Lanky Witherspoon can play both guard, forward in dribble-drive attack
By Dan Wolken
Thursday, May 1, 2008
LILBURN, Ga. — Moments after Wesley Witherspoon signed scholarship papers with the University of Memphis on Thursday afternoon, his phone lit up with text messages from friends who were not able to attend his announcement at Berkmar High School just outside of Atlanta.
So after Witherspoon finished with the signing ceremony and the celebratory cake-cutting and all the hugs from his family and friends, he sat down with his phone, ready to return all those messages.
Witherspoon’s first priority, of course, was to dial Memphis coach John Calipari and officially inform him that he had chosen to play for the Tigers. Not far behind on the list, however, was a call to Devin Ebanks, the 6-8 forward from New York who could be the final piece to Memphis’ 2008-09 roster.
“Me and Devin talk a lot,” Witherspoon, a 6-foot-8 point-forward, said. “We text message each other all the time just to see what we’re feeling. I’m going to call him and tell him my decision. I’ve got to make him join the party.”
And what a party it could be.
Witherspoon on Thursday became the fourth high school senior to commit to the Tigers, moving them one step closer to arguably the top-ranked recruiting class in the country following their loss to Kansas in the national championship game.
A defensive-minded distributor who can play various positions in Memphis’ dribble-drive motion offense, Witherspoon is ranked 34th overall by Rivals.com and No. 56 by Scout.com.
Witherspoon is the third top-50 player to sign with Memphis, joining a class including guard Tyreke Evans (No. 6 by Rivals), forward Angel Garcia (No. 47) and forward Matt Simpkins (No. 80).
His commitment leaves only one top-50 player — Ebanks — on the board for 2008.
“I know the Memphis fans like what they’re seeing right now,” Witherspoon said.
The Tigers’ recruiting momentum has been crucial in the wake of heavy personnel losses since the season ended. All five starters from Memphis’ 38-2 team have entered their names in the NBA Draft, and reserve guard Andre Allen will not be back following his one-year suspension for failing a drug test during the NCAA Tournament.
Though guard Antonio Anderson and forward Robert Dozier are expected back for their senior seasons unless they are first-round picks, adding Witherspoon at the very least gives the Tigers some insurance should one or both of them remain in the draft.
Witherspoon could ultimately play any one of three positions for Memphis, from point guard to small forward. At 6-8, he’ll give the Tigers even more length on the perimeter, where their big guards caused serious matchup problems for opponents in the NCAA Tournament.
“They want me to come in and be a playmaker,” Witherspoon said. “That’s what Coach Cal tells me all the time when I talk to him. He wants me to be a playmaker, and I’m confident enough in myself to do the things he wants me to do.”
Memphis began recruiting Witherspoon last summer following his performance with the Georgia Stars in the Peach Jam AAU tournament. Witherspoon was one of the few highly-ranked players in the class who did not sign during the fall, which worked to his advantage in recent weeks. He was recruited hard by Texas, Virginia, Colorado and Oklahoma State but ultimately decided on Memphis after his official visit last weekend.
Witherspoon was advised during the recruiting process by his two older brothers, both of whom played Div. 1 basketball. His oldest brother, Will Witherspoon, played one season at the Air Force Academy. Wynton Witherspoon initially signed with Virginia Tech but transferred to George Washington, where he will be a senior next season. His sister, Whitley, would have played Div. 1 basketball but blew out her knee during her senior year of high school.
“I really just wanted to cut down through all the crap and get to the chase with (the coaches). My brother told me to make sure I didn’t get caught up in it,” Wesley Witherspoon said. “I know Coach Cal is going to lead me in the right direction, and I know we’re going to win. From Day 1, I liked what he was telling me. He wasn’t telling me what I wanted to hear; it was what I needed to hear.”
Witherspoon said he will likely enroll in summer school next month — he’s already NCAA-qualified academically, according to his mother Carolyn — but has also been invited to try out for the USA Basketball team that will compete in Argentina during the month of July at the FIBA Americas Under-18 championship.
Witherspoon’s main offseason focus will be in the weight room, where the Tigers expect him to gain some bulk under the direction of Richard Hogans. Though Witherspoon said he weighs 196 pounds — not the 185 he’s listed at — getting stronger is a must before he is ready to play big-time college basketball.
His father, Will Witherspoon, said everybody in the family was on board with his decision to attend Memphis.
“One of the things I tried to tell him, don’t forget you’re going to school,” he said. “I know it’s big-time basketball and nobody’s talking about academics but don’t forget about school. That’s what I wanted him to consider, to go to a school and get what you need out of it.”
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365.