Hoop City! Season Previews for the Tigers and Grizz 

Season previews for the 2019 Tigers and Grizzlies.

First Class

Can the country's top-ranked recruiting class take the Memphis Tigers to the promised land?

by Frank Murtaugh

Not since Penny Hardaway (an All-American guard) and four other starters departed after the 1992-93 season has the University of Memphis basketball program undergone what amounts to a roster flip. But there's a significant catch this time. Hardaway — now the second-year head coach of the program — has filled that roster with the country's top-ranked recruiting class, a septet that will not so much support returning rotation players like Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris (both sophomores), but shape the way those veterans impact the upcoming season. The Tigers will have a brand-new starting five on opening night (November 5th against South Carolina State at FedExForum), but they'll take the floor with the highest expectations the program has seen in at least a decade.

click to enlarge Coach Penny Hardaway - PHOTOGRAPHS BY LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Photographs by Larry Kuzniewski
  • Coach Penny Hardaway

A year ago at this time, excitement around the program was entirely Hardaway-generated. The first-year coach led the Tigers to a 22-14 record and postseason play for the first time in five years (albeit the NIT). All but three members of that team's rotation — most notably Jeremiah Martin — exhausted their eligibility, making this year's recruiting class critical for any hopes of a return to the NCAA tournament and/or national rankings. And what a class Hardaway has delivered: seven players from four states and three times zones, a group ranked tops in the country by those who specialize in such metrics.

The Magnificent Seven

James Wiseman, C (East High School, Memphis) — The top-ranked recruit in the entire country, Wiseman won a Tennessee state championship (in 2018) as a junior at East, playing for Hardaway. He was the tipping point for this recruiting class, a primary factor in attracting new teammates from as far away as New York and California. The Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior, Wiseman played in the McDonald's All-American Game and could become the top pick in the 2020 NBA draft. But first things first. The 7'1" center will aim to add a college championship to the high school hardware he earned alongside Alex Lomax, Malcolm Dandridge, and Ryan Boyce. Wiseman is the only Tiger on the AAC's preseason all-conference team.

click to enlarge James Wiseman
  • James Wiseman

Precious Achiuwa, F (Bronx, New York) — Like Wiseman, a five-star recruit, top-10 national prospect, and participant in the 2019 McDonald's All-American Game. Played with Lester Quinones at St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey (as well as AAU ball in New York). The last of the "magnificent seven" to sign with Memphis, Achiuwa's addition clinched a No. 1 ranking for the recruiting class.

click to enlarge Precious Achiuwa
  • Precious Achiuwa

Boogie Ellis, PG (San Diego) — A four-star playmaker, Ellis was ranked 32nd overall by 247Sports. Scored 51 points and 43 points in games as a senior at Mission Bay High School.

Lester Quinones, G (Brentwood, New York) — Earned a four-star ranking during his single season at IMG Academy in Florida. The 12th-ranked shooting guard in the country according to 247Sports. Won a championship in 2018 alongside Achiuwa at St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey. Shot 38 percent from three-point range at IMG.

D.J. Jeffries, F (Olive Branch High School) — A four-star prospect, Jeffries was the top-ranked player in Mississippi and the ninth-ranked power forward in the country. Averaged 23.3 points and 12.8 rebounds for the Conquistadors as a senior.

Damion Baugh, G (Nashville) — Played two seasons at Tennessee Prep Academy in Memphis, averaging 23.5 points and 10 rebounds as a senior. A four-star prospect, Baugh was ranked fourth among Tennessee prospects by 247Sports.

Malcolm Dandridge, F (East High School, Memphis) — Won a pair of state titles under Hardaway at East then became the new coach's first commitment shortly after Hardaway was named Tiger coach in March 2018. A four-star prospect, Dandridge also played alongside Jeffries on the Bluff City Legends summer team.

click to enlarge Malcolm Dandridge and Alex Lomax
  • Malcolm Dandridge and Alex Lomax

Talented But Inexperienced ...

