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Timing was off for Penny Hardaway and the Orlando Magic

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Penny might have been a good fit in many ways, but now was not the time

Orlando Magic

It was 28 years ago today that Penny Hardaway first joined the Orlando Magic.

To some, it would have been poetic had Hardaway left Memphis to come to Orlando on this date for the second time.

But it was not to be as Hardaway publicly removed himself from candidacy for the Orlando Magic head coach position. Whether that was his choice or the Magic’s remains a mystery, but the door has been left wide open for a future partnership.

Regardless of who’s decision it was, the timing simply was off. It didn’t align with Penny’s goals and unfinished business at Memphis, nor with the Magic’s current rebuilding needs. That’s not to say Hardaway would have been unsuccessful.

What he lacks in head coaching experience at the NBA level - which could have been alleviated with an experienced staff - he might have made up for with his ability to connect with and mentor a team featuring multiple young guards, and perhaps in free agency if NBA players were intrigued by a charismatic NBA star as his Memphis recruits have been, and perhaps in adding excitement to a team in dire need of a dose of it.

While having a head coach with NBA experience is comforting, it hardly guarantees much of anything. And experienced candidates often come with their own set of concerns, such as Kenny Atkinson unjustifiably being fired in Brooklyn reportedly because players didn’t want him there. Eccentric as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant can be, that’s a red flag.

Atkinson still brings plenty to the table, most notably being that he successfully navigated a rebuild and overachieved with the pre-KD-and-Kyrie Nets. Soon, he or a similar candidate will be announced as the next head coach of the Orlando Magic.

So, before we shift focus entirely to those candidates, let’s officially put a bow on the Penny talk with this Q&A we did with SB Nation college basketball guru Ricky O’Donnell:

Were you surprised to hear that Penny was considering taking the Magic job?

Orlando Magic

O’Donnell: It’s always a bit surprising to hear about a head coaching candidate getting his first real NBA interview, but I think it makes sense, too. I talked to Penny for a feature before the 2019-2020 season, and it was easy to tell he had big ambitions for his coaching career. I think he truly believed he could lead Memphis to a national championship with James Wiseman, but Wiseman ultimately couldn’t play because of eligibility issues and the tournament got cancelled because of the pandemic. For as deep as Penny’s roots in Memphis are, he is obviously also connected to Orlando as well. There’s no higher level than the NBA, and for a young coach like Penny I think interviewing for this job and taking it if it’s offered is a sensible move.

Penny has shown that he can recruit, but what other strengths has he shown as a coach at Memphis?

O’Donnell: Penny has proven himself to be nothing less than one of the best defensive coaches in America during the last two seasons at Memphis. This past season, his Tigers finished No. 1 in the country in defensive efficiency out of 357 DI teams. The year before, they finished No. 5 in defensive efficiency. Two other things Penny’s Memphis teams have reliably done: played with tempo, and emphasized sharing the ball on offense. The Tigers finished top-50 in pace each of the last two years, and assisted on 60.7 percent of their field goals last season (No. 18 in the country).

What would have been the biggest question marks about Penny’s ability to coach at the NBA level?

O’Donnell: Memphis has yet to have a reliably good offense during Penny’s three seasons, so that’s an easy answer. Here where the Tigers have finished in offensive efficiency since he’s been head coach starting with the 2018-2019 season: No. 81, No. 210, and No. 117. This isn’t the say that Penny can’t coach offense, of course. Talent dictates system, and Penny hasn’t had a dynamic lead shot creator on campus yet. I’d be really interested to see what his offense looks like at the NBA level.

What does Penny’s recruiting class look like for the 2021-2022 season and what are the projections for Memphis as a team?

O’Donnell: Memphis ended last season by winning 11 of their last 13 games and capturing the NIT championship, which is typically thought of as a springboard for the next season. They did lose several players to transfer including guard Boogie Ellis (a former five-star recruit), but Penny also landed arguably the best transfer on the market in 6’8 wing Earl Timberlake. Their recruiting class is solid, ranked No. 15 overall by 247 Sports, and headlined by top-70 recruit Josh Minott. There isn’t a Wiseman-level prospect coming in this year, and there are some questions in the backcourt, but I’d say Memphis could be the second best team in their conference behind Hosuton.

If Penny had left, how would his tenure as Memphis coach have been remembered?

O’Donnell: I think it would have been remembered by the excitement his arrival brought the program, and also the bad luck he endured. Memphis has a large and passionate fanbase that was hoping Penny could bring them to the mountaintop. It didn’t happen because of Wiseman’s eligibility case and because of the pandemic, but they still had a pretty successful season a year ago and seem to be trending up.

How would Penny have been viewed by Tiger fans had he left?

O’Donnell: I am positive Memphis fans would have hated to lose him, but I think the Magic job is the one place where they’d understand.

Special thanks to Ricky for taking the time to talk about Penny and Memphis basketball. Follow Ricky on Twitter at @SBN_Ricky.