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James Wiseman's Personal Connections Set Up a Fascinating Two-Cat Race for 2019's Top Recruit

Where will the No. 1 recruit in the 2019 class decide to go? The smart money is on Kentucky or Memphis.

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C.—To hear James Wiseman himself tell it, the path of his near future is less like the proverbial fork in the road and more like an actual dining fork. Maybe even two of them, actually, with eight prongs in all.

On Thursday afternoon, 10 days after tweeting that he would soon announce which eight colleges he is most considering attending, the 7-foot 17-year-old—who is the nation’s consensus No. 1 Class of 2019 recruit—repeated the message, saying he planned to release a list that size after the Peach Jam tournament being played here finishes this weekend. And he insisted that persistent reports of a much smaller competition for his services are not accurate. “Schools still got a chance to get me,” said Wiseman, whose nickname is Big Ticket. “It’s not [only] Memphis and Kentucky. There’s other schools too that have my interest.”

But if you ask just about anyone else who’s been plugged into Wiseman’s recruitment, the race is considered to be truly down to just those two. Until this spring, actually, Wiseman was considered as good as ticketed to Lexington. (“That’s what he tells everybody,” one source told SEC Country in February.) Then Memphis made a game-changing coaching hire in March, bringing in a legendary alum, former NBA All-Star, and—most importantly—Wiseman’s high school coach, Penny Hardaway, to helm the program. Now Wiseman’s decision is widely believed to be a toss-up between the schools: In its most recent “crystal ball” compilation of experts’ predictions, 247Sports gives Memphis a 58% chance of landing Wiseman, compared to Kentucky’s 42%.

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For the Wildcats to be in position to land a player of Wiseman’s caliber is practically a given. It’s the Tigers’ sudden involvement and the intersecting storylines accompanying it that make Wiseman’s recruitment one of the most intriguing of this cycle. Memphis only entered the conversation with the arrival of Hardaway, who coached Wiseman to a Tennessee state championship at East High in Memphis last season and founded the AAU program Wiseman has played for since last year. Then there is the added drama of Memphis not only making a push for the country’s top prospect and the biggest star of the city’s celebrated high-school hoops scene, but also doing so by luring him away from Kentucky coach John Calipari, whom many in town still resent for the way he left the Tigers to take that job nine years ago. Almost immediately upon Hardaway’s hiring the horse-race coverage began. One day in April, there were Calipari and assistant coach Joel Justus smiling with Wiseman in his living room; the next day, there were Hardaway and assistant Mike Miller.

In the opening days of Peach Jam, the Nike AAU circuit event that is considered the summer’s most prestigious, the schools’ staffs have been even closer, sitting next to one another at each of Wiseman’s first two games with the Bluff City Legends. (Hardaway says he and Calipari are friends and have discussed the Tigers and Wildcats playing an annual series against one another.) What they and other onlookers have been watching is a player showcasing what makes him such a tantalizing prospect for the next level. On Wednesday night, in a highly anticipated matchup with No. 2 overall prospect Vernon Carey Jr., Wiseman shook off early foul trouble to finish with 26 points and 10 rebounds, showcasing a promising shooting range to go with a soft touch (and strong above-rim game) inside. Thursday was more uneven. In the morning session, Wiseman finished with four points, four rebounds, and four turnovers in 15 minutes of a loss to Oakland Soldiers before being ejected after his second technical foul. He recovered well in the nightcap, including several eye-catching dunks in a win over Indy Heat.

Watching Wiseman, who measured a full 7-feet tall with a 7’ 6” wingspan at last month’s USA Basketball trials, run the floor, alter shots on defense and score in diverse ways, it’s hard to imagine him not being an instant-impact college player in 16 months. Yet for Memphis fans in particular, his allure extends beyond his mere basketball ability. In recent years locals have watched high-level homegrown talent leave the area to play elsewhere, one of the fanbase’s most persistent criticisms of the short-lived Tubby Smith era. Upon his hiring, Hardaway secured the commitments of Memphis high school stars Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris, delighting Tigers supporters. “That has people pumped,” says longtime Memphis sportswriter and radio host Geoff Calkins. “Now he’s saying, 'No, we’re gonna do even better than that and go head-to-head with the Kentuckys of the world.' That’s intoxicating stuff for Memphians to hear.”

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There is an added appeal for Kentucky fans too. Not that the Wildcats have been short on talent in recent seasons, but master recruiter Calipari hasn’t landed a class’s No. 1 recruit since 2012 (Nerlens Noel) and his last consensus top-five signee came in 2015 (Skal Labissiere). Luring Wiseman (or potentially Carey, another top target) would at least be a symbolic bolstering of that reputation, with the added bonus of the built-in rapport between he and Bluff City teammate D.J. Jeffries, a top-40 wing committed to the Wildcats who has also excelled so far this week.

As late-blooming as the Memphis courtship has been, losing Wiseman to Calipari would provide an extra sting for Tigers fans. Resentment lingers from the coach’s exit a year after leading Memphis to a since-vacated national championship game appearance, which included Calipari bringing with him to Kentucky the heart of a recruiting class (John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins) that would have again made the Tigers Final Four contenders. The tease of an elite local recruit flirting with Memphis before heading elsewhere would be bad enough. That elsewhere being Lexington would leave fans chewing on an especially bitter what-if.

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Of course, Wiseman isn’t truly a Memphis product in the first place, but even that fact may bode well for the Tigers. Wiseman grew up in Nashville and spent his first two years of high school at The Ensworth School, a tony prep school in town, before his family moved to Memphis last year, resulting in Wiseman playing for Hardaway at East High. (Wiseman’s mother has said the family moved to be closer to her daughter, who already attends Memphis.) Wiseman having already made two team changes—he also switched AAU allegiances to the Hardaway-founded Bluff City Legends, then called Team Penny, last year—that resulted in him playing for Hardaway speaks volumes for how Wiseman views Hardaway, with whom he said Thursday he has “the same relationship” that he did while playing for him.

(There is an added, complicated layer to that relationship that could potentially result in East High’s 2018 state championship being vacated. Under Tennessee high school rules, a player who transfers schools and has an “athletic coaching link” with the new school is ineligible for the following 12 months. In question is whether Wiseman having played for Hardaway’s AAU program, of which he was no longer designated coach, constituted such a link. Wiseman was initially ruled ineligible last season, then reinstated after an injunction, but the case is not yet settled.)

On Thursday, Wiseman cited his relationship with the coaching staff as among his criteria in choosing schools. Here too Memphis (with Hardaway) and Kentucky (with Calipari and Justus, who Wiseman’s mother has called “my favorites”) would appear to be far ahead of the pack. But Wiseman, who has already taken an unofficial visit to Kansas, says he plans to spend this fall making five official visits to his top schools, which would lend some credence to the idea that his scope may be wider yet.

Still, the safe money would be on Wiseman being in Memphis or Lexington come fall of 2019, a time when the college basketball world at large will surely get to know him fast. Until then, he will be tracked closely by two very interested fanbases—and, perhaps futilely, by some hopeful others.