Hardaway hasn't expressed — or shown outwardly — the slightest intimidation at the challenge he faces as Tiger coach, not since the March 2018 press conference in which he was reintroduced to a community of followers who already knew him better than they did their second cousins. To now be armed with a recruiting class that is the envy of every other coach in the country? "I'm excited," he says. "Last year was a great learning experience. To come back with the No. 1 recruiting class. ... I'm anxious to get ready."

And the notion of a rotation built around freshmen? "They're freshmen, but they're talented," emphasizes Hardaway. "They're gonna lean on us, the coaching staff, and players from last year. Experience is the best teacher. They'll get their feet wet and see what works, and what doesn't work. If they stay within themselves, and listen to us, they'll be okay. If five freshmen earn spots, I'd have no problem starting them. Who is going to be the best at their position for us to win? There's no favoritism. They'll battle it out in practice."

Among the star-studded group of freshmen, Wiseman is almost certain to stand out. Players who can run the floor at 7'1" tend to gain "unicorn" status in the modern basketball lexicon, and Wiseman qualifies. Already projected to be a top-five pick in the 2020 NBA draft, the Mandarin-speaking big man will aim to maximize his impact for what he hopes is one special winter of college. "He's matured a lot," says Hardaway. "James is really quiet. But he's being active with his teammates. He's asking a lot of questions. He's hungry. He wants to play great while he's here."

Quinones has stepped forward as a face — and voice — of sorts for the Tiger rookies. He wears his game shorts higher than most, and flexes his Twitter muscles without reservation, recently firing away at Tennessee players as the Tiger-Vol rivalry regains some bite. "I love playing in front of huge crowds," he says. "It gets me going better. It has a huge effect on us, how accepting the fans are. We're just one huge basketball city."

The new collection of talent has meant intense practices. As Hardaway puts it, "Iron sharpens iron." Says Quinones, "The talent level on this team is amazing. Every day, someone is going to bring it more. The next day, the next person will do it."

"These are the moments I've been waiting for my whole life," adds Ellis, the freshman who's made the longest trip to be part of this special class. "The bright lights, it's an amazing feeling. Since I arrived in town, everybody wants to take pictures with us. It's crazy. Great expectations come with great responsibility. We'll live up to it if we continue to work hard and come together for one goal. We'll put it all out there."

While Ellis and Quinones are the premium guards among the freshman class, don't sleep on Baugh, as there's one element of a player's game that earns playing-time love from Hardaway. "Damion is special," notes Hardaway. "He picks up [defensively] 94 feet, maybe our best defensive guard besides Alex Lomax. Great rebounding guard. High IQ. And he can pass the ball really well."

The Veterans

The only three players who can be classified as veterans this season are sophomore guards Harris (10.8 points per game as a freshman) and Lomax (5.1) and senior forward Isaiah Maurice (5.6 points and 3.1 rebounds). Hardaway is especially pleased with the development Lomax has shown over the offseason. Having coached A-Lo since his high school days at East, Hardaway feels an investment in the player's rise. "He really struggled last year, shooting the ball," says Hardaway. "He's always been a great defensive player but kind of lost his way. This year, he came in understanding what he needs to do, and how he can affect the game for us. He understands what it takes for him to be successful on this level."

Hardaway For the Defense

Amid all the flash, all those ranking stars (two fives and five fours, remember), Hardaway has his sights set on smothering opponents defensively. Good defense doesn't slump. Particularly when playing away from FedExForum — where the Tigers' various rankings will be held against them — Hardaway wants to see his team answer with defense. "With a young team, defense is gonna get it," he says. "When we run into those teams that are senior-laden, physical . . . defense is going to come into play. Offensively, we'll be okay. But defensively, we'll have to shut people down."

The Tigers' nonconference schedule is gaining strength, both with regional rivals back (Ole Miss, UAB, Tennessee) and "power-five" opponents a long way from FedExForum (Oregon and North Carolina State, the latter in Brooklyn). "There are some points on the schedule where, if we're not coming to play, we could lose two or three in a row," says Hardaway. "Especially with a young team. We'll see who can handle adversity. We're not afraid to play anybody."

