It’s not often that John Calipari ends up on the wrong side of a player’s recruitment, but that’s exactly what happened on Monday. That’s because at about 4:00 p.m. ET, D.J. Jeffries, one of two players who was committed to the Wildcats 2019 recruiting class, decided to decommit from the Wildcats, re-open his recruitment. It is the first time since John Calipari arrived at Kentucky that he has had a player decommit after initially committing to the Wildcats.
As soon as the news became official, it immediately set off an avalanche of speculation. Some wondered whether Jeffries was concerned that the Wildcats recently started recruiting a handful of guys at his same position (most notably Dontaie Allen and Kahlil Whitney). Some also wondered whether the possibility exists that Jeffries is interested in reclassifying into the class of 2018, and playing college basketball this season. If that’s the case it wouldn’t be realistic at Kentucky.
But more than anything else, one narrative, and one name, is most closely associated with Jeffries’ decision to decommit from Kentucky. That name is “Penny Hardaway,” a man who served as Jeffries long-time AAU coach and is the new head coach at Memphis. Connect a few dots, and it seems pretty clear that based on the timing of Jeffries’ decision (remember, Hardaway wasn’t the Memphis head coach when he committed to Kentucky) that this move could ultimately open the door for him to wind up playing for the Tigers. Nothing is certain, but the fact that a handful of recruiting gurus including 247 Sports Evan Daniels have already made a “crystal ball” pick for Jeffries to Memphis, makes it seem pretty likely that this is how this story likely ends.
After careful consideration prayer and countless hours of consulting with my family I decided to reopen recruitment it was a hard decision but I am confident that taking my time to choose the right school for me to better myself educationally and athletically is the right choice pic.twitter.com/Pqc4QlVqfd
— Djjeffries™ (@lildjj0) July 30, 2018
Ultimately, only Jeffries knows the reason behind his decision on Monday, and only time will tell if Memphis is his college basketball landing spot or not. But this news does reiterate one thing that I’ve both written and discussed on my podcast throughout the last few weeks: After watching Penny Hardaway on the recruiting circuit the last few weeks, I truly believe that he is going to be a real force going forward on the recruiting trail. Not just with kids from Memphis or his former AAU program, but with many of the best players from all over the country.
Now before we go too far here, it’s important to note a few things. One, I’m not saying that Penny has all of a sudden become college basketball’s best recruiter overnight, and that John Calipari, Coach K and Bill Self need to give up on ever trying to get a five-star kid again. That is definitely not what I’m saying, and those coaches, as well as the Sean Miller’s, Roy Williams’s and Tom Izzo’s of the world will still get their fair share of big-time recruits. I’m also not saying that this recruiting surge will go on forever, especially if Hardaway doesn’t start showing results once the games tip-off this winter.
But in the short-term? I was blown away by Hardaway’s presence on the recruiting trail these past few weeks. And I truly believe that he could end up as a thorn in the side of the Calipari’s and Coach K’s of the world, if not an outright, equal competitor.
To fully explain what I mean, let’s go back to two weeks ago at the Adidas Summer Championships near my home in Los Angeles. When I got there, I fully expected to see Hardaway in the building and milling around – and I expected him to mostly follow around the guys he knew from his time as an AAU coach the last few years. And when he got to the gym, he did just that. James Wiseman, playing for Hoop City Elite, took the court first. And in the least surprising news ever, Hardaway (along with Kentucky assistant Joel Justus and a handful of others) was courtside, along with his lead assistant Mike Miller. It only made sense. Hardaway has known Wiseman for years and coached him at the high school and AAU levels.
So again, that wasn’t surprising.
What was surprising though, was what happened next. Hardaway stayed at the same court to watch Matthew Hurt, a consensus Top 10 prospect, who – prior to this summer – had no previous ties to Memphis or Hardaway. He has since added the Tigers to his short list however, a group that includes the bluest of blue bloods like Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina.
Then, after Penny was done watching Matthew Hurt play, you know he did next? Went across the gym to watch Jalen Green, the top player in the high school class of 2020 take the court. Like Hurt, Green – who is from Fresno, California – has no ties to Memphis or Penny. But that clearly hasn’t stopped Hardaway from making him a priority going forward.
— Penny Hardaway (@Iam1Cent) July 22, 2018
That’s also what made things so interesting to me. Maybe I’m completely over-analyzing everything, but it looked to me like this was Penny giving his manifesto for the “Hardaway era” in Memphis. While he can’t say anything to recruits, it was clear that his unofficial message was that his plan is to go big-game hunting, that to steal a term John Calipari used when he arrived at Kentucky in 2009, that he is looking to bring “the best of the best” to campus.
And to be blunt, that’s not really normal in recruiting circles, especially for a first-year head coach. I found it interesting that other first-year head coach (like Louisville’s Chris Mack and UConn’s Danny Hurley) are largely recruiting guys that they had previous relationships with dating back to their previous. Heck, even a guy like Coach K wasn’t as aggressive as Penny. As I wrote a few weeks ago, he actually got up and left the court when Wiseman arrived, a clear sign that he was unofficially waving the white flag in Wiseman’s recruitment.
But Penny, he’s going after everyone. Guys he knows. Guys he doesn’t. He doesn’t care. And I for one love that aggressiveness. I have no idea if it’ll work, but give the man credit for trying. He knows he’s only going to get one shot at a big-time head coaching job, and it’s clear that if he’s going to go down, he’s going to go down his way, going after the best high school players in America.
Again, only time will tell if this works. Heck, only time will tell if he can convince even one really big-time recruit to come to Memphis. Remember, just because Jeffries decommited on Monday doesn’t make him a lock for Memphis, and it’s the same with Wiseman or any other prospect with ties to Penny or not. It also doesn’t guarantee that Penny will win actual games on the court if he gets these guys, or that he’ll develop them into future NBA prospects as well as Calipari, Coach K, Bill Self or any others will. That will also be the ultimate litmus test for Hardaway. It’s not what he does in April-July on the recruiting trail. It’s what he does from November-March when it matters most.
But college basketball – like all sports – is better when there’s competition at the top, when there’s new blood battling the old-guard. And that’s who Penny Hardaway is right now. The new guard.
Yes, he’s a long, long, LONG way from competing John Calipari and Coach K for one or two kids at the top of the recruiting rankings, let alone all of them.
But it’s clear that he’s willing to try.
And D.J. Jeffries’ de-commitment may be the first indication.