Memphis men’s basketball coach Penny Hardaway will walk into a large gym full of top Division-I basketball prospects Friday evening a few miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and look across the court at where he used to be.
Hardaway spent the better of a decade attending recruiting events on Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League with Team Penny, the Memphis-based grassroots basketball program he ran until about a month ago. He was always positioned on the opposite side of college basketball’s recruiting machine, with the players and their families.
“Now,” Hardaway said at a Thursday afternoon press conference in Memphis, “I’m one of the coaches over there looking and I’m excited. I’m going to enjoy this process of kind of dissecting kids’ games and seeing where they fit in with our scheme.”
The first of college basketball’s two evaluation periods this month begins Friday and runs through Sunday, and Hardaway is chasing after some of the nation’s top prospects on the heels of compiling a top-30 2018 recruiting class in a matter of weeks.
The Tigers still have at least six scholarships available in 2019 and the presumption around the sport appears to be when, not if, Hardaway and his staff will land one of the nation’s top recruits.
“The name ‘Penny Hardaway’ and the name ‘Mike Miller’ can get you in some doors that not every name can and I think they’re going to try to utilize that, as they should,” said Evan Daniels, the national recruiting director for 247 Sports. “They’re already in on some pretty big-time prospects. It’ll be fascinating to see how this all comes together.”
How many highly ranked players they can wrest away from the game’s blue bloods is a question that everyone in the sport is trying to grasp.
Already, Hardaway and his staff have been busy positioning themselves aggressively.
Hardaway and assistant Mike Miller conducted an in-home visit on Wednesday and offered a scholarship to Memphis East forward James Wiseman, the top prospect in the 2019 class, according to most recruiting outlets.
The Tigers also visited with top-10 2019 recruits Trendon Watford and Matthew Hurt earlier this week because of their relationship with Miller. Memphis is slated to meet with New Jersey-based teammates Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis, who are also ranked among the top 10 players in the country in 2019.
Forward Chandler Lawson of East, Olive Branch’s D.J. Jeffries (Kentucky commit) and Tennessee Prep’s Antavion Collum, as well as top 2019 point guard Jalen Lecque out of New York, are also potential Memphis targets because of ties to Hardaway and Miller.
Aside from Hurt, all of them will be playing in the Dallas area in front of college coaches this weekend. Under Armour and Adidas, in addition to Nike, are also sponsoring events around Dallas.
Hardaway believes the NBA pedigree of his staff will sell even better on the recruiting trail. He won’t have to rush forming a relationship like he did during the frantic weeks spent building the Tigers’ 2018 class. He also sent out a warning to some of his competitors.
“We do understand the history of the Dukes, the Kentuckys, the Carolinas, the Kansas,” Hardaway said, “but we’re here to put Memphis on the map. Back on the map.”
One of the roads to get there begins over the weekend.
Hardaway’s trip to Dallas will be the first time he watches his former grassroots program, now called the Bluff City Legends, in an EYBL event as a college coach evaluating many of the players he only recently stopped coaching.
According to NCAA rules, college coaches can watch recruits compete but can’t have any face-to-face contact with them during evaluation periods.
This means long hours spent in a gym, hours Hardaway will take in from a completely different perspective this time.
He will be focused on the best players, of course. But Hardaway said Thursday this experience should be just as much about identifying additional prospects as it is being seen at games featuring the elite ones.
He could find a lockdown defender or a knockdown shooter or a shot-blocking big man.
Each of them are necessary pieces, Hardaway reiterated Thursday, if he is to build the national championship contender he desires at Memphis.
“Everybody doesn’t have to be a five star,” Hardaway said. “I like the eye test. I see a kid, I like the things that they do, that will attract me. I don’t have to go after one specific kid, like we need all McDonald’s all-Americans, because that doesn’t work in my mind. I think that you have to carefully blend it together … because you need those glue guys.”