Hardaway pays attention to the rankings, both for his recruiting class and for the team he's built in two years. While some prognosticators have the Tigers in their top 20 — but not top 10 — Hardaway says top five wouldn't surprise him. (AAC coaches picked Memphis to tie Houston for the conference championship.) He's that confident in the talent he's drawn to Memphis, and that convinced he and his coaching staff will max-out the treasure trove of skills. So raise your expectations as high as they'll go. They're not higher than those of the Memphis coach.

"The mood around the city — everywhere I go — they can't wait for the season to start," says Hardaway. "Everybody's raring to go, to see what this team's gonna do. We're all anxious."

A Fresh Start

Six key questions about this year's new-edition Grizzlies.

By Aimee Stiegemeyer and Sharon Shy Brown

Gone are the days when the Memphis Grizzlies were a playoff staple in the NBA's Western Conference — and often known as the team no one wanted to face in the post-season. A new chapter has commenced in Grind City. The Grizzlies traded franchise cornerstones — and two of the best players in franchise history — Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Gasol was traded to the Toronto Raptors prior to the trade deadline, where he eventually went on to become an NBA champion. Conley was sent to the Utah Jazz ahead of the draft.

But the Grizzlies have quietly established a young core that could set the organization up for years to come. Second-year player Jaren Jackson Jr. and rookie point guard Ja Morant will be the key figures going forward.

click to enlarge Jaren Jackson Jr.
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.

Will it work? Time will tell. Here are six key questions ahead of the upcoming NBA season:

The Grizzlies made a lot of major changes during the off season — changes in the front office, changes in the coaching staff, and changes to the roster. Do you think those changes will lead to success? 

Aimee Stiegemeyer: Eventually, yes. Although it could take more than one season to fully realize it. While they might not lead to immediate success, the changes made in the off season are a good starting point for getting there. 

There are some new decision-makers in the front office, and so far the choices they have made appear to be good ones. Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke were excellent pickups, and the Grizzlies also received a few usable pieces from Utah and Atlanta. Shedding the remainder of Chandler Parsons' contract was one of the most impressive moves made.

Sharon Brown: In recent years, the Grizzlies have been a team plagued with instability and uncertainty. The team has been through four coaches since Robert Pera took controlling ownership of the franchise in 2012. For some reason or another, coaches haven't worked out for Memphis. It is too early to predict how first-year coach Taylor Jenkins' tenure will work out.

Confidence was lost in the front office, and former general manager Chris Wallace took the brunt of the criticism — rightfully so, since he was the one in front of the cameras. Changes were inevitable to appease the fan base. Grizzlies fans were used to being in the playoffs during the Grit 'n Grind era with the Core Four (Gasol, Conley, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen). Even though the team improved to 33 wins last season from 22 the previous season, fans still want and expect more. Success is relative, and time will tell if the changes made will be worthwhile.

Memphis appears to be at the starting point of an across-the-board rebuild. Do you think a complete rebuild was necessary?

AS: Yes, 100 percent. The Grizzlies went all in on Gasol and Conley three years ago, which I do think was the correct choice at the time. Overspending on Chandler Parsons was a gamble by the front office, and in hindsight it turned out to be a losing one. However, looking at the context of where the Grizzlies were as a team, I still believe they did the best they could with the cards they were dealt. It became apparent last year that the window to build around Conley and Gasol was pretty much closed, and a hard reset was the most logical way forward. 

It's easy to look back now and criticize the albatross that ended up being Parsons' contract, but top-tier free agents were not exactly clamoring to come to Memphis, and something that often goes unstated is that without signing Parsons (or a similar caliber player), there was a good chance that Conley wouldn't have re-signed. 

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but there were plenty of reasons to believe that building around Gasol and Conley would lead to further success. With a quality center and a quality point guard on the roster, the addition of a top-tier wing like Parsons made perfect sense. On paper, it was a solid move. In practice, not so much. Paralyzed by three near-max contracts, the Grizzlies were not able to acquire the rest of the pieces needed to push the team to the next level. And thus, here we are. 

