Sitting neatly in a row across a folding table sit three hats. Each adorns a different college athletic logo, signifying options for the biggest decision an 18-year-old will make: Choosing who has the luxury of earning the teenager’s athletic ability on their school basketball court.
It’s a moment that’s earned through hours in the gym, on the court, and even more hours driven across the city, state or country to earn the attention of scouts and get into the national recruiting narrative. Behind the table is someone who’s so far lived under the protective bubble of their sports-infused world and a small room in their parent’s house.
Next to the future college student are parents, siblings, coaches, and anyone important enough to get a spot on the other side of the camera phone capturing personal history. As hats are picked up, put down, tried on, and placed back off of the player’s head, it's blasted live across social media. The stream elicits moments of pride, expectancy, and anxiety disguised as engagement.
After a hat is chosen, tears are shed and hearts, thumbs up, and sad face emojis fly across the screen, what’s left is an expectation of rigorous athletic focus balanced with a full-time college student workload. It's the first step down the road that segues the young star from a high school prodigy to a soon-to-be full-time adult.
When the attention diminishes and the real work begins, it’s lonely. Imagine moving away from home for the first time away from friends and family. It’s tough. Enter Jalen Powell.
Letting Kids Be Kids
Ohio State women’s basketball assistant coach Jalen Powell’s official job responsibilities can’t be pinned down to one or two things. On the court, Powell works with the guards, alongside assistant head coach Carla Morrow who runs game planning. That’s during practices and games, but it stretches far beyond what fans see on the court.
“I do a lot of different external stuff. I help out with our social media. I help out with our marketing,” said Powell. “But, I also do a lot of recruiting.”
With a mixed bag of things needing to be done each day, Powell’s days are never the same. After going through emails each morning, the focus shifts to practice. After practice, Powell pivots to helping the social media team and going through her list of recruits.
Powell joined Ohio State before the 21/22 season, coming over from an assistant coaching role at one of the largest HBCUs in the nation, Florida A&M. In Powell’s time so far in Columbus, the coach’s work in building relationships with players, parents, and coaches is yielding results.
The 2024 class features many commits who got on the Buckeyes’ radar through Powell. The team’s class so far features 6-foot-4 forward Ella Hobbs (No. 89 in ESPN’s Top-100 2024 recruits), guard Ava Watson (No. 49), forward Sieni Hicks, and 6-foot-6 Finnish center Elsa Lemmilä.
It’s not all Powell, who finds recruits and fosters relationships while bringing head coach Kevin McGuff into the conversations, who has the ultimate final decision-making authority. Powell is careful though in how she recruits. It’s not a text-a-day relationship, pressuring a high schooler into becoming a Buckeye.
“I’m not someone who’s going to text you 20 times throughout the day. I’m a very big believer in kids being kids,” said Powell. “The recruiting period is a transition for everybody. Their families, themselves, and their coaches. A lot of these kids are maybe one of the best players they ever had in their town or their city. So it’s kind of a big transition for everyone involved.”
Powell puts the power in the hands of the recruits and key stakeholders like parents and coaches. After establishing how everyone wants to communicate when Powell sticks to it and makes sure all other coaches involved know it. It’s a small detail on the surface, but it only scratches the surface of the trust Powell builds with people.
That trust isn’t an ulterior motive to earn a recruit either. For Powell, that trust is authentic to who she is, and it’s what sets the coach apart.
A Dog with Pink Paws
Powell didn’t play college basketball like many of her coaching peers but has experience dating back to the moment she joined the human race. In a biographical feature back in 2021 with The Lantern, Powell discussed her basketball upbringing, raised by a dad who didn’t only love basketball but it’s his life.
Growing up in New York, Powell learned the game from her dad Jerry Powell, and his training organization “Basketball Results.” Jerry Powell brings experience working with both NBA and WNBA players to all ages of the game, and Jalen was around for all of it. It turned into Powell coaching sibling’s teams and shifting that love to college as a team manager.
What makes Powell so authentic isn’t all of that basketball Xs and Os knowledge. Anyone recruiting in the NCAA should be able to talk basketball. Powell talks the language of a college athlete because Powell isn’t far removed from college herself.
Graduating from the University of Mississippi in 2017, Powell spent the next six years around the game and forming relationships, working closely alongside basketball players. All Powell’s life she’s formed relationships with basketball players. To Powell, relationships are vital.
