In case you hadn’t heard, Memphis picked up a commitment from a five-star basketball player this afternoon.
That’s not to be confused with the other five-star they pulled in earlier this week. Or the top-rated grad transfer they secured last Saturday. Or the four-star guard they got last Friday.
That’s right, Memphis is on a recruiting run for the ages right now, one which – at least for now – has landed them the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.
Overall, the Tigers have commitments from two McDonald’s All-Americans (James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa), six Top 100 players (Wiseman, Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones, D.J. Jeffries and Malcolm Dandridge) and one of the top grad transfers on the market (Rayjon Tucker, who averaged 20 points at Little Rock last season). Add them in with a couple returning players, and it’s indisputable that Memphis will have one of the 3-4 most talented rosters in the country next season. I fully expect them to start the year ranked in everyone’s preseason Top 10.
To Penny Hardaway’s credit, he has done what he said he would do when he was hired a year ago. He has convinced the top players across high school basketball to come to Memphis. To his credit he hasn’t relied solely on the players he coached in high school or AAU, but has brought in the best players from across the country, ranging from New York (Quinones, Achiuwa) to California (Ellis) and everywhere in between.
Now to the more interesting part of the equation: Penny Hardaway has signed one of the most talented recruiting classes in the country. But will he be able to win with it? That right there might be the single most fascinating question in all of college basketball heading into the 2019-2020 season.
Now to be clear, I’m not as “Anti-Penny” as many others out there. I do understand why he frustrates opposing fan-bases with his confidence (some would say “cockiness”) and bravado on the recruiting trail. Him taking unprovoked cheap shots at Rick Barnes last season certainly didn’t help things.
At the same time, I never believed the notion that he was some AAU hotshot who was destined to be a failure as a college head coach. This is a guy who played basketball the highest level, and brought in a staff full of sharp, smart basketball minds, which includes a former NBA Coach of the Year in Sam Mitchell. That staff, including Penny, knows basketball.
Memphis has at least 4 guys (Wiseman/Tucker/Boogie/ Precious) who think they'll be in the NBA next year. DJ Jeffries, who decommitted from Kentucky over depth concerns + two more Memphis kids (Harris/Lomax) who expected bigger roles next season. That's a LOT of guys to keep happy
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) May 17, 2019
On top of their X’s and O’s prowess, Penny also entered college basketball with an understanding of how the AAU and recruiting game work as well. Unlike other guys who came from the NBA (Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Avery Johnson) he wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by the recruiting aspect of coaching college basketball.
Again, I liked the Penny hire last year, and for the most part I thought he did pretty good in year 1 at Memphis. He inherited a mostly “bleh” roster and led them to a 22-14 overall record and a fifth-place finish in the AAC, where all four of the teams who finished ahead of him (Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and Temple) made the NCAA Tournament. His team got better as the season wore on, winning five of its final six regular season games and beat a couple teams that ended up making the NCAA Tournament.
For the most part I thought Penny actually overachieved in Year 1. And I thought his ability to get the most out of a below-average roster was a positive sign heading into Year 2 at the school.
Still, for as good as he was in Year 1, he is in store for something completely different heading into next season. Understand, there is a big difference between taking a rag-tag group of guys and getting them to overachieve like he did this season, as opposed to what he will face next season, with a roster full of big-time recruits, with NBA dreams and the expectations and egos that come along with it.
Ultimately that will be the story of the 2019-2020 Memphis Tigers: Can Penny keep everyone happy?
It will be fascinating to watch, and something that is impossible to know the answer to. Penny isn’t John Calipari or Coach K, and hasn’t been juggling talented rosters for decades at a time. Quite the opposite. He’s a coach who has never been on this stage, with this pressure and this level of expectations before. Even more, he is doing it with a lot of kids (and their families) who he has known for years, and who at times he coached in the high school or AAU levels. What will happen when he has to tell a kid (or a mom or dad) who he has known for a decade that they simply aren’t good enough? Or what happens when he has to tell a Top 50 recruit that he is headed to the bench?
These are the things that no one has an answer to right now.
And at the sake of using the rest of the article to break down Memphis’ depth chart, here are some of the issues I believe could pop up next year.
- He has, at the very least four players who expect to use Memphis as a one-season springboard to the NBA next season. And honestly that number might be conservative. They are James Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa, Rayjon Tucker and Boogie Ellis. Can he keep all four happy, especially the first three, if they aren’t the focal point of the offense?
- Ellis committed to Memphis in large part to prove to the NBA that he can play point guard and run an offense. This despite the fact that he’s really more of a scoring/combo guard than he is a true point. Can he run an offense and keep others happy, while also getting his own offense?
- D.J. Jeffries decommitted from Kentucky, because he wasn’t happy that they continued to recruit players at his position even after he committed. Well guess what? Achiuwa plays the same position, is a better player and will almost certainly start over him. How will that fly with Jeffries?
- Tyler Harris (Memphis’ leading returning scorer) and Alex Lomax (a former Top 150 recruit) are both Memphis kids who played for Penny in high school. I’m guessing that both assumed they were headed for bigger roles next season. What happens when they get bumped down the depth chart by the newcomers? Especially since they are both from Memphis, with ties to Penny dating back to their AAU days? How will that fly with their families, and in the community?
- How do Lester Quinones (a Top 50 recruit) and Rayjon Tucker (a grad transfer) co-exist, when they’re basically the same player? Tucker has declared for the draft and will could potentially stay in. But if he doesn’t, can they co-exist?
Add it up and you have a lot of kids, with a lot of expectations and it will be fascinating to see if Penny is able to keep them all happy.
In the end, maybe Hardaway really is that good of a coach, and maybe he figures out a way to maximize all those players and allows Memphis to reach its potential. Maybe Memphis will live up to that preseason Top 10 ranking and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
But the reality is that this is basketball. We just have too much of a track record (at all levels) that when you have one ball, and that many superstars, it’s hard to keep everybody happy.
Will it work? Won’t it?
This may be the single most fascinating question in college basketball entering the 2019-2020 season.