Projected #1 Overall Pick James Wiseman Ends Lawsuit Against the NCAA

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The complex legal battle between James Wiseman and the NCAA drew to a close last week when the projected #1 overall pick withdrew his lawsuit, however the central dispute, that of Wiseman’s playing eligibility, remains at large. The withdrawal has come on the hopes that the freshman center will be reinstated to #13 ranked Memphis shortly by the NCAA.

The lawsuit stems from 2017 when Memphis coach Penny Hardaway was still the coach of Memphis East High School and sought to recruit Wiseman, at that time a high school junior. Wiseman and his mother had been living in Nashville and to ease the burden of relocating to Memphis, Hardaway provided $11,500 in moving expenses. However Hardaway, a University of Memphis alum himself, donated $1 million in 2008 as a booster, so his assistance to the Wiseman family was deemed as an “impermissible benefit” given his current status as the coach of Memphis and in turn, James Wiseman. According to NCAA rules, boosters are not permitted, “to provide gifts or reduced-cost services to a prospect,” so the violation rendered Wiseman ineligible. However, much of what has caused the controversy is the indecisive nature of the NCAA’s judgments in what has been a case without much precedent.

The NCAA initially ruled the no. 1 high school recruit eligible in late May, however two weeks into the season, said Wiseman was “likely ineligible” due to Hardaway’s payment to the family. Accordingly, the 7’1″ center hired lawyers from Ballin, Ballin & Fishman and Farese, Farese & Farese to gear up for the legal battle over his eligibility. Wiseman then received a temporary restraining order against the NCAA and while Memphis decided to play the freshman for two games, this exemption was short-lived as Memphis observed the NCAA’s stance on Wiseman’s eligibility and ruled him ineligible.

Since, Wiseman’s legal team has dropped his lawsuit, though it remains hopeful that the University of Memphis and the NCAA will reach an agreement expeditiously. Although Wiseman himself is not able to comment on the situation, the two firms released a statement in which they expressed the hindrance the lawsuit represented in reaching a resolution. While it seems that the two sides have a clear, vested interest in Wiseman’s reinstatement — Memphis wanting its no. 1 prospect back, and the NCAA wanting viewership for the projected #1 overall NBA pick — it appears as though the 18 year-old talent will receive a multi-game suspension.

There has never been a case in which a booster has given a high school prospect an “impermissible benefit” and has later become the coach of said prospect. The closest comparison to Wiseman’s dilemma is that of former BYU basketball player, Nick Emery. Emery accepted $12,000 from a booster and subsequently received a nine game suspension for the violation. Early reports indicate that Wiseman figures to receive a similar punishment once Memphis and the NCAA reach an agreement. If the NCAA issues the same nine-game suspension that Emery received, Wiseman would be eligible for reinstatement after December 21st, assuming the NCAA counts the two games that Memphis already. However, I would imagine that the suspension will end up being a bit shorter due to Wiseman’s celebrity and the complexity of the initial violation.

Now that the lawsuit has been dropped, Memphis and the NCAA can negotiate the resolution of the freshman’s eligibility. Given the excitement around Wiseman and Memphis’ potential this season, it is hard to see the league’s vision in handing down a heavy suspension on the university’s prized prospect. In fact, I believe any severe penalty enforced in this case ought to be directed toward the university and/or Coach Hardaway himself given the culpability they might have been expected to anticipate due to the circumstances around his hiring. The commercial impact of prior #1 overall projected picks is undeniable, just look at ticket prices for Zion Williamson’s Duke games from a season ago. Yes, the NCAA aims to establish a precedent and make an example out of future high school coach-top prospect duos in the future, but more than anything, should want the publicity and profit that accompanies the best talents in college basketball. It is reasonable to expect an official ruling on Wiseman’s eligibility in the coming days from the NCAA and if the organization is looking out for itself and its fans, then Wiseman should hope to back on the court before the December 21 timetable.

Update (11/20): The NCAA has decided to suspend Wiseman for 12 games (11 additional after the one that he already sat out) and he will be eligible to return on January 12 against South Florida. Moreover, the NCAA has stated that Wiseman must donate $11,500, the original amount given to him as moving expenses, to a charity of his choice.

Does Andre Iguodala have a way out of Memphis?

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Lots of buzz surrounds the Grizzlies heading into the 2019-2020 season given the offseason moves that has brought in an infusion of exciting young talent. However the biggest storyline in Memphis right now deals with the 35 year-old Andre Iguodala. After being jettisoned from the Warriors in a salary cap-clearing trade, Iguodala has expressed his desire to be waived in order to play for a title contender – which the Grizzlies are not. It is easy to understand the perspective of the 2016 Finals MVP who spent the last six years with Golden State, playing in five NBA Finals and winning three. However, it is equally understandable as to why Memphis would rather keep Iguodala, rather than just simply release him.

