How Memphis' Penny Hardaway and Mike Miller became the most fascinating duo on the recruiting trail
The former NBA stars are using strong ties to grassroots programs they used to sponsor to aid in recruiting
LAS VEGAS -- They each arrived just before tip-off -- first Penny Hardaway, hat on frontwards, then Mike Miller, hat on backwards. They were the only college coaches inside Findlay Prep wearing hats. So they stood out -- and not just because one is 6-foot-7, the other an inch taller, both incredibly famous and wealthy men.
They combined to play 31 seasons in the NBA.
And they combined to earn roughly $220 million in those 31 seasons -- which doesn't even include endorsement money, of which there was, and still is, plenty for Hardaway thanks to Nike and the wildly popular Lil' Penny campaign. They could both do anything they want, or absolutely nothing, and live comfortably for the rest of their lives. So it's interesting that they instead decided to rebuild Memphis -- and that they have, in a matter of months, developed into the most fascinating recruiting duo in all of college basketball even though they both took their jobs without having ever previously worked on a college campus.
"Memphis is a new dynamic," said Jerry Meyer, the director of basketball scouting for 247Sports. "I'm enjoying watching it play out."
It's playing out now here in Las Vegas.
"This Memphis thing is going to work, isn't it?" an SEC coach said to me as he stood a few feet from Hardaway and Miller while watching the Hoop City Basketball Club win the Las Vegas Summer Showcase this week.
I told him the early returns suggest it will.
And the reason, or at least one of the reasons, is because Hardaway and Miller took on the challenge of rebuilding Memphis already in possession of some of the most established and deepest connections to grassroots basketball programs any college coaches have ever had. In fact, the situation is literally unprecedented, and here's why: Five of the top-65 prospects in 247Sports' Class of 2019 composite rankings -- namely No. 1 James Wiseman, No. 14 Trendon Watford, No. 30 Kira Lewis, No. 37 DJ Jeffries and No. 65 Chandler Lawson -- have spent this month playing for a team that was, just four months ago, named for, and formally tied to, either Hardaway or Miller.
"I don't recall ever seeing a situation where multiple coaches on one staff have ties like this to the summer programs that their major recruiting targets are playing for," said Eric Bossi, a national basketball analyst for Rivals.com. "To their credit, it looks like they are using those ties. And I can't imagine we'll see anything like this again any time soon -- or maybe ever."
"Everything in life, to me, is about relationships -- and that's what they have. It's why they're so unique and going to be very special as a staff. Their network runs deep."Ernie Kuyper, Mike Miller's cousin who runs and coaches Hoop City Basketball Club
What is now the Bluff City Legends used to be Team Penny. What is now Hoop City Basketball Club used to be M33M. Bluff City is still run by Hardaway's friends. Hoop City is still run by Miller's cousin. And these relationships -- along with other relationships developed in recent years, back when neither Hardaway nor Miller were limited by NCAA rules -- are why the Tigers are again seriously involved with elite prospects the way they once were under John Calipari and, at least early on, Josh Pastner.
"Everything in life, to me, is about relationships -- and that's what they have," said Miller's cousin, Ernie Kuyper, who runs Hoop City Basketball Club. "It's why Penny and Mike are so unique and going to be very special as a staff. Their network runs deep."
That's an understatement.
The Las Vegas Summer Showcase is a perfect example.
The title game of the event -- which, it's worth noting, is an event run by Scott Robinson, a former University of Memphis staffer with strong ties to the city -- was between Hoop City Basketball Club and D1 Minnesota. There were four top-65 prospects on the floor -- among them Matthew Hurt and the aforementioned Watford, both of whom are consensus five-star recruits. Miller has a long-standing relationship with Hurt because Hurt used to travel to Memphis to workout with him. So Memphis is seriously involved with Hurt. And Miller has an even longer-standing relationship with Watford because Watford's brother, Christian Watford, actually played for M33M before becoming a star at Indiana. Now the younger Watford plays for what used to be M33M. So Memphis is seriously involved with him, too.
"Probably since about first-grade," Watford answered when I asked how long he's known Miller, who won two NBA championships with the Heat after playing six seasons with the Grizzlies, which is Miller's initial tie to Memphis and why he wanted to be on staff after Hardaway, a former All-American at Memphis and two-time First-Team All-NBA guard with the Magic, replaced Tubby Smith in March.
"I've known Mike a long time ... a really long time," Watford added. "I'm trying to get strong relationships with all of the coaches [recruiting me], but I [already] have a strong relationship with Mike and Penny. We have a strong bond."
When I asked Watford if he and any other elite prospects playing for grassroots programs that just a few months ago were named for, and formally tied to, either Hardaway or Miller have discussed playing for Hardaway and Miller at Memphis, he answered quickly.
"Of course," Watford said. "Me and James have talked about it."
James, obviously, is James Wiseman -- the consensus No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2019. The 6-11 forward spent last summer playing for Hardaway with Team Penny, spent the winter playing for Hardaway at East High in Memphis, and spent this month playing first for the Bluff City Legends and then for Hoop City Basketball Club. He's expected to eventually sign with Kentucky or Memphis.
"It's definitely a unique situation that Memphis is recruiting to right now," said Brian Snow, a basketball recruiting analyst for 247Sports. "In my decade-plus of doing this, I can't remember a situation where two people sponsored grassroots teams in the same calendar year as they took jobs in college on the same staff. And how those relationships will impact things is going to be interesting.
"Obviously, Memphis saw some early returns in a positive favor when Hardaway, in a matter of weeks, secured a top-30 class for 2018 despite inheriting nothing from the previous staff," Snow added. "But the big prizes, such as James Wiseman and Trendon Watford, remain up in the air. And there is no doubt that Penny and Mike will be hoping those long-time relationships pay off in the end."
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