By LARRY VAUGHT
About a year ago I was at Marshall County Hoopfest and found myself in the hospitality room with Penny Hardaway, the former NBA great who then was the coach at Memphis East High School.
His star player, 6-11 junior James Wiseman, had been John Calipari’s top recruiting target for almost two years then. I remember asking Hardaway what made Wiseman so special that Calipari had already invested so much time recruiting him.
“James is an outside-player. Highly skilled,” Hardaway said. “He does a lot of things really well. The one thing he does do is run the floor very well and he is a really good midrange shooter. He seals down on the post. It’s hard to pick one thing because he does so many things well.
“He is a kid that plays with a chip on his shoulder. He knows what he wants in life to make it to the next level and he is not going to go out there and do anything halfway. Everything he does, he goes 100 percent. Nobody has to go out there and really push him. He is going to go out there and work his butt off because he wants to make it to the NBA.”
Wiseman was the first player in the 2019 recruiting class to get a scholarship offer from Kentucky. Assistant coach Joel Justus went to Argentina to watch Wiseman in the FIBA Under 16 Championship before his junior season. Wiseman visited UK for Big Blue Madness in 2017.
Now instead of heading to Kentucky to play for Calipari as many had expected with the recruiting effort UK put into Wiseman, the Memphis East senior is going to play his college basketball at Memphis for Hardaway. The former NBA star got the head coaching job at the school where he played when Tubby Smith was fired after last season.
Immediately speculation started that Wiseman, who moved from Nashville to Memphis to play for Hardaway in high school, would end up playing for Hardaway in college. Tuesday that became fact when Wiseman picked Memphis just a little over a week before he’s scheduled to be back at the Marshall County Hoopfest playing Dec. 1.
Wiseman’s loss is a bitter pill for UK fans considering that in the 2018 recruiting class Kentucky thought it was in great shape with Zion Williamson before he picked Duke. Wiseman’s no to UK continued a trend where Calipari has not a top-five recruit in his last four recruiting classes after getting 10 in his first seven classes at Kentucky.
It’s not like Kentucky’s recruiting has been bad. It’s just not been John Wall-Anthony Davis good. It’s not been like what Duke did this year with the nation’s top three recruits who could be the top three picks in the 2019 NBA draft.
Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy understands the concern Kentucky fans have about top players not picking UK. However, he’s also perplexed about why top players, especially big guys, would go anywhere else.
“It astonishes me when a big guy Kentucky wants does not go to Kentucky given Kentucky’s success over the last decade with bigs,” said DeCourcy.
He listed DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Bam Adebayo as players who have flourished playing for Calipari.
“It amazes me that anybody with the talent Wiseman has would roll the dice to go play for a guy that has coached (college basketball) for a month,” DeCourcy said. “I respect Penny. I lived in Memphis and know how that basketball program matters to the city. But James moved to Memphis. He’s not a life-long Memphian. I think he is taking a chance. He will probably be fine because he’s a terrific talent, but he’s still taking a chance I don’t quite understand.”
So do Kentucky fans need to worry that Calipari is missing out on the elite, top-ranked players in consistent recruiting classes now and is now favored currently to land any of the top bigs in the 2019 class? Does Kentucky need to make changes to its recruiting approach? Has Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski stole Calipari’s thunder and recruiting touch with the nation’s best players?
“I think we have seen over the last year plus that recruiting is more involved than many sometimes realized,” DeCourcy said referring to the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. “We all knew certain things were going on in certain places but you now see there are obstacles coaches have to confront and decide whether they want to make concessions to deal with young athletes or the people around them.
“I think in the end what we have seen over the last decade is that John Calipari has been very successful recruiting and coaching and he will continue to be very successful.”
Maybe just not as successful as getting the one or two elite players every year as he was earlier at Kentucky.