UK Men's Basketball

‘He’s a unicorn’: Top UK basketball target James Wiseman just getting better. Do Cats still lead?

James Wiseman is the No. 1 basketball recruit in the class of 2019.
James Wiseman is the No. 1 basketball recruit in the class of 2019. Nike

All of those things that James Wiseman did to earn the title of No. 1 basketball recruit in the class of 2019? He’s still doing them, now better than ever.

Wiseman — a 6-foot-11 power forward from Nashville — led Memphis East High School to a Tennessee state championship over the weekend, scoring 14 points in the first quarter of the title game to send East on their way to the crown.

247Sports director of recruiting Evan Daniels was at the state tournament to evaluate Wiseman, who was moved to the No. 1 spot in the 247 rankings earlier this season. That ranking is not in jeopardy.

“He looked great,” Daniels told the Herald-Leader on Monday. “I think he’s the clear No. 1 prospect in 2019. He has all the physical tools. The offense is starting to come, and he’s versatile on that end with his ability to score on the block or facing the rim. He impacts things on defense. I think he’s the best prospect in the country.”

Still just 16 years old — Wiseman won’t turn 17 until later this month — there’s seemingly no ceiling to his talent level. He’s the rare post player who already impacts the game on both ends of the court. He’s a hard-working, energetic presence on defense, using phenomenal length with that nearly-7-foot frame to alter shots and dominate the boards.

The quickness with which he eats up empty space defensively and closes on opponents is reminiscent of former UK star Anthony Davis, someone the Wildcats’ coaching staff has told Wiseman he reminds them of.

“He’s a unicorn,” Daniels said. “The physical gifts are there, across the board. Whether it’s the length or the athleticism or the mobility, he’s the full package in terms of the physical gifts.

“And when you throw in how skilled he’s becoming, it’s impressive.”

Wiseman’s offensive game continues to evolve, and he has the look of a player who — by the time he gets to college — will be able to score confidently in many different ways around the basket.

“He’s a guy you can throw to on the block and he can go over either shoulder,” Daniels said. “He’s got really good hands. He’s got tremendous touch. He can face the rim and make a mid-range jump shot. I think he’s especially good with his left hand around the goal. He continues to improve his footwork. He’s active on the glass, and he’s able to go get offensive rebounds. So he can score the ball in a variety of ways.”

So, where will the No. 1 player in the junior class end up playing his college ball?

For the past several months, the answer to that question was almost certainly going to be Kentucky. The UK coaching staff honed in on Wiseman long before he elevated to the No. 1 ranking, and he was the first player from the 2019 class to earn a UK scholarship offer.

Wiseman, who grew up admiring John Calipari and the Wildcats in Nashville, hasn’t been shy about his love for the UK program and hasn’t said much to dissuade the predictions by recruiting experts that he’d eventually be a Cat.

That recruitment is now complicated by the presence of Penny Hardaway, who is expected to be named head coach of the Memphis Tigers on Tuesday.

Wiseman moved from a St. Louis-based Nike program to Hardaway’s Team Penny squad last May, playing out the rest of the summer with that team. Then, he decided to transfer from his high school in Nashville so he could play this season at Memphis East, which is also coached by Hardaway.

Daniels, admittedly cautious with recruiting predictions, logged a Crystal Ball pick in favor of Kentucky for Wiseman last fall. He said Monday that he’s not ready to change that prediction just yet.

“I think we’re going to have to wait and see,” Daniels said. “Honestly, I don’t know that I would switch them from being the leader. But you do have to respect that Penny Hardaway is going to Memphis, and he’s coached him for a year. So they’re certainly going to be a factor in it.”

UK already has a commitment from another Team Penny player — highly touted small forward D.J. Jeffries, who told the Herald-Leader last week that he will be actively recruiting Wiseman to UK and that a Hardaway-to-Memphis move would have no impact on his own recruitment. (Both Wiseman and Jeffries have been the subject of reclassification rumors, but both have recently said they won’t be moving to the 2018 class).

Calipari, who hasn’t signed a top-five national recruit in the past three cycles and hasn’t signed the consensus No. 1 prospect since 2012, certainly won’t be conceding Wiseman to Memphis just because Hardaway will be the Tigers’ new coach.

Daniels acknowledged the recruitment is now a two-team battle. It’s clearly UK vs. Memphis for the No. 1 player in the country.

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know why anybody would say anything else.”

Memphis East Head Coach Penny Hardaway talks about his star player, top UK recruiting target James Wiseman.