Key Returners: Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, Isaiah Maurice
Key Losses: Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Kareem Brewton, Raynere Thornton, Antwann Jones (transfer)
Key Newcomers: James Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa, D.J. Jeffries, Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones, Lance Thomas (Louisville), Malcolm Dandridge, Damian Baugh
Outlook: A couple ounces of youthful exuberance here, a dash of explosive volatility there, and…let the experiment begin!
Rarely have we seen a team outside of Duke and Kentucky be so reliant on freshmen, and the parade of questions about Penny Hardaway’s coaching ability will be marching down Beale Street until he emphatically answers them all. He and Mike Miller have assembled an all-star recruiting class anchored by the #1-ranked prospect James Wiseman, and expectations around the country are through the roof:
Shouts to Mr. Dauster - we stand in solidarity with you!
So yes, we are slightly cooler on Memphis than the consensus, but we acknowledge that the Tigers’ ceiling is up there with any of the other contenders in terms of talent. We’re simply in more of a “wait and see” mode on Penny and the fit of the roster, because getting all of these talented elements to mix together into a perfectly coherent concoction will take incredible care, both strategically and in managing egos in the locker room, where the wrong blend could combust spectacularly.
The first and most obvious tactic with this roster is something Penny already showed a propensity for last year: unleashing his team in transition. Alex Lomax, Tyler Harris, and Boogie Ellis can all push the pace, and the Tigers should look to push off every turnover and missed shot. They can send athleticism in waves, as even the big men (Wiseman, fellow 5-star freshman Precious Achiuwa, returnee Isaiah Maurice) are mobile and can get up and down the floor, and wings DJ Jeffries and Lester Quinones can operate in space. Synergy had Memphis at 21.5% of its possessions in transition last year, 17th-most in the country, while hoop-math had that number even higher at 30.1% (8th in the country). Expect the cinder block to remain on the gas pedal, because few teams will be able to avoid getting overwhelmed in the open floor against the Tigers.
Memphis will also probably run some full-court press defensively, attacking opponents with their length, quickness, and depth. Penny pressed on 13% of possessions last year, and with this year’s roster, I’d expect that number to ramp up even more. The Tigers turned opponents over at the 34th-highest rate in the country, per KenPom, which will lead to plenty of easy points.
The concern will be when opponents score efficiently and/or get back in a disciplined manner, forcing Memphis to execute in the half-court. They’ll be a little bit like Duke last year in this sense: if you let them play up-tempo, they can absolutely bury you, but they’ll seem much more mortal when stalled. Penny had a bona fide offensive star last year in Jeremiah Martin, but despite his incendiary scoring (two games of 40+ points, 17 others of 20+), Memphis was merely average in the half-court. Lomax is probably the only pure point guard on the roster (and he played for Penny at Memphis East with Wiseman), but he’s also not one of the best five players on the team, which creates a difficult dynamic in trying to facilitate offense and keep consistent ball movement. Harris, Lomax, and Ellis will get plenty of chances to run the pick-and-roll, and Wiseman may be the best roll man/lob threat in the country:
To optimize that athleticism, the Memphis guards need to display the vision and willingness to consistently hit him in the paint. Lomax and Harris struggled mightily in the PnR last year, though, particularly Lomax:
Of course, a year of experience and having a 7’1 powerhouse as a gravitational force barreling down the lane will both help greatly, but those numbers support the “wait and see” notion with the Tigers’ half court offense.
We’ll also likely see a heavy dosage of isolation simply due to the scoring depth the Tigers have; Harris and Ellis can get their own shots in a pinch, and Achiuwa and Jeffries will likely be physical mismatches for whoever tries to guard them. Shooting and spacing will come from Quinones (an absolutely lights-out gunner), Ellis, possibly Harris (though his 31.5% last year won’t strike fear into opponents), and even Wiseman and Maurice as stretch fives.
Fellow freshmen Damion Baugh and Malcolm Dandridge (another Memphis East product) and Louisville transfer Lance Thomas will likely desire playing time, too, further underlining the challenge Penny faces with so many mouths to feed. Baugh is another explosive, aggressive wing who will fit into a transition attack, while Dandridge and Thomas are both mobile bigs who may have to battle each other for minutes.
Memphis may ultimately be best off if Wiseman accepts an Anthony Davis-esque role alongside his slightly less-heralded teammates. Davis was fourth on his own team in usage (behind Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Terrence Jones), instead opting to dominate with his shot-blocking, finishing, and the occasional post up or mid-post iso. Of course, Davis was a once-in-a-generation kind of prospect, and I am in no way saying Wiseman is the second coming of the Brow, but he is similarly capable of being a defensive anchor given his athletic fluidity and mile-wide wingspan. And although he can score (he has developing soft touch from out to the three-point line), players like Achuiwa, Ellis, Jeffries, and Harris will be looking for a healthy share of shots, too. How Penny ultimately weaves (Weave!) Wiseman into the fabric of the team will have a crucial effect on Memphis’s success.
Bottom Line: Memphis, as it stands, is the equivalent of an incredible movie teaser. It’s easy to fall in love with the bits and pieces we’ve seen thus far, and the potential for something truly elite is clearly there. But there’s a ton of behind the scenes work that needs to be done properly in order for everything to come together into one coherent masterpiece. The characters/roles need to be fleshed out properly and accepted by those taking them on, the tone/scheme of the overall project needs to be clarified and drilled home, and the finer details will need to be sharp enough to prevent this team from being an empty calorie action flick. And unlike John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski, we have yet to see Penny successfully direct a film with this expansive of a budget.
You can bet the Tigers will be marketed like crazy (prepare for ESPN’s season-long love affair), but the real success of the team will come down to the strategic decisions Penny makes and the willingness of the multitude of stars to accept a team-first mindset. In other words, will this collection of talent be an Avengers or a Suicide Squad?