Jeffries is a 6-foot-8 junior forward from Olive Branch, Miss., which is located just across the Tennessee border from the basketball hotbed of Memphis, where Calipari, of course, coached for nine seasons before coming to Lexington.
Residing in Memphis these days is James Wiseman, a 6-11 power forward — originally from Nashville — and the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2019.
Off the court, Jeffries — the No. 26 overall recruit in the 2019 class — are friends. On the court, they’ve been teammates on the Nike circuit with Team Penny, one of the top summer clubs in the country and a squad coached by former NBA star Penny Hardaway.
Jeffries told the Herald-Leader and others at the Marshall County Hoop Fest in December that he’s a big fan of Wiseman’s game.
“James, he’s a great player. He’s got a nice little jump shot, great feel for the game. He’s a good all-around player,” Jeffries said. “Playing with James, he gets me better and I get him better. It’s a blessing being able to play with one of the top players in the country.”
On Monday night, just minutes after he had announced his own commitment to UK’s 2019 class, Jeffries told the Herald-Leader he’d be working on getting Wiseman to join him.
“I haven’t been talking to him lately, because we’ve both been trying to win state championships,” Jeffries said. “So I’m just letting him focus on that. But, during the summer, I’m going to talk to him. I’m going to be recruiting him.”
Jeffries led his team to a Mississippi state title Saturday night. Wiseman, who plays for Hardaway at Memphis East High School, will play for a Tennessee state title later this week.
247Sports director of recruiting Evan Daniels said Monday that he wasn’t sure how much of an impact Jeffries’ decision to commit to UK would have on Wiseman, who — even if he reclassified to 2018, something that’s been rumored but he’s denied — wouldn’t be eligible for the NBA Draft until 2020 based on the league’s current age restrictions. That means the two players would play at least one season together, if Wiseman picks the Cats.
Daniels is standing by his previous opinions on Wiseman’s recruitment.
“I think Kentucky is the leader for James Wiseman right now, but he’s never come out and said that he is close to making his college choice,” he said Monday.
Complicating the matter is the situation at Memphis, where Tubby Smith is wrapping up his second season amid growing discontent among the fan base, which is clamoring for the school to hire Hardaway — a former star, hometown hero, and local high school coach — as the head coach of the Tigers.
The Commercial Appeal reported Monday that Smith is expected to meet with university officials Tuesday, and the coach’s job security could be a subject of that meeting.
In the past few days, there have been rampant reports that Memphis athletics officials have been exploring the idea of replacing Smith with Hardaway, and Smith’s lawyer publicly questioned whether Hardaway was preventing local recruits from committing to Smith due to his interest in the job.
A Rivals.com analyst put Smith’s chances of being the Memphis head coach next season at 40 percent in a post over the weekend.
There’s been speculation that a Hardaway hire would pay immediate dividends on the recruiting trail for the Tigers, but Jeffries’ decision to go ahead and commit to Calipari and UK — though the pledge is not yet binding — is one sign that Penny might not have a complete stranglehold on the area’s top stars.
Jeffries praised Hardaway for the positive impact the Memphis legend has had on his life, but he told the Herald-Leader that any coaching change at the local university would have no effect on his recruitment.
“Me and Penny, we have a good relationship,” Jeffries said. “If I wasn’t committed, I probably would have considered it. But now that I’m committed, I just wish Penny and Memphis the best. Penny was a big help, because he taught me a lot during the summer. And I’ll still learn a lot from him this summer. But, now, I’m all about Kentucky.”
It’s also not clear that Wiseman would be a slam dunk to Memphis if Hardaway ends up there. Multiple recruiting analysts have told the Herald-Leader that UK would still have a good chance to land the No. 1 recruit as long as Calipari is the Cats’ coach.
On all fronts, fans on both sides will just have to wait and see.
“We don’t fully know how this Tubby Smith-Penny Hardaway thing is going to play out,” Daniels said. “I just think there are a lot of dynamics here that we’re not privy to.”