tang as their new Head Coach and he hired Austin as his Director of Player Development in spring 2022. This is where the dominoes start lining up. At the time, I was looking to pivot into basketball and use my other experiences in consulting, student-athlete development, and data analytics to see if coaching was for me. 

Austin and I ended up being in Denver, CO at the same time in May 2022 and we sat down for a day and he showed me what he did at Baylor and what he was doing at K-State for Coach Tang. I was intrigued—the film, analytics, and scouting he showed me was very much something I wondered about and wanted to dive into. He told me they might have a spot for me and to network in the meantime with other coaches. Fast forward to June 2022 and there’s a Nike EYBL Session in Kansas City, MO. During this time I was in the Kansas City area with my girlfriend and her family so I decided to buy a ticket to EYBL and see if I could meet any K-State staff and elevator pitch myself to them. I told myself I wouldn’t let myself leave the arena until I had a conversation with K-State. I did that for two days and each day I met a different coach and gave them a quick elevator pitch on why I should be a GA for them. The first day I met Assistant Coach Jareem Dowling while he was in line grabbing lunch. He asked me why I wanted to be a GA, if I can do film, and what my goal is in life. The second day I met Chief of Staff Marco Borne after a game and he gave me a film scouting project to do on 3 K-State players. My connection to my friend Austin gave me a foot in the door with two coaches and allowed me to shoot my shot. If they said no to me after this, I could live with it because I took risks and did the uncomfortable things others weren’t willing or able to do. I had to step out like this for my sake to live without regret.

I had no experience with Synergy/Sportscode at this point and they told me to make do with what I had. I got a Synergy login and used Final Cut Pro to make a film scout on 3 K-State players. I worked on this for 10+ hours/day for a week or so and sent it to my friend Austin to review it. Finally, I sent it to Coach Marco Borne and waited for K-State’s response. A month passed and I got a call from Coach Marco saying they were close to hiring 2 other candidates who were ahead of me. He told me the project was great, but to try again next year.

The whole time I prayed for God to open/close doors he wanted for me. When I got that call I figured the job wasn’t meant for me. I let it go. A few weeks after Nike EYBL in late July 2022 I drove across the country with my girlfriend and her family to move to Arizona from Kansas. We were 2 hours away from Phoenix, AZ and Austin hit me up out of the blue asking if I could be at K-State ASAP—they had a GA quit and Coach Tang wanted to meet me. While in Arizona, I got plugged in with player development coach Vaughn Compton and was in the gym helping with his pro/NBA workouts until moving to K-State. VC taught me a lot of my player development philosophy, which isn’t fancy and focuses on drilling fundamentals over and over again.

On August 2, 2022 Coach Tang called me while I was in Arizona and interviewed me. We talked about Caribbean food, he asked me what I would do if he didn’t offer me the job, he asked me what 3 things people would say about me after spending a day with me, and then he offered me the job.

The rest is history.

North: What went into becoming a GA at K-State? 

Jaycee:God’s favor and timing in working a lot of details out in my life. Having diverse experience and skills in addition to basketball as well as strategic relationships with people who I could trust and were well-connected. Much like the rest of the world, the basketball world is full of politics and things you can’t control, but I was careful to have a few quality relationships in the basketball world who knew the game and were people of high character. The right people in the right place at the right time. The conventional route is to be a former college/pro player and become a GA. That wasn’t me so I knew my path had to be different and I needed to bring value in other creative ways.

“Jaycee is a young talented basketball mind who has a bright future in our coaching profession. His ability to analytically process the game brought tremendous value to our program these past two seasons especially in scouting opponents and game planning. He’s extremely organized and passionate about the game of basketball.”

—Ulric Maligi, Associate Head Coach, K-State Men’s Basketball

North:How important is networking & how did you develop those skills? 

Jaycee: Networking is super important. It might be everything next to having key experience and skills to get you a job. I was always social and did my best to genuinely connect with, get to know people, stay in touch with them over time, and add value. Nobody likes feeling like you only hit them up to ask for something. Jesus says it’s blessed to give than to receive. I’ve seen that in my relationships—whenever I’ve given from pure intentions, God has somehow blessed me through it. I don’t want to be transactional. Adding value is what sustains relationships. 

Other keys are vulnerability, sharing my story, finding things in common just the way you would to make friends. Just reps of putting myself in situations where I had no one but myself to count on. It’s how I got offered a job in NYC with a famous startup. I walked into their midtown Manhattan office and pitched myself to the person at the front desk. Crazy reps like this gave me confidence and access to places where everyone was smarter and more qualified than I am, but believing I had value to bring and introducing myself to people. The key is knowing that behind roles and titles are people with thoughts and emotions like you. If you learn to connect with people, it’ll take you further than you can imagine.

