What Should Expectations Be for Memphis After Bringing in the Nation's No. 1 Class?

Penny Hardaway made waves on the recruiting trail in 2019, but how quickly can James Wiseman and Co. have the Tigers clicking?
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Memphis basketball 2019-20 Penny Hardaway

In continuing our annual offseason theme of getting you acquainted with the next crop of young, skilled players that will arrive to college basketball, we're taking a closer look at the Top 10 incoming recruiting classes (per the 247Sports composite) in the country. These schools range from the usual faces (Duke, Kentucky) to fresh ones (Memphis, Washington, Georgia), but they all have one big thing in common: there's plenty of major talent arriving. Five-stars get the headline, but a truly great recruiting class often has depth as well—players who can be program-changers over three or four years, not just one or two. Without further ado, let's move to the nation's No. 1 class: the Memphis Tigers.

The Breakdown

Five-Stars: James Wiseman (RSCI index No. 1), Precious Achiuwa (RSCI No.13)

Four-Stars: Boogie Ellis (RSCI No. 36), D.J. Jeffries (RSCI No. 45), Lester Quiñones (RSCI No. 60), Malcolm Dandridge (247 No. 106), Damion Baugh (247 No. 115)

How the Class Was Built

Fall 2018: Hardaway’s first commitment came from D.J. Jeffries, a local product who played for Hardaway’s AAU program and decommitted from Kentucky over the summer. Like clockwork, within a month, James Wiseman, perhaps the most sought-after recruit in the country and another Hardaway protegé jumped on board. His commitment, in essence, meant the Memphis program was back on a national scale.

Spring 2019: The rest of Memphis’s commitments—five, as it turned out—came early in the spring, beginning with local four-star guard Damion Baugh. Then in May, there was a flurry of activity over the course of two weeks: Malcolm Dandridge, then Lester Quiñones, then Boogie Ellis (a recent decommit from Duke), and finally Achiuwa all pledged to Hardaway. The Tigers struck nationally and assembled the top-ranked recruiting class, with a deep group incoming and expectations raised.

How It Stacks Up to 2018 and Recent History

There’s really not much of a comparison here—Hardaway’s initial recruiting class included Memphis-grown guards Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris, both of whom remain on the roster, as well as JUCO big man Isaiah Maurice, Hardaway’s son Jayden, and two players who went on to transfer, Antwann Jones and David Wingett. It was a start, but it was far from a national story. The dialogue has changed considerably since then, with Hardaway and assistant coach Mike Miller pushing their NBA pedigrees and convincing top talent that the Tigers could aid their development long-term.

This doesn’t mean Memphis is the new Kentucky—as it stands, Wiseman is the only sure one-and-done first-round pick on the roster. But it’s certainly a step in that direction. Like it or not, the bar is set pretty high moving forward for the type of players Hardaway’s proven capable of landing. Memphis has incredible facilities and resources, and the success feels sustainable—at least, as long as it's getting results on the court. The AAC schedule isn’t exactly an obstacle course, and the Tigers could be heavy hitters and a thorn in the side of traditional blue-blood programs for the foreseeable future.

Class Expectations

Memphis’s season will be quite clearly determined by how quickly its freshmen get comfortable. Their fate depends on it. Harris, Lomax and Maurice are the only returning rotation players, and minutes won’t be guaranteed for any of them, although the former two will need stabilize the backcourt in some capacity. Hardaway mixed and matched lineups during the team’s Bahamas tour as well as at their pro day last week (which I attended), and the coaching staff is still sussing out what the best combinations will be.

Wiseman will be the key to everything. Memphis plans to utilize him in a variety of situations—dribble-handoffs, post-ups, face-ups and as a playmaking trailer—and with his unusual athletic gifts, he’s going to be a matchup problem most nights. His skill set is far from polished, but you can see the ability in flashes, and the Tigers will aim to keep him engaged and active. He should also be the anchor of the defense, able to cover a ton of ground beneath the rim with his length and explosiveness to the ball. There’s no real reason Wiseman shouldn’t be a double-double machine if he’s up to task, and quite possibly Memphis’s leading scorer.

Lester Quiñones looks like the most college-ready of the other freshmen. He’s not arriving with much hype and isn’t a stellar athlete, but he’s a potential game-changing catch-and-shoot player and will be a critical floor spacer on the wing. Boogie Ellis figures to get a chunk of the guard minutes as well, and adds an element of creativity off the dribble. Precious Achiuwa’s college-readiness has been somewhat overhyped, but his motor and athleticism should make him a net positive. D.J. Jeffries will also see minutes at forward and be relied upon to shoot the ball effectively. The coaching staff has been pleased with Damion Baugh’s growth, and his size and poise at the point should also earn him time.

Wiseman is the only sure one-and-done caliber player here, although the early expectation seems to be that Achiuwa will follow. If Hardaway can keep most of these guys around for another season and supplement it with additional talent, there’s some real potential with this group. But, as is the nature of the business, it’s hard to say who’ll be on the roster a year from now.

Team Expectations for 2019-20

It’s reasonable to think Memphis should make the NCAA tournament, and the Tigers should be able to rub shoulders with Cincinnati and Houston atop the American, although expecting them to run away with the conference might be overeager. With top recruits come heightened expectations, and another NIT appearance would be tougher to swallow given the arc of the program. There has to be tangible progress, and even though the roster is essentially brand-new, there are some stakes here. If Hardaway misses the tournament with Wiseman on the roster, it won’t be a great look. But it’s all within reach, and the Tigers should benefit from a soft schedule if they can handle their non-conference slate (dates with Oregon and Tennessee could be crucial résumé games). Realistically, there’s not a Final Four berth on the way. But a competitive season and March relevance would be a step in the right direction.

The Future

Memphis doesn’t have any commitments for 2020, but they’re aiming high. The Tigers are heavily involved with a number of elite recruits, beginning with five-stars Jalen Green and Greg Brown. They’re also involved with top players like Nimari Burnett and Dawson Garcia. Top 2021 point guard Devin Askew could reclassify to 2020, and Memphis is in pursuit there as well. They’re thought to have a great chance at nabbing Green, who would be the centerpiece of the class, and would be huge for sustaining momentum.