“I don’t think people realize the foundation relationship holds,” said Powell. “I think people overlook it. I think a lot of times in this profession you’ll see kids go to universities and you’ll be like, ‘OK, what was that about?’ and it’s usually about a relationship. Then sometimes you see kids leave universities and you’re like, ‘OK, what was that about?’ and it’s the lack of a relationship.”
That relationship-building ability for Powell helps in a different kind of recruiting that garners big attention: The transfer portal.
In the summer of 2023, it was Powell who helped Ohio State be one of the more active teams in the portal.
“When I put my name in the portal, JP (Powell’s nickname) followed me on Instagram but she was already recruiting my little sister,” said transfer guard Kennedy Cambridge, sister of No. 3 ranked 2024 prospect Jaloni Cambridge. “At this point, I’m in the portal and she’s on the phone with my sister and she has this dog. I don’t know what it is. It’s tiny and it's white and it has pink paws and pink ears. She put it on her Instagram story and so I slid up and was like, ‘There ain’t no way.’ Then boom, we started talking.”
Powell didn’t see the sister of a highly-touted recruit but a young player, Cambridge is only a sophomore, who plays with high energy and a menace on the defensive side of the ball. Something treasured by McGuff and his high-intensity pressing defense. At the time, Ohio State already brought in two transfers from Power Five schools, but the Buckeyes had one scholarship left.
The coach did what she does best and got to know Cambridge. Although their personalities were different, Powell found a lot of similarities between her and the guard departing the Kentucky Wildcats program. The feeling was reciprocated.
“As I kept getting to talk to her, I learned that she cares more about what you want to be as a person rather than what you can do on the basketball court,” said Cambridge. “She wants you to be the best version of yourself and she’s going to do whatever it takes to help you be the best version of yourself.”
Entering Ohio State, Cambridge couldn’t practice right away, not beginning team practices until the middle of August after committing to the Buckeyes on May 24, with plenty of time before summer practice. Being able to play didn’t matter to Powell, as she kept working with Cambridge not on basketball things but all of the other responsibilities that come with transferring schools and getting established. Life things.
It’s not lip service. The proof is in how players respond to the coach. While hundreds of incoming freshmen and transfers are posting their commitments in team jerseys and alongside head coaches, who was Cambridge standing next to when the Buckeyes became her team?
“I feel like in my last school, from a coaching standpoint, it was different,” said Cambridge. “JP brings something that I didn’t have at Kentucky. And I’m not going to say they didn’t care about me, but it’s a different care over here.”
Another transfer, one of the biggest in the NCAA in 2023, was guard ACC Defensive Player of the Year Celeste Taylor. The relationship work of Powell wasn’t needed when Taylor’s name went into the transfer portal; it already dates back 12 years.
Taylor, who walked into Jerry Powell’s training company as an unknown middle schooler, met JP early. They both grew up in the gym and as they grew older, Taylor saw Powell leave, go to college, graduate, and start her path to eventually landing at Ohio State.
However, once Powell joined the coaching ranks, and Taylor went off to Texas, and then Duke, the relationship changed. With NCAA recruiting rules, Powell and Taylor had more distance between themselves, but the relationship they built didn’t diminish.
“She’d always be there to support me but it was never come play for me,” said Taylor. “Just to know she supported me no matter what I did it showed our relationship and our bound.”
When Taylor entered the transfer portal though, the decision was easy. After two failed recruiting attempts by the Buckeyes, Taylor knew when she joined the portal that she wanted to be in scarlet and gray with JP. While Taylor and Powell still have a strong bond, now that they’re both in the program chasing a national championship, their relationship has changed again.
“It’s a sister thing off the court but on the court, I have, and so do all the other girls, have a respect that she is our coach and she wants the best for us and she wants to work with us,” said Taylor. “It’s so funny because I can see her dad in her. And she’ll always deny it but it's really so funny. It takes me back to when I was younger.”
Recruiting freshman and transfers takes up a lot of time. It’s easy to imagine a coach with all the responsibilities of leading at Ohio State to stay in their lane. Powell isn’t that kind of coach. After all, relationships don’t end when a player steps onto the court ready to play for the Buckeyes.
Powell prides herself on being available for all 15 players on the roster, not only those she’s recruited or known since childhood. There are two tools key in Powell’s work with players on the scarlet and gray roster: Her phone and house.
At any time of the night, players can call Powell.
