James Wiseman leaving Memphis is a bad sign for College Hoops

In less than a month the Memphis Tigers went from a title contender to an underdog. On Dec. 19 James Wiseman announced that he’ll be leaving the school to train for the NBA Draft. Projected as a top-3 pick, Wiseman has all the tools to be the next great bigman. At 7’1” he’s offensively skilled, runs like a gazelle in transition, and is supremely coordinated for his size. Like most great freshmen, he was on his way to having a monster one-and-done season, but the NCAA had other ideas.  

In November the NCAA ruled Wiseman ineligible (which he appealed) and later suspended him for 12 games after an investigation came out that he received “improper benefits” from coach Penny Hardaway back in 2017. In the summer of that year Hardaway paid $11,500 to help Wiseman’s family move from Nashville to Memphis. Wiseman was transferring to East HS where Hardaway coached at the time. They already had a working relationship since Wiseman played in Hardaway’s Bluff City Legends AAU program. Because Hardaway donated $1 million to Memphis to build its Hall of Fame back in 2008, he’s technically considered a booster. 

The NCAA doesn’t need Wiseman and that much is true. College Sports is a billion dollar industry and it’ll take more than a blue chipper leaving. However, I think his departure from Memphis might spur many top recruits to reconsider whether going to college is even worth it. We’re already seeing it with LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton going to Australia. Ten years ago Brandon Jennings passed up college ball to go play in Italy. We didn’t realize it then, but it was the canary in the coal mine for what’s to come. 

Adam Silver, the NBA’s commissioner, said the league will get rid of the one-and-done rule. With the removal of said rule, we’ll see many top prospects take their chances and jump ship. Despite the NCAA pushing their “student-athlete” brand, part of their appeal is seeing talented kids tear it up before going to the league. Everyone remembers the Fab Five at Michigan. Derrick Rose dazzled everyone in his lone year in Memphis. Every fan 25 and under likes at least one player that went to Duke or Kentucky. Those type of players serve as the connective tissue between the two leagues. It also adds to the greater lore of not only basketball, but American sports in general. 

The NBA has its own minor league system in the G-League. But because the the NCAA dwarfs the G-League in money and exposure, College Hoops is the de-facto minor league in North America. But it won’t stay that way forever. In a time where kids are being scouted from middle school and have viral mixtapes by the time they’re in high school, why wouldn’t they take a paid internship in Europe? Besides, they’re “amateurs” according to Mark Emmert. It builds their brand globally and they don’t have to deal with the NCAA breathing down their neck.

Some may say Memphis got what they deserve but I’d say otherwise. Hardaway and Wiseman already knew each other from their time in AAU. It wasn’t like Hardaway bribed a recruit with cash or gifts unlike Rick Pitino and Bruce Pearl. Wiseman was comfortable with Hardaway and played under him because of that. Also because Hardaway’s well-connected in the sports world, Memphis made sense. Tubby Smith’s firing in 2018 left a vacancy for head coach. Given that Hardaway has a lot of clout in basketball circles due to his success as a player (two-time All-NBA First Team, 4-time All-Star), the college saw an opportunity. A coach with NBA connections is like catnip for prospects, and Hardaway’s name alone gives Memphis a huge recruiting advantage. 

The NCAA will always be a staple in American sports and it will be hard to challenge it as an institution. However college isn’t the only route to the league. Nowadays players can getsigned through the G-League and overseas. Pat Beverly and Johnathan Simmons are testaments to that and have big contracts to back it up. Time will tell about the future of grassroots basketball in the states. With the game going global, the horizons for young players are more vast than ever.