Coach Jareem Dowling says it’s who you know, not what you know. 

North: Your first year as a grad coach, you got the chance to work with Markquis Nowell & Keyontae Johnson, what was it like working with 2 great players? 

Jaycee: Amazing.

If you don’t know what pros look like, you learn pretty quickly.

Being around those two—they’re just different. Physically and mentally. They’re winners. Key just won a G League Championship with the OKC Blue and both him and Quis were G League All-Stars as rookies.

Markquis is the hardest worker I’ve ever been around in the gym. He’s obsessed. I thought I knew what “obsessed” meant, but then I worked with Quis. He’s the definition of a gym rat. I helped with some of his pre-draft last year and we were there from 9am-12pm and 9pm-midnight everyday for about a month straight. I’m not surprised at how far he’ll go because I know what his work ethic is like. His work ethic allowed him to speak to our team like no one else could because you couldn’t question his work. He would never ask you to do something he didn’t already do himself.

Key’s approach was super professional. He has this ability to turn on a switch and make really difficult things look easy. His ability to get to his spot over and over again even when the defense knows what he wants is impressive.

Everything with those guys is full speed, full power, game-like pro reps.

They want to be pushed and they want the truth, but there needs to be a relationship there and a certain basketball IQ to speak to them at that level.

That was cool to learn and pushed me to grow my own basketball IQ.

They’ll both have successful NBA careers. I’m proud of them and grateful I got to work with them and become friends with them.

“Jaycee brought great energy and passion every day in the gym. He genuinely cared about every player’s development. He is also very resourceful and determined.”

—Vaughn Compton, Player Development Coach

North:How much of an impact did Coach Tang have on your journey & what was the biggest lesson you’ve learned from him? 

Jaycee: Coach Tang had a huge impact on my journey. He’s the best coach in America because of who he is first as a follower of Jesus, a husband, and a father. He’s a great teacher with a really high basketball IQ and a contagious enthusiasm for the game. The fact my high major Division I experience was working for him is a big blessing. He’s not like the rest and he’s as real as it gets.

Man, Coach Tang has taught me many lessons. I could go on. The biggest lesson I learned is that basketball is simple, but it’s hard to do simple things consistently.

North:What’s the biggest lesson you can pass down to young players looking to become high major division 1 players?  

Jaycee: Nobody really cares what moves you have in your bag or how much you post on Instagram. At this level, everyone’s got that and some. Our coaches focused on eliminating fluff and doing simple better—taking dribbles with purpose, playing off two, making the simple play. That’s what elite players do consistently. “What separates me?” is what you should be asking yourself.

What gets you trust and playing time at this level are not what you’d expect. Of course there’s the obvious really talented and gifted athletes/scorers, but that’s not everyone. If you want to become a high major division 1 player you need to ask yourself:

  • Do you really listen?
  • Are you a good person/teammate?
  • Can you take feedback professionally and apply it without getting in your feelings?
  • Do you do the right things even if nobody’s watching?
  • What’s your body language like?
  • Do you do the small things right consistently (e.g., talking on the floor, sprinting in transition both ways, making the extra pass, keeping the right spacing, taking charges, setting screens, huddling with your teammates, early for treatment/practice/study hall, responsive to texts, treat others how you want to be treated, responsible, etc.)?
  • Do you study film and memorize plays?
  • Are you only positive when you get what you want?
  • Do you go game speed and take game-like shots in your workouts? Quality > quantity of work.

“It’s been phenomenal working with Jaycee the last two years he’s an extremely hard worker who pays attention to the details. He helped me organize our offensive playbook this past season so we could be more efficient teaching our guys the plays!”—Rodney Perry, Assistant Coach, K-State Men’s Basketball

North: What’s next for you and where do you see yourself in the next 5 years? 

Jaycee: Next for me is TBD—I’ve interviewed with some NBA teams and schools, but also with some companies back in the industry. Diverse experience brought me to K-State and I believe it will carry me forward. Business skills apply to basketball and you never know what connections/experiences will open doors for you. 

In the next 5 years I see myself married and in an NBA front office/involved in basketball in some capacity while being part of a local church and invested in my local community.

North: To the coaches looking to follow in your footsteps, what would be your biggest piece of advice?

Jaycee: In addition to developing genuine relationships, my advice would be to have tangible skills and work products that can bring value to a program. Put yourself out there, don’t sweat rejection, find a niche, and seek opportunities that allow you to bring value.