“If you call her at 1 a.m., she’s going to answer,” said Cambridge. “Anything you need, she’s going to be there no matter what. She’ll be asleep at 8 o’clock but I’m going to call her at 10:30 and she’s going to answer.”
Her home is as open as when her players can call.
College basketball is a year-round sport with offseason conditioning, summer practices, and then the rigor of the September to potentially April grind of practices, games, and travel. Anytime there are basketball players on campus, they’re likely stopping by JP’s house, especially if you like baked goods.
“She makes sure those who can’t go home she cooks and has dinner for us,” said veteran Buckeyes guard Rikki Harris. “We go to her house and bake. At Thanksgiving, she has people over who can’t go home for it.”
Throughout the season, Powell also hosts baking competitions at her home, with everyone on the squad invited.
“It’s just freaking chaotic,” said Powell. “It just gets fun. It’s fun to have them around. It’s fun to be in their energy. It’s fun to know them outside of basketball because they’re so bright and they’re so full of energy and just they have so much life in them.”
Coach Powell won’t divulge who’s the worst baker, but teammates aren’t as bashful.
“I’d have to say Jacy (Sheldon) because I know Jacy does not cook,” said Harris. “She could do it. She could read the instructions but I would say Jacy because I know she doesn’t cook.”
Even if baking isn’t Sheldon’s forte, Powell knows that the guard loves sweets and will eat a cookie at 8 o’clock in the morning if one was given to her. JP knows it because she knows her players, and also happens to bring in sweets.
“Yesterday I brought him pumpkin muffins because they love pumpkin, chocolate chip, pumpkin muffins,” said Powell.
It’s not only the beautiful chaos of 15 basketball players in Powell’s kitchen but one-on-one time with the team’s best baker, junior Taylor Thierry.
The soft-spoken rising star for the Buckeyes out of Cleveland, Ohio comes to Powell’s place often, giving Thierry a place to spend time with someone who off the court carries similar traits to a best friend than a coach.
There could be issues with a coach-as-a-friend relationship if all the coach wants to do is be a friend, but the respect built off the court means players also respect Powell on the court, when its time for the team to get to work.
“She’s also a big ball of energy. Her personality is contagious,” said Cambridge. “She’s going to laugh, she’s going to dance with you but when it comes time for business she’s going to get serious.”
“She’s going to be on you,” said Harris. “JP is down to play with you but when it is time to focus and you’re messing around she’ll let you know you’re messing around and I like that about her.”
Coming In At The Right Time
When Powell joined the Buckeyes, the program was in a time of transition. McGuff hired Powell soon after bringing in fellow assistant coach Wesley Brooks, and at the same time promoted coach Morrow to associate head coach. It was following Ohio State’s final year of sanctions due to past recruiting violations. Violations where former assistant Patrick Klein paid for players' manicures, textbooks for non-scholarship players, and more.
For a player like Harris who joined the Buckeyes in 2019, Powell’s inclusion in the team was a breath of fresh air.
“She does everything for us. She wants to see us thrive off the court, on the court, at home,” said Harris. “She’s not much older than some of us, so she understands a lot of what we do, what we go through at this age because she’s been through it recently but we also respect her as a coach, even though she’s younger.”
Now it’s not all Powell, but since the coaching staff changed, Ohio State’s gone from a team losing starters in the transfer portal to winning a share of the Big Ten regular season championship in 2022 and making it to the Elite Eight in 2023.
Powell tells the team that this isn’t only a personal legacy but creating the legacy of the Ohio State Buckeyes. For years it was the 1993 team that made it to the NCAA National Championship game with legend Katie Smith. Then there are individual standout stars over the years like Kelsey Mitchell and Jantel Lavender, even if the team overall wasn’t performing at the top of the NCAA.
Today, McGuff, Powell, and the staff are about creating a new history.
“Everyone talks about UConn. Everyone talks about South Carolina and what they’ve developed over the years and two great programs, you know, super historic,” said Powell. “You know, they had to go through this to get to that and it’s like we’re kind of on that same brink as far as a culture piece.”
The culture of the Buckeyes is welcoming. Taylor’s already become a leader on the team and transfers like Cambridge could tell a difference right away. A difference between a program that focuses on winning and a program that’s focused on building relationships while winning.
When recruits pick up the Ohio State hat live on Instagram these days, it’s partly because of Powell. When recruits become successful players and, more importantly, humans in the program, it’s because of the legacy Powell is helping create.