Why you should care
Because lottery-pick-stacked Memphis is the team to watch in college hoops this year.
When thousands of rabid college hoops fans show up just to watch their favorite team practice, a fair expectation is that said team better put on a show. Down in Memphis, where 18,000 Memphis Tigers fans flooded into the FedExForum on Oct. 3, the show did not disappoint.
There was James Wiseman, a 7-foot-1 freshman prodigy from Memphis’ East High, dunking everything in sight during the Tigers scrimmage. There was Damion Baugh, another Memphis product, jumping over Wiseman to win the dunk contest. There was second-year head coach Penny Hardaway, the four-time NBA All-Star, wearing an “All the Smoke” hoodie with Future and Young Thug’s “All da Smoke” blaring from the loudspeakers. And, yes, there was Future closing down the night with a performance that sent mesmerized fans stumbling out onto Beale Street, wondering what in the hell is about to happen this season.
One man in the background for most of the evening, assistant coach Mike Miller, has some answers.
I’ve played every role there is in basketball; I know what the kids are going through.
With two potential top 10 NBA draft picks (Wiseman and forward Precious Achiuwa) and several more likely first-rounders, No. 14-ranked Memphis is already drawing comparisons to Michigan’s “Fab Five” freshman class and last year’s Duke team led by Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. On paper, this team has more collective talent than both. “We’re going to win a national championship,” Miller told the Athletic in October.
Their biggest name of all is Hardaway, an NBA superstar and cultural phenomenon from the mid-’90s who will have to get this talent to jell — and play at the breakneck pace he wants. “It’s going to come down to Penny managing the roster,” says former Memphis and NBA player Elliot Perry. “The second-tier players will be the key. Penny is going to have to spend a lot of time managing those egos and getting them to buy into new roles.”
That’s where Miller comes in. The fifth-overall NBA draft pick in 2000, he starred for the Memphis Grizzlies from 2003 to 2008, then won back-to-back NBA Finals alongside LeBron James on the Miami Heat. He’s been a role player, a star and a role player once again, earning the trust of players like James, Dwyane Wade and Pau Gasol along the way. Denver Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic, whom Miller played with from 2015 to 2017, credits Miller as the veteran who taught him “what it takes to be great.”
Those connections make a difference on the recruiting trail and in the locker room. Hardaway might have played with Shaquille O’Neal, but today’s 18-year-olds only know Shaq as a TNT commentator. Miller texts with the NBA’s current greats, and draws wisdom from more-recent experience.
“When you’re young, you think things will be easier than they are,” says Miller. “It’s about helping these kids get comfortable and realize how special they can be.”
His days of draining shots in the NBA Finals may be over, but Miller can still hold court. He possesses a depth of swagger derived from proving oneself time and again. At 39, he still mixes it up in practice, and he’s earned a reputation as one of the most approachable athletes in a city that loves them. Memphis is a Tigers city first, but when Miller, Gasol, Jason Williams and hometown hero Lorenzen Wright led the Grizzlies to the playoffs for three straight seasons, the franchise began establishing a lasting fan base.
That stint in Memphis was “the longest I’d been anywhere in my adult life,” says Miller, so with his oldest son approaching high school, Miller retired from the NBA and moved his family back to Memphis in 2017. He wasn’t sure what his future held. Then, in March 2018, with the city rejoicing over Hardaway’s hiring, Miller saw his play. The two were friendly from the Amateur Athletic Union coaching circuit, but it was Miller who approached Hardaway about joining his staff.
“We’re both in it for the right reasons — to help these kids reach their goals,” says Miller. “There’s a big difference between needing a job and wanting a job.”
When Hardaway tweeted a now viral photo of himself and Miller flying across the country in a private jet for a recruiting trip, he sent a clear message that Memphis, and its superstar coaches, was ready to take on college basketball’s elite. Months later, California point guard Boogie Ellis decommitted from Duke and signed with Memphis.
But Memphis isn’t reeling in top recruits solely thanks to the availability of private air travel. As relative outsiders, Hardaway and Miller are uniquely positioned to compete with the college basketball overlords like Kentucky’s John Calipari, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams.
“I’ve played every role there is in basketball; I know what the kids are going through,” says Miller. “That’s the most important thing that most coaches overlook. How are these young kids feeling?”
Miller and Hardaway are not traditional college basketball coaches, so they’re not going to play like it. Instead, Hardaway and Miller are focused on giving their players a “grassroots NBA experience.”
“We’re going to run the floor and use NBA vocabulary,” says Miller. “That’s what we know works, and that’s what these guys need to know.”
After decades of living it, Hardaway and Miller are connecting young recruits with a dream that college basketball’s crustier coaches can only claim to understand. This season, we’ll see just how effective the Tigers are at chasing it.