LEXINGTON, Ky. — Most of John Calipari’s recruits come to Kentucky in hopes of reaching their — often realistic — goals of heading on to the NBA and enjoying a lengthy, lucrative career in professional basketball.
Isaac DeGregorio has something else in mind.
The 5-foot-11 point guard from the Pittsburgh area wants to be a coach. And Calipari, who is certainly no stranger to the DeGregorio family, wants to help him on his way.
DeGregorio announced Saturday afternoon that he had accepted an offer from Calipari to be a preferred walk-on in Kentucky’s class of 2020, and he’ll be with the Wildcats starting next season. The six highly touted signees that make up UK’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class surely hope their time in Lexington translates to success at the next level. DeGregorio was a standout player for North Catholic High (Pa.), but no one’s expecting him to show up on any future NBA draft boards. He has different goals, and his family thinks he’s coming to the right place.
“I think that was one of his reasons to choose Kentucky, because he does want to be a coach,” said Joe DeGregorio, who was Calipari’s college coach at Clarion State nearly 40 years ago. “I don’t think he can work with a better coach than the coach he’s going to have in Coach Cal. And hopefully Coach Cal can open a couple of doors for him and maybe help him get to where he wants to go.”
The eldest DeGregorio, now 85 years old, recruited Calipari in high school and has remained close friends with the UK coach since the two were together at Clarion State. He’s also the patriarch of a successful basketball family. Two of his sons, Dave and Kyle, aspired to be high school coaches, and they’ve been successful at that level.
Dave DeGregorio is Isaac’s father and head coach at North Catholic, which Isaac led to the state quarterfinals before the season was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“He wants to coach on the college side,” Dave DeGregorio said of his son. “I think he has an opportunity to learn everything. He can see how guys are recruited. He can see the X’s and O’s — how practices are run. How the offseason is run. How the strength and conditioning is run. He’s gotta go in with the understanding that he needs to understand how all of it works and comes together and go from there.”
Isaac’s grandfather said he got a call from Calipari shortly after the commitment was announced. Calipari wanted to check on his longtime friend and his wife, Emmy, amid the concerns over COVID-19. Joe DeGregorio said he and his wife are doing fine in Pennsylvania. And he was eager to talk about his grandson.
“I told (Calipari) that I’m excited that he decided to go to Kentucky,” he said. “We’re very happy. I think it’s a good decision. It’s a great university. And I think he’s gonna be playing for a great coach. He’s got a great work ethic. He’s out there taking his couple hundred shots a day. He’s got a court behind his house that his dad put in many, many years ago.
“It’s too bad I’m not younger and not still at Clarion State … because I would be recruiting him.”
DeGregorio said he was asked earlier in the day how his grandson compares to Calipari as a high-schooler.
“Well,” he said, drawing out his reply with a slight chuckle … “My grandson’s better.”
Dave DeGregorio knows it’s a cliche, but he says it’s one that describes his son on the court.
“You hate to say it, but he’s sort of a coach’s kid,” he said. “He’s a high-IQ kid who shoots it well. He understands players’ roles and what his role will be there. He’s a fun player to watch. He gets after it.”
Isaac averaged 17.3 points per game this past season and is a major threat from three-point range, making nearly 300 threes — at about a 40% rate — over the course of his high school career. He put up those numbers despite missing a chunk of his sophomore season after undergoing heart surgery, a procedure that led to four days in the hospital — two in intensive care — and threatened his season altogether.
Instead, DeGregorio was back on the court about a month after the surgery. He had lost more than 10 pounds, and he wasn’t at 100%, but he was playing. By his junior year, he was back to full strength, and his play since earned him scholarship offers and ongoing interest from several Division II and III basketball programs.
Dave DeGregorio said his son has been talking about pursuing a career in college coaching for a couple of years now. Two of Joe DeGregorio’s grandsons — including Isaac’s older brother — have graduated previously from the University of Kentucky. That connection — and Joe’s friendship with Calipari — led the family to take several trips to Lexington.
Calipari extended the preferred walk-on offer during such a visit last year, and Isaac has been thinking about it ever since, even when opportunities for considerable playing time came from other colleges.
“I think he’s gotta just — and he will — go in with the mindset of, ‘How do I help every day?’ You go in, and you be the hardest worker, and you just figure out ways that you can help the program,” his father said. “He’s beyond excited. He’s been walking around with a little bounce in his step.”
Isaac knows that his future on the court at Kentucky is likely to come primarily as a practice player. He’s embracing that role as he looks forward to, hopefully, a future beyond that on the sidelines. His grandfather, however, won’t be surprised if he earns a larger role during his college days.
“He makes his team better,” said Joe DeGregorio. “He shares the ball quite well, and he’s very knowledgeable about the game. He grew up in a basketball family. And my son put a lot of time in with him. … I hope he surprises a few people.
“He wants to get better, and, who knows, by the time he’s a junior in college, he just might be able to contribute a little bit.”
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