It’s been less than three months since Penny Hardaway took over the Memphis basketball program. He’s still another several months away from coaching his first game at his alma mater, but the former NBA star is already having a major impact.
“Ever since Coach Penny took the job, the city has been very excited and very enthusiastic. They’ve been ready for it. Coach Penny Hardaway basically is Memphis. He’s the key that we have been missing.”
That’s Alex Lomax talking. The 5-foot-11 point guard is, like Hardaway, a Memphis native. He was raised on Tigers’ basketball and knows its importance to the city. Hardaway was seven years removed from his own college career by the time Lomax was born, but the 18-year-old has long been acutely aware of Hardaway’s standing in the community and his place of reverence in Memphis basketball culture.
In fact, there’s probably no one better to explain Penny Hardaway — the Memphis icon and now Tigers coach — than Lomax, who has been playing for the local legend since he was in the fifth grade.
It started with Lomax’s place on Team Penny — the grassroots club that Hardaway founded — and at Lester Middle School, where Hardaway first coached Lomax in a scholastic setting. More recently, the two have paired up at Memphis East High School, where Hardaway was coach and Lomax was both Mr. Basketball and a state champion.
By the time Hardaway landed the Memphis job in late March, Lomax was already signed with Wichita State. The Shockers let him out of that pledge — they knew where he wanted to be — and Lomax quickly became Hardaway’s second recruiting addition, committing to Memphis one day after Jayden Hardaway, the coach’s son, did the same.
“Coach Penny, he’s like 20 different coaches in one,” Lomax told the Herald-Leader. “He knows the game inside out. He knows how to let you run and jump. He knows how to slow down and execute the offense. He’s a mastermind of the defensive end. He’s just one of the greatest ever. He played at the highest level, so he’s been through everything. He’s actually experienced it. So he knows — from making his mistakes — and he’s helping us out. I’d recommend him to everybody.
“Off the court, he’ll take care of you — keep you stable mentally and physically. If you have a problem, you can just call him and talk to him about it. He’s like a big brother, a coach and a father all in one.”
Lomax is one of seven commitments Hardaway managed for the class of 2018, despite not getting the job until very late in the recruiting cycle. He’s already landed another one of his former players, four-star center Malcolm Dandridge, for the 2019 class.
The next step — and an important one to stay in the national spotlight — will be to sign some five-star recruits, true difference-makers who can quickly lift Memphis back to the top of the college basketball landscape, a spot the Tigers occupied for much of John Calipari’s coaching tenure and at various points previous.
Comments from top recruits at the USA Basketball U18 camp in Colorado Springs earlier this month indicate that Memphis might not be waiting long to get back to that level.
Matthew Hurt, a 6-9 forward from Minnesota, is the No. 5 overall prospect in the 2019 class. He often lists Memphis among his top schools, even though others have been on him for years.
“I thought it was a great hire,” Hurt said. “I think they’re going to turn that program around, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re a top powerhouse team in the next couple of years.”
Hurt specifically mentioned the staff of assistant coaches that Hardaway has put in place as an attractive selling point to recruits.
There’s NBA veteran Mike Miller, a former Rookie of the Year, league champion and longtime friend and teammate of LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet and a favorite among high school-aged recruits. There’s also Sam Mitchell, a former NBA player and head coach, and Tony Madlock, a Memphis native and college coaching veteran who was most recently the interim head coach at Mississippi.
Miller has been active as an AAU coach and mentor dating back to his playing days, and he’s well known among players still coming up through those ranks. Hurt described himself as “close friends” with Miller and said he used to work out with him before he got the Memphis job.
“Mike Miller’s a great person,” Lomax added. “He’s almost like Penny. They’re just some big kids off the court, just hanging out, chilling. And on the court they can help you tremendously with your game. They’re just very cool people.”
Before heading to USA camp, Alabama native Trendon Watford — the No. 12 overall player in the class — stopped by Memphis for a recruiting trip.
“It was a great visit,” he told the Herald-Leader. “I obviously have a close relationship with Coach Mike Miller and I’m getting a close relationship with Coach Penny Hardaway. We just talked it up and it was a great visit overall.
“He said if I come there I can come right in and have an impact. Just being able to pick that knowledge from them — they’re all NBA guys — that was pretty good.”
Watford, the younger brother of former Indiana standout Christian Watford, said he was five or six years old when he first met Miller, who coached Christian in AAU, and still looks up to him.
Hardaway and Miller have been selling the NBA angle hard with recruits, and their background as successful players in the league make it a convincing pitch.
"That message spoke loudly to these kids that we're trying to get our program back to where it used to be and that we wanted them to be a big part of it and if they wanted to go further, that we could help them get further to understand what it takes on and off the court to get to the NBA," Hardaway told the Associated Press this week.
Watford cut his list to eight schools Wednesday afternoon. Not only was Memphis on that list, but the Tigers have taken over the lead on Watford’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page in recent days, picking up predictions from national analysts Jerry Meyer, Andrew Slater and Brian Snow.
What once looked like an Alabama-Indiana battle might turn out to be Hardaway’s first major victory on the recruiting trail.
The biggest target on Memphis’ board is, of course, James Wiseman, the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2019 and a former player of Hardaway’s with Team Penny and at Memphis East.
Wiseman hasn’t said much of substance about his recruitment since Hardaway got the job. It’s clearly coming down to UK and Memphis — and the Tigers’ are now a slight leader on his Crystal Ball page — but most acknowledge that his destination remains a guessing game.
“I got a prediction,” Lomax said with a big laugh. “I’ll just keep it to myself though.
“I’m always on him. That’s like my brother. We’re always going places, hanging out, just chilling. I’m not going to force anything on him. He’ll know what’s best for him when it’s time to make the decision.”
Whether or not Wiseman ends up at Memphis, it’s becoming clear that Hardaway will have more than his fair share of recruiting success. His message is out there, it’s clear, and it’s resonating with the best prospects in the country.
“He’s one of the best ever to play the game,” Watford said. “I know he’s a player’s coach, so that’s always good if you’re playing for him. Everybody obviously wants to play for a guy who played in the NBA for a long time.”