UK Men's Basketball

‘I’m thankful to have someone like him’: What Penny to Memphis means for UK and recruiting

Former NBA guard Penny Hardaway coached Team Penny during the Nike EYBL event in 2015 in Lexington.
Former NBA guard Penny Hardaway coached Team Penny during the Nike EYBL event in 2015 in Lexington. Herald-Leader

Penny Hardaway is officially the new head coach of the Memphis Tigers, a move that’s been discussed in college basketball circles for months and is sure to have an impact on the national recruiting scene.

UK is the program that might be most affected by Hardaway’s hire, at least in the short term.

“It’s an intriguing hire for a variety of reasons,” 247Sports director of recruiting Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “The detractors are going to say that he’s never coached a college game, but he also has unique experiences as one of the great NBA players. He was a USA Basketball player. He has a bunch of relationships with some top high school players in the country. So I’m intrigued to see how it works out.”

Hardaway — a star player at Memphis in the 1990s and one of the most popular players in the NBA for several seasons after that — has most recently been the head coach at Memphis East High School and the architect of Team Penny, a Nike league summer squad and one of the most successful programs in grassroots basketball.

He was also an on-court instructor at USA Basketball’s junior minicamp in October, an event that included many of the top young recruits in the country.

Two of Team Penny’s star players last summer were James Wiseman and D.J. Jeffries, the first two prospects from the class of 2019 to receive UK scholarship offers.

Jeffries committed to Kentucky last week, and recruiting analysts have been predicting for months that UK was, by far, the most likely landing spot for Wiseman, who’s ranked as the No. 1 player in the 2019 class.

Daniels told the Herald-Leader this week that Hardaway’s hire won’t necessarily lead him to change his prediction of Wiseman to UK, but he acknowledged the move will make Memphis a formidable foe — and the only real competition — for UK in Wiseman’s recruitment.

Wiseman has been with Hardaway for less than a year, but there’s obviously already a strong bond between coach and player. The 6-foot-11 forward moved from a St. Louis-based Nike program to Team Penny in late May, midway through the Nike season. Wiseman then transferred from his Nashville high school so he could play for Hardaway this season at Memphis East.

Jeffries started playing for Team Penny at the beginning of last spring, though he stuck with Olive Branch (Miss.) High School in the Memphis area instead of transferring schools. He committed to UK last Monday, two days after leading Olive Branch to a state championship, and grew up rooting for John Calipari’s teams, both at Memphis and Kentucky.

Some UK fans have voiced concerns that Jeffries will flip his commitment to Memphis, but Daniels pointed out that — by the time of Jeffries’ pledge to UK — pretty much everyone assumed Hardaway would be the head coach of the Tigers next season.

Jeffries told the Herald-Leader last week that he’d be sticking with the Wildcats.

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D.J. Jeffries is the No. 26 overall prospect in the 2019 class. The Clarion Ledger

“Me and Penny, we have a good relationship,” he 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. … But, now, I’m all about Kentucky.”

Jeffries did talk at length about what lures high school players to Hardaway, however, and the former NBA star’s demeanor, experience and recent past with Team Penny will surely help him on the recruiting trail.

“Obviously, he’s a Hall of Fame player. He’s been an all-star. He knows what it takes to get to the NBA, and that’s where everybody’s trying to go,” Jeffries said. “So everybody pretty much looks up to him.”

The UK commitment called Hardaway “pretty much” the biggest celebrity in the basketball-crazed city of Memphis, which regularly churns out top high school talent.

“Wherever he goes, there’s a big crowd. People trying to take pictures and trying to talk to him,” Jeffries said. “He has to go through backdoors to avoid some of that. But he’s a very humble person. He’s down to earth. If you need him, you can call him and talk to him about anything. He’s a reasonable person, and I’m thankful to have someone like him in my life to help me with my decision. Help me get better and go to the promised land where I’m trying to get.”

That “promised land” is the NBA, of course. Calipari’s own success of getting players to the pros is one of the primary reasons that Jeffries picked the Cats last week. If Wiseman follows suit, it will be one his deciding factors, too.

Hardaway has his own NBA pedigree — he was a four-time All-Star with the Orlando Magic — but, since he’s never been a college coach, he doesn’t yet have the track record of sending players to the league.

His coaching staff at Memphis is expected to include some big names with ample experience. Coaching great Larry Brown has been among the rumored candidates — although that’s looking less likely by the day — and current UK assistant coach Tony Barbee has also been mentioned as a possibility.

Barbee was known as an ace recruiter under Calipari at Memphis before embarking on his own head coaching career, then re-joining Calipari at Kentucky. He’s the lead assistant in Jeffries’ recruitment, though his departure shouldn’t have any impact on that commitment. Barbee was not the lead recruiter on any of UK’s 2018 signees, and Joel Justus has done most of the early work in the Cats’ recruitment of Wiseman.

Hardaway’s coaching staff will work itself out over the next few weeks, but the success of the Tigers’ program over the next few seasons will fall primarily on him.

From a recruiting standpoint, Hardaway is expected to be a force. Top recruits like Wiseman, who was born in 2001, won’t have any personal memories of Hardaway’s prime playing days, but the parents, coaches and others around these prospects surely will.

Often in recruiting, sparking that initial interest is the toughest task. Hardaway shouldn’t have that problem.

“His name is going to get him in the door,” Daniels said. “There’s a brand awareness, and he already has established relationships with guys across the board. He has relationships, and I think he’s going to be able to recruit.”

“The brand awareness is there. He’s going to be able to get in doors that not everyone can. And that’s going to be valuable for him.”

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