The Penny Hardaway experiment in Memphis will undoubtedly be one of the most interesting storylines in college basketball over the next few years.
The former Tigers star and local legend has already energized the fan base, but will he really be able to pull in top recruits? And can Hardaway — a successful high school coach and Nike summer team architect — actually lead a program at the highest level of college ball?
A University of Kentucky basketball family that knows him well has no doubts about his future success.
UK freshman PJ Washington played three summers with Team Penny — Hardaway’s club on the Nike circuit — while in high school, and he sat in the Wildcats locker room at the NCAA Tournament regional site here Wednesday and gave a rousing endorsement for Hardaway’s future at Memphis.
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“I was happy for him,” Washington told the Herald-Leader. “He’s been one of my favorite coaches of my whole life. He’s been a great mentor to me, and just seeing him get that job brought me excitement.
“He’s a down to earth guy, and he just loves being around kids. He loves helping them. Playing for him really showed me how to be a man — how to do things on my own.”
Washington’s mother, Sherry, and Hardaway are first cousins, and Sherry grew up in Memphis before playing college basketball at Middle Tennessee State, which is also where her husband and PJ’s father, Paul Washington, played his college ball.
He’s definitely for the kids first. There’s no selfish bone in his body.
Paul Washington, PJ’s father
Paul, the head coach at Findlay Prep (Nev.), spent plenty of time around Hardaway and Team Penny during his son’s summers with the program.
“I’m excited for him,” Paul Washington told the Herald-Leader this week. “I know that was one of his goals. He wanted to win AAU, then eventually win high school championships and then eventually go on to college. So I’m excited for him. I’m excited for the city of Memphis. He’ll definitely have that whole recruiting on lock.
“I don’t see too many people getting outside of the state of Tennessee from here on out.”
Washington noted that — “other than John Calipari” — folks outside Memphis haven’t heard much about the proud Tigers’ basketball program in recent years. In the nine seasons since Calipari left Memphis, the team has never advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and the Tigers haven’t even made a tournament appearance in the last four years.
Hardaway’s hiring alone has already caused ripples in recruiting circles, with national analysts logging predictions that highly touted prospects — like top UK target and No. 1 junior James Wiseman — would end up at Memphis as a result.
The latest buzz Thursday was that Hardaway would be paying a visit to top-10 recruit Ashton Hagans, another UK target and a player that is considering a move to the class of 2018, which would allow him to play college ball next season.
PJ Washington, who said he would have considered playing his college ball for Hardaway, talked up the former superstar’s credentials as a recruiter.
“He’s an NBA All-Star,” he said. “Playing for him is going to be easy for a lot of guys, especially point guards. I feel like with recruiting, he won’t have a problem. I mean, he’s Penny Hardaway. A lot of guys want to play for him.”
PJ’s father echoed that sentiment.
“He’s a player’s coach,” Paul Washington said. “Obviously, he’ll have an in with the players, because he’s coached on the Nike EYBL circuit. For all the ones that have never seen him play, they know him from there. It doesn’t hurt the fact that he’s got some shoes with his name on them — that doesn’t hurt with these young guys. And you look at the parents, like my age, we all know who he is. We either played against him or saw him play. So I think he’s hitting all different levels.”
PJ, who was born in 1998, acknowledged he had no memories of Hardaway playing in his prime and said he didn’t really know him until he started playing for Team Penny, despite being related to the former NBA star. He, like pretty much any basketball player his age, did know about the shoes, however.
“A lot of guys … used to want all of his shoes,” he said with a smile. “A lot of kids want to wear his shoes.”
So he still has the cool factor. He should be a formidable recruiter. But, can he coach?
Over the weekend, Hardaway led Memphis East High School to its third consecutive state title. Major college basketball will be a much bigger jump.
“I feel like he won’t have a problem at all,” PJ Washington said. “He’s a point guard, and point guards know the ins and outs of the game. He knows as much as any coach at a high level.”
Whether Hardaway’s former pupil is correct will probably take a few seasons to figure out. For the time being, Memphis basketball is a big deal again, and Calipari could have a formidable recruiting foe for the foreseeable future.
When Hardaway hits the trail this spring and summer, he’ll have quite the story to tell top prospects and their parents, not just in Memphis, but all over the country. And, like the Washington family has come to respect, that pitch will be grounded in a players-first approach.
“He doesn’t have to do it,” Paul Washington said. “He’s still got a Nike contract. He doesn’t have to do that. For him to come back to his home city, to the university that he played at and got a degree from — you can’t say enough about that. He could go anywhere in the country, and he decided to live in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s huge.
“He’s definitely for the kids first. There’s no selfish bone in his body. … His goal is to get PJ and all those other kids better, and for them to play the right way and get to the next level. And if you buy in to it, then you’ll be successful. I’m glad that my son got a chance to play for him.”