For one, despite the fact that Iguodala’s minutes and points hit career lows last season, he remains an extremely productive contributor off the bench, bringing quality defense and rebounding. Moreover, he understood his role well as evidenced by a career-high 50% field goal percentage. He is also said to be a great teammate and locker room leader, the likes of which any championship team thrives upon. All of this comes together to highlight just how valuable Iguodala could be to the Grizzlies come the February trade deadline. Add in the fact that the 15-year veteran would be serving as a role model to the futures of the franchise in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., Iguodala is clearly more than just a draft-pick asset.

So, is there a way out for Iguodala? There are rumors that this may be his final NBA season and he wants control of his destiny. Meanwhile, Memphis apparently is “refusing” to buyout his contract and wants him to show up to training camp so the two sides are at a standstill. Just ten years ago, the answer likely would have been an emphatic “NO,” but a lot has changed in such time. Gone are the days when players felt emotionally and now, even contractually beholden to a team. Ever since “The Decision,” the control a player has over their own destiny has boosted substantially. This is due in part to changes in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was introduced in 2017 that included a Designated Veteran contract.

The contract permits players between seven and nine years of service time to sign a contract worth 35% of the salary cap if those players reached certain criteria, such as making All-NBA Teams. While this allows a given team to offer the most lucrative max contract to its own player, it also inflates the price tag a team may have to assign a player to represent a competitive offer. The end result has placed more power in the hands of the player, especially those veterans who are a year or two away from reaching free agency. Teams must decide if they want take on the risk of losing a player to free agency who they are unsure will resign and in doing so, lose them for essentially nothing; or trade that player with a year or two remaining in their contract for other talent or draft picks, ensuring that they receive some return on the player’s value.

This understanding of the shift in control has motivated some stars in the league to make their free agency intentions known to the team, often times in hopes of being sent to a better team or preferred location. In turn, this has produced numerous trades that many would have previously been considered unthinkable like a team trading away someone of Paul George or Anthony Davis’ caliber. Other stars have flat out drove their way out, either by ruining rapport with teammates or management (see: Kyrie Irving) or simply refusing to play (see: Kawhi Leonard). In any case, stars now have a greater avenue in forcing a general manager’s hand and can often do so with considerable success.

That brings us back to Andre Iguodala. While he is greatly respected throughout the league, he does not possess “star power” at this point in his career, much less will he be offered a max contract any time soon. However, he may still be able to wriggle his way away from the Grizzlies within the confines of the CBA.

The agreement states various reasons in which a team may discipline a player, included among them are missing practices and more importantly, “failure to report following a trade.” In this circumstance, the penalty is at the discretion of the league and the player’s team. If Iguodala is steadfast in his desire to play on a contender, this is likely his most effective route in doing so. Considering the fact that Iguodala has netted over 140 million dollars worth of contracts in his career, the fines for his failure to report would be minimal. Memphis likely would not want the headache, storylines, and cap hit associated with a dragged out dispute especially as the first season under a new coach unfolds, so there is a chance that they decide to move on from Iguodala altogether.

However, there is also the risk that the league and the Grizzlies make an example out of Iguodala, because his situation is markedly different from the other mentioned above: Iguodala may consider not reporting because of not liking a team he was traded to, instead of already on, like many of the successful cases. A better comparison is the way in which Jimmy Butler was traded from the under-achieving Timberwolves last season after being acquired just the season before. His frustration with the environment in Minnesota was publicly known, specifically his question of Karl-Anthony Towns’ and Andrew Wiggins’ desire. He requested a trade, skipped practices and preseason games, culminating in the infamous scrimmage, which represented the final straw in deciding to trade Butler.

It was a messy situation, the likes of which Iguodala isn’t likely to want to entrench himself in as the Vice President of the NBA player’s association, especially if this is truly his last season. Moreover, if Iguodala wants to be traded to a contender, it wouldn’t hurt to build goodwill with the management on his way out the door and potentially have some say in where he would like to go. So, I would imagine that a compromise will be made that can benefit both parties – something along the lines of the Grizzlies agreeing to be active in finding trade partners, while also clearing any deal involving Iguodala by him. In exchange, the veteran will be expected to buy into the Vince Carter-mentorship role to some degree, while hopefully boosting his trade value at the same time. If all goes well, I would expect the Grizzlies to trade Iguodala after the first 20-30 games, presumably for a 1st round pick to a contender of his liking (Lakers, maybe?). This is the trade within the trade and should result in both sides mostly getting what they want, without having to tangle themselves in an ugly tug-of-war in the headlines.