The Penny Hardaway era at Memphis got off to a strong start on Tuesday when the Tigers beat Tennessee Tech in Hardaway's coaching debut at his alma mater.
While the storied program is already generating excitement on the court, the biggest buzz will come off the court in the coming weeks if Memphis lands James Wiseman, the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2019.
The 7-foot Wiseman has yet to set an announcement date for his college choice, but multiple sources told FloHoops.com that Memphis is optimistic it will land the big man from Memphis (TN) East who played high school and AAU ball for Hardaway. Hardaway maintains a close relationship with Wiseman's family and one source said the Memphis staff has already told some boosters it's "done."
Officially, Wiseman is down to a final five of Memphis, Kentucky, Florida State, Vanderbilt, and Kansas, and has visited all five. He completed his official to Memphis on Oct. 28, and then received a visit from former Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph and Memphis rapper Moneybagg Yo.
Ernie Kuyper, the general manager of the Hoop City Basketball Club, has lived in Memphis for 14 years and coached Wiseman briefly this summer on the AAU circuit. He says if the Tigers do land Wiseman, it will have huge meaning in Bluff City.
"It would be great for the whole city," Kuyper said Friday by phone from Memphis. "It would be great."
One year removed from coaching at Memphis East and with Team Penny of the Nike EYBL circuit, Hardaway has already landed five former Team Penny players, including class of 2019 small forward D.J. Jeffries (a former Kentucky pledge) and class of 2019 power forward Malcolm Dandridge. Wiseman would be the sixth.
"[Hardaway] has already done a great job early on, obviously," Kuyper said. "But [Wiseman] would just be another layer of credibility for him. In my opinion, they're already doing a great job for the city. Fans are excited, there's hope. This would just kind of put the stamp on it."
Kuyper says there's a buzz in Memphis over the basketball program that hasn't existed since John Calipari was there a decade ago.
"The whole city's fired up, it's great," he said. "For being a basketball man in the city, this is awesome. I love that they hired Penny and [assistant coach] Mike [Miller]'s there working with him. It's just awesome to see it for this city. There's hope. They sold out Memphis Madness. The last time there was a sellout was I think when Calipari was here. The program sold out practice, it's just awesome to see."
Kuyper coached Wiseman this past summer in Las Vegas and Los Angeles on a team that also included top recruits Trendon Watford (uncommitted), Chandler Lawson (uncommitted), and Kira Lewis (Alabama).
"I think he's Chris Bosh, that type of player," Kuyper said of Wiseman.
"Defensively, he can change the whole game," Kuyper added. "That's where I think he can change the whole game defensively, he can take the whole paint away."
Kentucky has long been perceived as the main threat to Memphis for Wiseman. Calipari is known for mentioning that former Kentucky players in the NBA are earning a combined $1.5 billion in guaranteed contracts. But Hardaway — who a year ago sat in on Calipari's home visit with Wiseman — actually played in the NBA.
“I think he’s way ahead and then he hires [associate head coach] Sam [Mitchell] and he has Mike Miller and all these kids want to be in the NBA and you got all these NBA guys,” Larry Brown, the only man to win an NBA and an NCAA title as a coach, told me in July after he came close to joining Hardaway's staff.
“But the way, I think Penny is personally, the way he relates to people, makes you feel good about yourself. I think he’ll do really, really well."
Hardaway isn't just involved for Wiseman, either. Memphis remains in the mix for 2019 forwards Watford and Matthew Hurt, among other players.
Watford's father said the Jeffries commitment to Memphis was a good thing, and didn't rule out his son choosing the Tigers.
“It’s always a positive as Trendon needs to have other good players surrounding,” Ernest Watford told me. “We believe a player(s) of DJ’s caliber can only enhance Trendon’s overall game. It allows Trendon to showcase his point/forward skill set, which allows him to play positionless basketball. We like the commitment.”
Of course, a commitment from Wiseman would be the coup de grace for Hardaway and Memphis.
How good could Memphis be if it adds Wiseman to its current recruiting class, and them maybe adds Watford as well?
"They could be really good," Kuyper said. "You have Trendon Watford who comes from a great basketball family and won a couple of championships. And you throw him in the mix with Wiseman. It's like this summer when they played together, it was fun to be a coach. Put it like that.
"I think Penny and Mike would enjoy it. When you have talent, it's fun."
Don't forget to catch Wiseman live right here on FloHoops at the Chick-fil-A Classic, December 26-29.