It’s one thing to evaluate a basketball team’s roster on paper. And quite another to walk among the players, size them up (literally), and measure their collective worth. Last Wednesday, the 2012-13 Memphis Tigers were introduced to local media at the Finch Center. There were some light moments in front of the camera (freshman Damien Wilson’s beard was a popular topic) and some more serious back-and-forth between players and reporters (junior transfer Geron Johnson offered a single word when asked how he’s cleaned up his life: “Prayer”).
I got the sense that Josh Pastner may have a college basketball coach’s best problem: too many pieces. Counting the returning stars (Tarik Black, Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Adonis Thomas), the veteran supporting players (Antonio Barton, Ferrakohn Hall, D.J. Stephens), and the three newcomers (Wilson, Johnson, and McDonald’s All-American Shaq Goodwin), the U of M should suit up ten rotation-worthy players. Can Pastner keep all ten happy with only 200 player minutes per game to distribute? It’s a fun problem to face, to say the least.
Even with all the numbers, I got the impression this could well be Thomas’s team. The sophomore from Melrose would likely have been a first-round pick in last June’s NBA draft had he entered, even after a compromised freshman season (due to an ankle injury) that saw the former McDonald’s All-American miss virtually the entire conference schedule. He chose to return to school, though, largely to show his hometown fans — and yes, NBA scouts — just what they missed last winter.
“I feel like they didn’t get a chance to see me,” said Thomas. “Last year, Coach Pastner had me playing a lot of the [power forward] position, and that’s not the position I’ll play in the NBA. This year, you’ll see me more on the wing, and how versatile I am. My natural position.”
Thomas recognizes the same thing every reporter did last Wednesday: strength in numbers. “The talent level is unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve seen Shaq on the circuit my whole life, played against some of these guys on the AAU level. And now we’re on the same team, coming together as one.”
Named second-team all-conference by C-USA coaches, Thomas is prepared to lead his band of stars, even with only 19 games (eight starts) under his belt. “At some point in time, I’m going to be called upon to be a leader,” he said. “I’m ready for that. Hopefully, games don’t come down to last-second shots, but if they do, I’m sure my team will be looking for me to contribute.”
• Justin Timberlake, Penny Hardaway, and Peyton Manning have all thrown their hat into the Memphis Grizzlies’ ownership ring. (These celebrities aim to join longtime Griz investors like Pitt Hyde, Staley Cates, and Elliot Perry.) If the NBA approves Robert Pera’s purchasing agreement, this city’s one big-league franchise will gain star power that registers well beyond the Mid-South. (How would a Zach Randolph jersey look on Timberlake during his next appearance on Saturday Night Live?)
Hardaway and Timberlake are easy faces to connect to a Memphis enterprise. And I, for one, love Peyton Manning (and his wife, Ashley, a native of Germantown) jumping on board. Manning has been a winner his entire life and that kind of association can only be healthy for a still-young franchise.
But this I wonder. There are Memphis sports fans that see red every time they see orange. Anything remotely associated with the University of Tennessee is sinful, ugly, everything Memphis should not be. (For those new to the universe, Manning starred at UT before ever donning the orange of the Denver Broncos.) Can an athlete glorified in Knoxville be celebrated as part of a Bluff City team? I look forward to the first time Manning is introduced to the crowd from a suite at FedExForum.