UK Recruiting

UK or Memphis? Why top basketball recruit James Wiseman could end up with the Tigers.

James Wiseman is the No. 1 player in the 2019 composite rankings.
James Wiseman is the No. 1 player in the 2019 composite rankings. Nike

Ever since Memphis hired its former star player, Penny Hardaway, as its new basketball coach, the narrative on five-star prospect James Wiseman’s recruitment has been a simple one.

It’s either Memphis or Kentucky, and no one seems to have a great handle on who the leader is, if one exists at all.

When national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer changed his prediction for Wiseman from UK to Memphis last week, it turned the 6-foot-11 power forward’s recruitment into a literal tossup, according to his 247Sports Crystal Ball page.

Fifty percent of the predictions went to the Tigers. Fifty percent to the Cats.

Meyer spoke to the Herald-Leader about his switch this week, pointing out that he’s “not at all” counting out John Calipari just yet. But …

“I just think the chances are better he goes to Memphis than Kentucky. It’s hard to quantify,” he said. “A lot of this, obviously, is connecting the dots. But it would be hard for me to see him not going to Memphis.”

The reason for that, of course, is Hardaway, the former Memphis star, NBA standout and, until last month, a major figure in AAU circles and a state champion as a high school coach.

The relationship between Wiseman — the No. 1 prospect in the 2019 class — and Hardaway is well known to anyone who follows recruiting. Wiseman joined Hardaway’s Nike squad last summer — Team Penny — and liked him so much that he moved from Ensworth School in his hometown of Nashville to play for Hardaway at Memphis East, where the two teamed up to win a state title last month.

“How many players would leave a school like Ensworth in Nashville — it’s a state-of-the-art school, as far as your environment and your education and everything,” said Meyer, who lives in Nashville. “He has a really strong relationship with Penny Hardaway. … It’s just hard for me to see him picking up from Memphis to go to college somewhere else, when he made a commitment in high school to go there.”

Wiseman and his mother have talked plenty about his recruitment in recent weeks, but they haven’t really given any hints on the final destination. UK or Memphis?

They have been clear on a couple of things. Wiseman, who just turned 17 years old last month, is not going to reclassify to 2018 and play college basketball next season. And he’s also sticking at Memphis East, instead of heading off to a prep school with a national schedule — a popular rumor in recruiting circles — for his senior season.

If Wiseman does indeed stay in Memphis, where his family has now moved and his sister attends college, he’ll have a front row seat for the Pennymania that has already gripped that basketball-crazed city.

“He’s a god in Memphis,” Meyer said of Hardaway. “Well, that’s where James Wiseman is living now. He’s going to Memphis East. He played for Penny. And if he already likes the guy so much and likes playing for him as a coach, it’s just hard to see him walking away from that.

“Memphis is a basketball city. Obviously Lexington is, too. In Memphis, you just have this inner-city love of basketball and pride about basketball. Memphis, I’m telling you, is a special basketball city. Penny has now galvanized that city and brought it back to their love of the old Memphis State era. There’s a special identity, brand and legacy to Memphis basketball, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that.”

Another thing many basketball fans who were old enough to watch Hardaway as a player but have no connection to the current grassroots basketball scene probably don’t understand is the relevance he still has with recruits and younger players.

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Hardaway is 46 years old. He was the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA Draft in 1993 and his last season as an all-star was 20 years ago. Still, his involvement with youth basketball carries clout with a younger generation.

“Nationally, people are like, ‘He played so long ago.’ Dude, these kids know who he is,” Meyer said. “These kids know a guy like Penny probably better than a present-day player like Damian Lillard. They don’t sit around and watch TV like old people like me. They’re on their phones. They’re looking at highlights. They’re looking at the old Penny commercials. They’re looking at 2 Chainz wearing a Penny Hardaway shirt during his show on Viceland. They’re taking in the world differently.

“So, for old people like us who are like, ‘Man, I can’t even believe these kids know Penny.’ They freaking probably know Penny better than people who are 50 years old do.”

And in Memphis, everyone knows Penny.

Hardaway has spent the past few weeks recruiting on behalf of the Tigers. He has hired Mike Miller — another former NBA player with deep roots in youth basketball — as one of his assistant coaches. He doesn’t have the credentials as a college coach just yet, but he’s bringing a unique presence to living rooms on the recruiting trail.

“Penny has a presence. He’s a 6-9, looks like an NBA basketball player,” Meyer said. “Him and Mike Miller walk in a room, can you imagine? And the great coaches have that — like a Calipari or a Coach K. Bill Self, Roy Williams, Izzo. Obviously, they have a presence. But it’s not the presence of a 6-9 NBA basketball player. There’s a strong connection and ability to relate to Penny, because he’s viewed as a player. He’s viewed as ‘one of us.’ Not as ‘my dad’ or ‘my granddad’, but as ‘my older brother.’ The older brother who you idolized, and you feel like, ‘Man, he’s like me.’”

If Wiseman hangs around Memphis for another season, he’ll be living and playing in Hardaway’s backyard. He’ll be hearing how great Hardaway is. He’ll surely hear that he, like Hardaway did 25 years ago, could be the one to help turn around a proud program. And he’ll be hearing it from everyone.

“Memphis is a unique city,” Meyer said. “And they freakin’ love basketball there. There’s an inner-city feel to it. There’s a strong black community in the city. The one thing everyone in Memphis can get along with is Memphis basketball. That city loves basketball, and the different communities come together in support of it. I think recruits are going to feel that and think, ‘I can be a part of building something special.’ Or rebuilding something special, that used to be special.”

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