Penny Hardaway's rebuild at Memphis may not take long

Photo: Mark Weber, Commercial Appeal

Penny Hardaway's rebuild at Memphis may not take long

Boys Basketball

Penny Hardaway's rebuild at Memphis may not take long


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Neither Jalen Green nor R.J. Hampton expected to see the third member of their “Unicorn fam” waiting for them when they arrived Thursday to begin their official visits to Memphis. But sure enough, James Wiseman, the No. 4 overall player in the Class of 2019, was seated on the sideline before the Tigers’ workout at the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center.

“Me and James talk, but I guess we didn’t talk last week,” Hampton said Sunday night about their self-titled group of friends and basketball players. “When I showed up to practice and I saw he was sitting there, we were like, ‘Why not take a picture to show everybody we are together?’ ”

Soon after, a photo of Hampton, Wiseman and Green holding up their index fingers to symbolize unicorn horns made waves on social media.

“James is a really quiet guy and that’s what the media and people see, but when James is around his ‘Unicorn fam’ and those guys, he really opens up to them,” said Hampton’s father, Rod.

James Wiseman and R.J. Hampton in the same class?

This is how one of the most star-studded two days in recent Memphis basketball recruiting history began, and it could set the stage for a partnership that would completely alter the trajectory of first-year coach Penny Hardaway’s rebuilding plans with the Tigers.

Over the course of 48 hours, Memphis hosted Wiseman, the top target in the 2019 class, two top-five players in the class of 2020 and, unexpectedly, Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum.

But before high school juniors Green (ranked No. 2 in the Chosen 25) and Hampton (No. 4) agreed to take their first official visits to Memphis last week, the Hampton family already had been in communication with Wiseman and his mother, Donzaleigh Artis, about R.J.’s potential reclassification.

As of now, the guard remains in the class of 2020, but he has not ruled out reclassifying to 2019, partly because Wiseman “is trying to get us to,” Rod Hampton said.

“Kansas, Kentucky and Memphis are recruiting R.J. and James,” he added, “and those schools have talked to us about reclassifying, too, so you never know when it comes down to it.”

Wiseman, the 7-foot center who played for Hardaway at Memphis East, reportedly will wait until the end of the spring signing period to make a commitment, which also would give him enough time to see what Hampton decides to do.

Hampton’s father said his son “wouldn’t have any trouble” if he decided to make the jump to college a year earlier than anticipated. The five-star player would have to sign up for one extra class next semester (which he plans to take), one class online and one class this summer to meet the requirements for reclassification.

R.J. Hampton said he would love to play with Wiseman, noting that he built a strong relationship with the center since they met at USA Basketball tryouts in 2016.

Wiseman’s mother and both of Hampton’s parents went to dinner together Friday night while Green and Hampton ate with assistant coach Mike Miller. Hardaway honored a commitment to be at the Memphis football game.

Rod Hampton described his relationship with Artis as “pretty much brother-sister” but said the Hampton family doesn’t want to step in Wiseman’s recruitment and tell the No. 1 player what to do.

“Now, if I have to ask ‘What‘s going on with Memphis basketball? You’re there in Memphis,’ she’ll tell me,” Rod Hampton said. “But, it’s decision time for her and her family. If they want to ask us how we feel, then we’ll be there.”

Hanging out with Jayson Tatum

Two more surprise visitors arrived Friday when Tatum, the 2018 NBA Rookie of the Year award finalist, and Memphis Grizzlies guard Markel Crawford showed up for pick-up games at the Memphis practice facility.

Tatum was staying at the Peabody Hotel the same time as Green and Hampton and spontaneously made the trip over to campus to play pick-up games with Green, Hampton and a few other Memphis players.

“These guys talk in such code and such lingo that I can’t figure out, but they could sit down and talk to Jayson for hours,” Rod Hampton said. “I’m sure (they) exchanged numbers. Jayson Tatum is in the NBA, where these players want to go.”

The group played pick-up games until about 11 p.m., but Green and Hampton left the facility a little earlier than the rest to get some sleep before a 7 a.m. workout the next day.

“I’m sure that after (Tatum) saw him play, and after he played with (Hampton), hopefully, he was impressed,” Rod Hampton said. “Jayson Tatum just showing up to be there with these guys was giving back, and that’s pretty cool.”

About 12 hours later, Hardaway made his final pitch of the weekend to R.J.

Friday’s unexpected visit from Tatum meant the two recruits missed a scheduled dinner at The Capital Grille as well as the Tigers’ football game against Georgia State.

“I looked at R.J. before he left and said, ‘Well, you know we have 7 a.m. workouts tomorrow?’ ” Rod Hampton said. “He told me, ‘Dad, I’ll be fine.’ ”

After playing with Tatum, Crawford and the Memphis basketball team until after 11 p.m. Green and Hampton returned to the hotel. The players beat Hampton’s father downstairs for their workout the next morning.

Penny Hardaway’s final impression

Saturday’s conclusion of the official visit started with the entire coaching staff eating breakfast at the hotel with the recruits, and it ended with an individual meeting between Hampton’s parents and Hardaway for about 30 minutes in the late morning.

A room in the hotel was reserved for the final conversation, but the group never made it out of the hotel lobby.

During their conversation, Hardaway preached to the Hampton family that he can’t tell them anything they don’t already know, but harped on the high hopes he has for their son.

“I think, to be honest, Penny Hardaway sees a little Penny Hardaway in R.J. Hampton,” Rod Hampton said. “The IQ, the leadership, the smile, and making everybody better.”


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