INDIANAPOLIS — D.J. Jeffries lives in Olive Branch, Miss., which is essentially a Memphis, Tenn., suburb, so he is getting a full dose of Penny Mania these days. Hometown legend and former NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway, Jeffries’ former AAU coach, is now the head coach at the University of Memphis, and the whole city is abuzz.
The Tigers wanted Penny, in large part, because of his connection to elite players through his years running a Nike AAU program and coaching a three-time state championship high school team. Recruits are already started to flock to Penny and Memphis, but Jeffries says he won’t be one of them — which is music to John Calipari’s ears.
“[Penny Mania] is crazy. I hear it and stuff, but I just try to ignore it, because I know I’m going to be at Kentucky. I hope the best for Penny,” said Jeffries, a 6-foot-7 small forward ranked the No. 27 overall recruit nationally and the first UK commitment in the Class of 2019. “It’s not going to sway me. I’m going to stay at Kentucky.”
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Jeffries, in fact, is doing Big Blue Nation one better: he’s working against Hardaway on the recruiting trail, trying to lure No. 1 recruit James Wiseman to join him in Lexington. Jeffries and Wiseman are part of a loaded Bluff City Legends (formerly Team Penny) squad on the Nike circuit.
Kentucky was running away with Wiseman’s recruitment before Hardaway, who was also his high school coach, got the gig at Memphis. Now it’s a bona fide battle. Jeffries is playing the part of a good lieutenant for the Wildcats.
“I’m trying to work on James,” Jeffries said, explaining why UK makes sense for his friend: “It might be his dream school, because you know, Coach Cal knows what’s best for kids. He’s a top player, he wants to go one-and-done, and Cal’s got a good system to do that, so I think it’s somewhere he would want to go.”
But could Wiseman really turned down the coach who has become his mentor? For whom he left an exclusive private school in Nashville and moved with his mom to Memphis to play high school ball?
“It’ll be really tough, because him and Penny are really close,” Jeffries said. “But that’s life. You gotta make hard decisions sometimes.”
Jeffries was happy to get his decision out of the way early — Wiseman said his is coming in the next 2-4 months — so that he can focus on improving his game, competing for a Peach Jam championship on the Nike circuit and enjoying his senior season in high school.
Through seven games of the spring AAU season, he averaged 13.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and made an impressive 25 of 28 free throws (89 percent).
Kentucky’s coaches “say I remind them of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist,” Jeffries said, “how I lead and play defense and play hard.” MKG is one of the most beloved Wildcats of the Calipari era, so fans surely love that comparison. They’d love it even more if he can bring Wiseman with him.
“James is so quiet and laid back, so you really never know [what he’s thinking]. He don’t show no emotions,” Jeffries said. But he doesn’t buy Wiseman’s recent insistence that other schools, like Kansas and North Carolina are involved. “I think Memphis and Kentucky are his top two.”
And while Hardaway might not be changing Jeffries’ mind, he knows the Tigers are now a powerful force on the recruiting trail because of him. Players on the Nike circuit in Indianapolis this week are noticing and talking about Memphis and its glitzy new coach.
“Penny, he’s a mastermind. He thinks and sleeps basketball, so I don’t think him transferring to college will be hard for him. He knows the game and knows what it takes to get guys to the NBA,” Jeffries said. “I’m pretty sure [recruits] are thinking about it, because it’s Penny Hardaway and [new Tigers assistant] Mike Miller, so you’re looking at two NBA legends and you can go play for them in college and get to the NBA. So I’m pretty sure kids are excited about that.”
* EDITOR’S NOTE: That is a loose interpretation of “legend” for Miller, who never made an NBA All-Star team — but he was the No. 5 overall pick in 2000, NBA Rookie of the Year in 2001, Sixth Man of the Year in 2006 and owns two NBA championship rings. Hardaway was the No. 3 pick in 1993 and a four-time All-Star.