It made sense on lots of levels for Memphis to fire Tubby Smith last March and replace him with Penny Hardaway. That’s why the school did it, after all. But near the top of the list, if not right at the top, was the belief that the former NBA All-Star would use the relationships he developed during his time as a grassroots coach to quickly upgrade his alma mater’s recruiting in a major way.
That belief has become a fact.
DJ Jeffries, a 6-foot-7 wing from Olive Branch (Miss.) High — just 15 miles from the Memphis campus — committed to Hardaway’s Tigers early Saturday. He’s ranked 47th in the Class of 2019, according to 247Sports, which makes Jeffries the first consensus top-50 prospect to commit to Memphis since Dedric Lawson in July 2014 — and he did so despite many insisting in recent weeks that he would instead pick Ole Miss or Mississippi State.
Simply put, that notion was always silly.
It was forever nonsensical to think a Memphis-area player prioritized by Memphis, who spent his high school summers playing for Hardaway, was going to turn down Memphis to play at Ole Miss or Mississippi State. To think otherwise was to ignore history — plus the fact that Hardaway has landed literally every Memphis-area prospect he’s targeted to date. Like I said on the day Jeffries decommitted from Kentucky, and every other time someone asked, you don’t decommit from John Calipari to play at Ole Miss or Mississippi State. You decommit from Kentucky to stay home and play for the man you’ve played for, and known, for years.
“Happy to be a Tiger,” Jeffries tweeted. “I’m staying home.”
Jeffries is the fifth former Team Penny player to commit to Memphis since Hardaway stopped working with his Nike-affiliated grassroots program, and East High in Memphis, to takeover the Division I program he led to the Elite Eight of the 1992 NCAA Tournament. The others are Class of 2018 point guard Alex Lomax, Class of 2018 shooting guards Ryan Boyce and Jayden Hardaway, and Class of 2019 big Malcom Dandridge. And there’s a strong belief that a sixth former Team Penny player could also commit to Memphis before the end of the calendar year.
That player is James Wiseman.
The 6-11 center is the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2019, according to 247Sports. He’s officially visiting Memphis this weekend. And, for what it’s worth, the Tigers are also considered the leader to land Trendon Watford. He’s ranked 26th in the Class of 2019.
Bottom line, this is why Hardaway was hired.
The level of talent in the program, the on-the-court product, season-ticket sales, actual attendance, donations and basically everything else plummeted under Smith in his two years at the American Athletic Conference school. He’s a good coach and a great man. But he was undeniably a terrible fit at Memphis pretty much from the jump.
Penny is a perfect fit for these times.
He pulled together a top-30 recruiting class for 2018 within weeks of being hired and now has a real chance to secure a top-10 class for 2019. Meantime, season-ticket sales are up. Donations are up. There were at least twice as many fans inside FedExForum for Thursday’s exhibition vs. LeMoyne-Owen as there were for last season’s exhibition vs. LeMoyne-Owen. And the entire vibe around the program has been flipped completely thanks to the presence of a first-year coach who has, so far, delivered on every promise.
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