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Like any college coach these days, Penny Hardaway finds himself trying to sell an old school system to recruits with new school sensibilities.
For decades, including when Hardaway was a lanky point guard sensation coming up in Memphis, the route from prep to pros went through college. In Hardaway’s case, that meant the University of Memphis, where the now 50-year-old is the head basketball coach.
It was about joining the team. Representing your school. Reaching March Madness.
Then, and only then, came the NBA. That was the 1990s.
These days a kid like Anfernee Hardaway might seek that same path. Or he might care more about the name on the back of the jersey than the one on the front. If so, he’ll favor the straight professional development of the NBA’s G League, or even skip parts of high school for Overtime Elite, a fledgling, but well-financed professionalization of high school hoops.
To each his own.
It’s just that Hardaway is trying to create a program at Memphis that bridges both worlds — it’s college ball with all the marketing might and rabid fandom that comes with it, but it’s unapologetically player-first and NBA-focused.
That includes a coaching staff that includes a four-time All-Star such as himself, Hall of Fame NBA coach Larry Brown, four-time All-Star Rasheed Wallace and Cody Toppert, who is renowned for player development work in the G League.
Memphis isn’t just trying to get a prospect to the NBA. It is bringing the NBA to the prospect.
Now Hardaway just needs to follow it up with victories. And with the talent he has this upcoming season … he better.
On Wednesday, Emoni Bates, the heavily hyped 6-foot-8 star from Ypsilanti, Michigan, officially committed to play for the Tigers this year. Bates picked Memphis over not just Michigan State and Oregon, but the G League. Long considered the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2022, Bates reclassified to 2021, where Rivals.com ranked him fourth nationally, and will be eligible this winter.
He joins Jalen Duren, an athletic 6-10 center out of Montverde Academy in Florida, who committed a few weeks ago and is ranked No. 3 in the Class of 2021. He also considered UCLA, the G League or pro ball in Australia.
They anchor a spectacular recruiting class that features four other top 150 prospects that will join a solid core of veterans for what is an immediate Final Four contender.
What Hardaway is selling, recruits are eating up. And it is a modern pitch.
Don’t worry about conference affiliation (Memphis is in the AAC, not the ACC). Look at the big city's business community that surrounds a player as it is full of name, image and likeness possibilities.
Don’t worry about the number of national championship banners (none, despite a nice tradition of success there). Look at the coaches who are there to build up a player, not break him apart just for the sake of their ego.
This isn’t about offering a campus prettier than Duke or Carolina, it’s about offering a situation better than Team Ignite. It’s a balance. This isn’t some college town campus. This is the city’s team. Memphis plays in an NBA arena, but packs a college-passionate crowd.
Bates was clear that one of the reasons he’s headed to Memphis is the belief that Hardaway, the former 6-7 point guard, can help him develop at that position so he can become more than a scorer.
Considering the coaching staff, that’s a sound developmental-based decision. Plus he can try to win a national title.
Nike, FedEx, and whatever else about one million Memphians can drum up will take care of the money.
Hardaway isn’t the first to attempt this concept — John Calipari went all-in on the one-and-done player when he coached Memphis in the early 2000s. Many coaches followed, even Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Just about every school wanted Bates and Duren, of course.
It’s just Penny is Penny, 50 years old but forever cool. But can he coach? He has won at least 20 games in each of his first three seasons, but he has failed to reach a single NCAA tournament.
If that can change, if Hardaway can turn players who have an unapologetic eye on the NBA draft into a team that can thrive in March and April, then he’s set up to become a force.
It isn’t as easy it looks. Calipari has reached four Final Fours at Kentucky (and one at Memphis) with a slew of future NBA All-Stars, but he also had seasons blow up on him.
Krzyzewski is considered the greatest college coach of all time, but in 2018 he signed Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish only to lose that postseason to a veteran Michigan State team in the Elite Eight.
In Memphis, no one wants to hear the cautionary tales right now. Talent brings expectations. The city is full of optimism and excitement.
It should be. Their hometown kid and one-time Tiger great has delivered on the promise of setting up a program that can operate deftly in these fast changing times.
Now the victories and banners to follow, because if Penny Hardaway can pull this off, then he and Memphis might find themselves uniquely positioned for this unique new era of basketball.