By LARRY VAUGHT
Tennessee Prep guard Damion Baugh is the third-rated player in Tennessee in the 2019 recruiting class and has over 20 high Division I scholarship offers, including six Southeastern Conference schools and Western Kentucky.
He also has one from Memphis coach Penny Hardaway — and Tennessee Prep is located in Memphis where Hardaway is 6-for-6 on signing players from the city he’s recruited since being named head coach in the spring.
The 6-4 Baugh played at the Marshall County Hoopfest last weekend and said Vanderbilt, Georgia, Texas Tech, Georgetown and Memphis seemed to be making him a recruiting priority even though he says he remains “open” about his future.
He admitted Memphis beating Kentucky to sign James Wiseman last month caught his attention but didn’t surprise him.
“I thought that was really good for the city of Memphis seeing they are trying to bring the culture back to Memphis (basketball). They think adding me would really help, too,” Baugh said. “They just want to bring it back like it used to be like when John Calipari was there and getting him (Wiseman) is part of that.”
Of course, John Calipari is now coaching at Kentucky and had spent over two years recruiting Wiseman. D.J. Jeffries, Wiseman’s AAU teammate on a team Hardaway coached, also signed with Memphis after originally being committed to Kentucky.
Jeffries, who plays for Olive Branch (Miss.) High School, predicted at Hoopfest in 2017 that Wiseman would join him at Kentucky. He was right about the two playing college basketball together — just at Memphis, not Kentucky.
“I didn’t know for sure he was going to pick Memphis. I felt like he was going to Memphis but you never know with kids’ recruitments. When he announced, I was happy,” Jeffries said. “Everybody loves Penny. He’s a hometown hero. He has a great staff, including people that played in the NBA. Penny has been in the NBA, so kids look at that. He is just trying to get all the Memphis kids to stay home to play for him and doing a great job of that.”
Tennessee Prep coach Harold Rayford says Hardaway is “very popular” with players and fans and the way he has gone from NBA player to middle school coach to high school coach to college head coach has made an impression on many.
“He’s been able to win and build a culture in Memphis with the babies (young players) and is now getting them to play for him,” Rayford said. “Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris (freshmen at Memphis this year) were two of the best guards in the city last year, so it’s great for Penny to have them at Memphis.”
Rayford said it should not have surprised anyone that Wiseman, who moved from Nashville to Memphis to play for Hardaway at Memphis East High School last season, picked Memphis over UK.
“The biggest thing a lot of coaches preach is loyalty, so why would he (Wiseman) just up and leave a situation where he knows what makes him comfortable. He’s a very likable kid. He’s charming and he doesn’t want to break anybody’s heart, so it’s easy to see why he just picked Memphis,” Rayford said.
Should Kentucky fans worry about Hardaway “out recruiting” Calipari more in the future?
“It just made it hard for anybody with Wiseman. But nationally you also have to remember that right now the parents of a lot of these players are fans of Penny Hardaway. That matters more than you think,” Rayford said.
“Some of these kids are buying in (with Hardaway) because of his (Nike) sneakers. I am from New York where it is very popular to have Penny Hardaway sneakers. How many coaches have a signature shoe like that? It might not seem like that should matter, but it does and while that won’t get a kid to Memphis, it will help Penny get a chance to get them to Memphis.
“But I wouldn’t worry about Calipari’s recruiting. He gets great players every year. He just didn’t get Wiseman, and that was understandable. I think a lot of college coaches would like to have Calipari’s so-called recruiting problems.”