SB: Absolutely, it was necessary. As the saying goes, you can't expect different results if you keep doing the same thing over and over. That's the definition of insanity. The Grizzlies were never known for developing young talent. Players were getting older and restless.

It was time to move on from Gasol and Conley and allow them to pursue championship aspirations because, frankly, it wasn't happening in Memphis any time soon.

It was long overdue. The icing on the cake was finally getting rid of Parsons' massive contract. Getting rid of the three massive contracts of Gasol, Conley, and Parsons gave the Grizzlies room to maneuver for the future.

Who'll have a breakout season, top of the roster?

AS: Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are the obvious answers, provided the latter can learn to stay out of foul trouble. This could also be the season that Dillon Brooks unlocks his full potential and elevates his game to another level. I'm feeling pretty high on Brandon Clarke as well. 

click to enlarge Ja Morant
  • Ja Morant

SB: Conventional wisdom would say Jaren Jackson Jr. However, Morant may give him a run for his money. Both have the potential to become superstars in this league.

Jackson is a great all-around player and the new face of the franchise, but he has had issues with rebounding and getting into foul trouble. He needs to understand that when the game is on the line, he needs to be out on the floor, not sitting on the bench with foul issues.

Morant is one of the best passing and explosive point guards to come out of college in a long time, and he will be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year. And he is hungry. With luck and hard work, Morant and Jackson could be an unstoppable duo in the NBA for years to come.

Who'll have a breakout season from the bench?

AS: Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill are both giving me very strong veteran role-player vibes. And this is likely to be an unpopular opinion, but I don't think we should sleep on Grayson Allen either. 

SB: There are several players who stand out on the bench, and it is hard to pick just one to have a breakout season. Clarke and Allen may be top-tier role players. Backup point guard Tyus Jones may be the most important bench player. He has an all-around game and has the ability to run the offense when Morant is catching a rest.

What does a successful season look like right now to this franchise?

AS: The Grizzlies need to consider the long game here and look beyond immediate results. What constitutes success is subjective, and one man's ceiling is another man's floor. I don't expect them to be playoff contenders this year — and maybe not next year, either. They have put together a nice group of guys who are young, scrappy, and hungry, and the primary goal for this season should be about player development and building team chemistry.

click to enlarge Coach Taylor Jenkins
  • Coach Taylor Jenkins

SB: Setting high expectations for this season doesn't seem realistic. As we've seen elsewhere in the league, a youth movement doesn't necessarily mean instant success. Continuity goes a long way as far as development is concerned with a young core. It might be a few years before the team's hard work pays off. This is a game of chess, not checkers. It may be tough in terms of winning in the Western Conference, but fans will likely have other things to cheer for and become excited about. This team should be considered one of the better up-and-coming young teams in the West, one with a bright future.

How should the Grizzlies handle the situation with Andre Iguodala?

AS: This is another situation in which playing the long game is necessary. What they should absolutely not do, under any circumstances, is give Iguodala a buyout right now. I might feel differently if he were willing to accept something lower than his full $17.2 million salary, however it just does not make good business sense to subsidize his move to the Lakers or the Clippers for nothing in return. If nothing else, he will be a hot commodity as the trade deadline gets closer, and there's a much better chance of getting some value out of his contract.  

SB: Right now, it's a business decision for the Grizzlies. Memphis has every right to want something in return, instead of a buyout. Iguodala has over $17 million remaining on his contract. Neither the Grizzlies nor Iguodala appear to be in a rush to come to an agreement. The Grizzlies are vying for future assets via a trade while Iguodala wants to be traded to a contender or sign with a team of his choosing, if he's bought out. Patience is key for both Memphis and Iguodala.

Aimee Stiegemeyer and Sharon Shy Brown are the founding editors and co-owners of the Memphis Grizzlies blog All Heart in Hoop City.

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