MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In the shadow of eight championship banners, the 6-foot-11 center with potential to become the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft goes to work. It’s an intrasquad scrimmage days before his team launches another title run, and the big man has become the go-to guy in just one season.
He has nimble feet, smooth moves and a burgeoning mean streak that has made him more unstoppable by the day. So he throws his body into a defender, buries him under the basket, calls for the ball and they feed him — over and over and over and over. Every time, at one point on six straight possessions, he dunks, lays the ball in, drops a jump hook or draws a foul.
On a loaded roster, he stands out as the star. No, this isn’t Kentucky (yet), and it isn’t Karl-Anthony Towns (yet), rather 16-year-old James Wiseman, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2019 and the Wildcats’ most important target.
He had 40 points and 14 rebounds in that scrimmage Monday night at powerhouse Memphis East High School, which is coached by former NBA star Penny Hardaway, and did much of the damage against muscled-up, 6-foot-8 teammate Malcolm Dandridge, a 4-star recruit coveted by most of the SEC.
“[Wiseman] is at the top of Kentucky’s list right now because he’s skilled, his upside is very high, he’s coachable — which is big in today’s game — and he’s only going to get better,” said Hardaway, a four-time NBA All-Star whose nationally ranked squad is the favorite to make it three straight state titles. “He’s definitely NBA talent. I’m just glad he’s a junior, where he can kind of get out of that private school basketball mode where everything is nice and get a little grimier.”
Made a pit stop tonight in Memphis on my way to Kentucky-Arkansas. Watched UK target and No. 1 overall 2019 recruit James Wiseman go for 40 and 14 in a scrimmage (played 29 mins) as Penny Hardaway-coached Memphis East gears up to attempt a state title 3-peat. Lots more coming … pic.twitter.com/Zt5TRJpjM2
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) February 20, 2018
Wiseman played his first two seasons of high school ball at Ensworth School in Nashville, where his interests in reading, nature and learning to speak Chinese (seriously) were nurtured, but his prodigious basketball talent was not. He played last spring and summer with Hardaway’s Nike-sponsored Team Penny on the AAU circuit and transferred to East in the fall.
“When he first came to the team, I had seen him from afar and it seemed like he was skilled but he wasn’t tough,” Hardaway said. “From then til now, he has a mean streak, that toughness where you can challenge him and he’ll get tougher. I want him to start the game more that way instead of waiting for me to get on him, but he does answer. That’s a big deal, because most kids shut down [when pushed]. He won’t shut down. He’ll go harder.”
East lost three straight games at one point this season, cold shooting the culprit each time, and that’s when it became The James Wiseman Show. Everything runs through the big man now. Hardaway called it “force-feeding,” and it looks a lot like Towns late in his freshman season at Kentucky.
One source in Lexington favorably compares the two, and Wiseman loves that: “I’ve been watching film of Karl-Anthony Towns when he was at Kentucky and they did a lot of pick-and-pop stuff like that, so that would be great for me.”
The consensus in recruiting circles has long been that the Wildcats are runaway favorites to land Wiseman. They’ve been recruiting him since he was a freshman, led by UK assistant Joel Justus, whose very name elicits an “Aw, Joel” from Wiseman’s mother, Donzaleigh Artis.
John Calipari, the former Memphis Tigers coach, returned to his old stomping grounds to extend a scholarship offer in person last fall.
“James is a person who likes people to keep in touch with him, tell him the good, the bad, the ugly, all that. Calipari and Joel have been keeping up with James, so that’s very impressive to him,” Artis said. “[Calipari] is family oriented and I like that about him, because James loves family; we’re big on family. That was very impressive. Calipari brings that up to say, ‘When he comes here, we want to treat him the same way you would treat him at home. We want him to feel like we are his family. If there’s a problem, you can come to me and talk. If you need me, you tell me.’
“He went through the whole spiel of how a family is supposed to operate. ‘I’m going to be your guardian on the floor and off the floor.’ I like that.”
It also made quite an impression when Justus flew some 5,000 miles across the world to Argentina last summer to watch Wiseman compete in the FIBA Americas under-16 championship. Wiseman didn’t recall seeing any other coach who was recruiting him.
“It meant a lot, that he was dedicated, that he wanted me to come to his program,” Wiseman said. “For me to see him in the stands in Argentina, it was crazy — but it was great.”
Artis points out that Texas also sent a coach, “but Joel stayed the whole entire time.”
Wiseman told SEC Country on Monday that Kansas, Texas, Vanderbilt, Indiana and Florida remain in the mix to land him and he’s keeping options open, being patient, not rushing a decision. But he grinned wide when asked about the widely held notion that Kentucky is the team to beat.
“They’re up there,” he said, adding that he’ll probably narrow his focus after the high school season or around the first weekend of the Nike AAU circuit this spring.
Some in Big Blue Nation have grown uneasy as Hardaway’s name begins to pop up as a candidate to become a college head coach — despite no previous experience at that level — making early wish lists at nearby Ole Miss (which has an opening) and his alma mater Memphis (which does not). If Hardaway got a job like that, might Wiseman follow?
“Some of these guys might,” said one person close to East High program, which has a half-dozen or more Division I prospects on the roster, “but James is going to Kentucky. That’s what he tells everybody.”
For his part, Wiseman grinned again when asked about that, and said if Hardaway got a head-coaching gig somewhere that school would at least be in the mix with his recruitment.
“Penny is my man,” said Artis, Wiseman’s mother. “He’s not just a basketball coach. He’s Penny. He’s teaching them boys what they need to know, on the court and off the court, to get to the next stage. To know Penny is really great.”
Perhaps the most pressing question in Wiseman’s recruitment isn’t whether Hardaway could steal him away to another college program, but when Wiseman’s college career will begin. There has been persistent speculation that he could reclassify — a la Marvin Bagley III at Duke — and be done with high school after this season.
He won’t turn 17 until March 31, however, meaning if he did reclassify he’d have to play a minimum of two years in college (under the current rules) before he was eligible for the NBA draft. That would be music to Calipari and the Cats’ ears, but is it even a real possibility?
Wiseman has consistently shot down that idea, and he did so again in an interview with SEC Country on Monday. Sort of.
“No possibility,” he said, shaking his head and smiling, “but you never know.”
Huh? See, he admits that Kentucky has talked to him about moving up his timeline. The Cats have three elite guards but zero big men signed for the Class of 2018, and with several current players expected to return next season there is potential to build another superteam in Lexington. They just need a star in the paint like Wiseman.
“It might be a chance,” he said, “but right now, no.”
Like her son, Mom started laughing before the question could even be asked of her. She knows this is what you really came to find out.
“I can’t even imagine him going off to college without me already in 2019, much less 2018,” Artis said. “I want James to be a kid. And to rush all this, that’s not God’s plan right now. We have to take our life one step at a time. I want James to experience all that he can, and he said that he didn’t want to reclass. So I’m standing by that.”
Spend a little time in Memphis and you’ll discover that Wiseman is a smart kid — he’ll rattle off some Chinese if you’re doubting that part of the story — with a sweet family, charismatic mother and an athletic ceiling that he hasn’t even begun to reach. A lot like Karl-Anthony Towns, who kept the secret for as long as he could before announcing he was moving up a class the same day he committed to Kentucky.
James Wiseman is a large human being coached by a former NBA star and he just showed off two years of learning Chinese by speaking it. I'm loose on the translation but roughly: Kentucky is looking good with this 2019 star. pic.twitter.com/6l90KUuqWO
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) February 20, 2018