James Wiseman, Memphis will forever be linked, even after 2020 NBA Draft | Giannotto

Mark Giannotto
Memphis Commercial Appeal

I was on the way back from a wedding in Michigan in August 2017. James Wiseman was connecting through Detroit after a basketball camp in Los Angeles. And we were sitting next to one another, in the aisle seats of the exit row for a flight to Memphis. 

I recognized Wiseman and Wiseman recognized me because I’d spent the past several months following around Team Penny, the former grassroots basketball organization associated with Penny Hardaway that Wiseman had joined a few months earlier. 

Though his arrival at East High School had been rumored for weeks at this point, Wiseman had never actually spoken publicly about it. Here was the actual proof, though. He was flying home to Memphis, he said. If you’re flying home, I responded, this East High School speculation must be true.

“I just started the first day of school,” Wiseman said. 

This prompted a straightforward request. When we get off the plane, I asked, would you be willing to do an interview about coming to Memphis? He was.

So then we settled into our seats for the flight. I pulled out a Sports Illustrated from my bag. Wiseman, meanwhile, started reading a copy of Popular Science.

It’s a memory I think of often, perhaps because it was my first hint that Wiseman would be different than the typical basketball player to come through Memphis. Now, on the cusp of likely becoming a top-three pick in Wednesday’s NBA Draft, it’s become obvious he leaves behind a legacy here that’s different than any other prospect before him.

And, whether Memphians embrace it or not, he will be inextricably linked with this city forever, whether he ends up playing for Minnesota or Golden State or Charlotte or somewhere else. 

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For one, he’s pictured in all of the ESPN promotions wearing a Memphis Tigers jersey even though his college career lasted all of three games. He will presumably be announced by NBA commissioner Adam Silver as “from the University of Memphis.” 

He will also be the first player who played at a Memphis area high school selected in the NBA Draft since Skal Labissiere in 2016. He will be the first Tigers’ player chosen in the NBA Draft since Will Barton in 2012. He will almost certainly be the highest draft pick from the University of Memphis since Derrick Rose was taken first overall in 2008.

Moreover, Wiseman will be an ambassador for what Hardaway could become as a coach because his relationship with the Memphis coach is deeper than those few months he actually spent on campus. There’s a reason Hardaway is doing all sorts of national interviews speaking glowingly about Wiseman. He’s as much a part of what NBA teams love about Wiseman as anyone, and he knows Wiseman’s success will ultimately reflect well on him and the program he’s trying to build.  

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So Wiseman’s presence will loom over Hardaway’s program for years to come. 

Be it this season when players who may have never chosen Memphis without Wiseman doing so before them try to lead the Tigers back to the NCAA Tournament. Or in the future, when Memphis could face penalties from the NCAA stemming from its decision to play Wiseman after he had been ruled likely ineligible. 

Memphis Tigers center James Wiseman walks off the court after their season opening 97-64 win over  the South Carolina State Bulldogs at the FedExForum on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

There’s no getting around that Wiseman left behind a mess that Memphis and Memphis fans are still coming to grips with. It’s why he’ll never be remembered like Precious Achiuwa will be, or even like Rose. 

Though Rose’s SAT situation led to the controversial removal of the Tigers’ Final Four banner, at least Rose was a featured component of the 2007-08 team that nearly won a national championship. At least he stayed until the end of the season. 

Even this week, when Wiseman spoke to Memphis reporters for the first time since last November as part of the NBA’s pre-draft media availability, his explanation of what happened was confusing and contradictory at times. 

At one point, he said playing against college players was “a great stepping stone” to prepare for the NBA. At another, he said he wouldn’t change anything about how last season played out. He claimed to have matured through this whole ordeal with the NCAA over his mother accepting $11,500 from Hardaway when he moved from Nashville to Memphis during that summer of 2017. But he still sounded like a teenager who’s being told by others what to say and do. 

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Which shouldn’t be a surprise. How many of us could handle the attention and scrutiny Wiseman dealt with over the past few years when we were 17- or 18-years old?   

There’s “duality in everything,” Wiseman said, and it’s probably a good way for all of us to think about the Wiseman experience.   

Very rarely does life work out perfectly. Just take a look around at the year 2020 for proof. 

Wiseman’s story has not been a Memphis fairytale. But it is a story that took place largely in Memphis, and it’s a story that did produce some good for Memphis. Whether it was the recruitment of Achiuwa and Boogie Ellis and Lester Quinones. Or the immediate credibility it afforded Hardaway.

Or because of what’s going to happen Wednesday night. 

“Just everything that I’ve been through, it’s really going to be great because I just came through a lot of stuff,” Wiseman said. “So just being at that moment is going to be a great moment for me.”   

It should be a great moment for Memphis, too. A moment that began to take shape in this town only about three years ago. A moment that will feel different than all the NBA Draft moments Memphis has experienced before.

Because, whether you’ve come to terms with it yet or not, Wiseman will forever be a part of Memphis and Memphis will forever be a part of Wiseman.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at mgiannotto@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto