James Wiseman leaves Memphis, to enter NBA draft

The James Wiseman era at Memphis has ended after just three games.

Wiseman, who has missed the past seven games due to a 12-game suspension stemming from an NCAA investigation and was set to return at South Florida on Jan. 12, announced on Instagram on Thursday that he will leave the program, hire an agent and prepare for the 2020 NBA draft.

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Today I formally withdrew from the University of Memphis and I will be preparing for the next chapter of my life. Ever since I was a little kid, it's been a dream of mine to play in the NBA. Throughout this process, I've asked God to ordain my steps and lead me in the right direction. God is my lord and salvation, and throughout this process he has comforted me. This was not how I expected my freshman season to be, but I'm thankful for everyone who has supported my family and me throughout this process. I want to thank the coaches and staff for all their support and my teammates for pushing me everyday at practice. I feel blessed for the opportunity to be a Tiger and for having the honor to play with these special group of guys. I can't wait to see what all they accomplish this season. The friends and fans of Tiger Nation will always hold a place in my heart. #GoTigersGo 🐯🔵🐯

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Wiseman is currently ESPN.com's projected No. 3 pick in the upcoming draft. In three games with Memphis (9-1), he averaged 19.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. The 7-foot-1 center was suspended after the school admitted that Penny Hardaway made an $11,500 payment to Wiseman's mother in 2017 before accepting the head-coaching job at his alma mater.

Per the NCAA, Hardaway's $1 million donation to the school in 2008 made him a booster and therefore his payment to Wiseman's mother was an improper benefit. The school vowed to appeal the NCAA's ruling, and Wiseman's lawyers filed for a temporary injunction that allowed Wiseman to play while the investigation continued. But the NCAA announced the 12-game suspension last month and the school lost its appeal.

"We wish nothing but the best for James in his future endeavors as he follows his dreams," Hardaway said via statement. "He will truly be missed."

Wiseman's decision took Memphis' coaching staff by surprise, a source told ESPN. Sources said Wiseman left town Thursday morning and will be taking meetings with agencies next week to decide how to proceed with his preparations for the draft.

NBA executives told ESPN after Wiseman's decision that it is unlikely he falls out of the top five of the draft. They don't see too many prospects in this class with enough high-level talent to drop Wiseman further than that given his skills.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, when asked his thoughts on Wiseman leaving school, said he couldn't talk specifically about a prospect but that players in general are seeking alternative paths to avoid the NCAA.

"Two of the top prospects are playing professionally in Australia. I think the trend is -- guys are at least starting to think of other options," Kerr said. "I know there's been players who have just taken a year off or played at the IMG Academy until they were draft-eligible. So the NBA is getting a lot better with player development through the G League. I know there's been talk of changing the rule in terms of draft eligibility. So there's all kinds of things stirring out there and it looks like the players are considering their options."

The Tigers are 7-0 without Wiseman, a streak that includes Saturday's 51-47 victory over a nationally ranked Tennessee team.

If Hardaway had any intimation that Wiseman might leave the team, he did not offer any insight after the win over the Vols.

"I think this was a building win for us, meaning like everybody in that building, from the trainer to the [graduate assistants] to the managers, everybody that had any part to do with these kids just getting prepared and ready to go to play this game," Hardaway said. "It takes everybody, man. As a team, you can only keep preaching: We're down, but we're not out. And we just keep fighting."

With the team's success sans Wiseman and previously pending return of the projected lottery pick, Memphis seemed capable of evolving into a national-title contender. The ceiling for the program, however, is lower now with Wiseman's departure.

"Although disappointing, the U of M supports James and his family in his decision to leave to prepare for the 2020 NBA Draft, and will continue to follow James in what will certainly prove to be a successful career," a statement from University of Memphis athletics read.

ESPN's Jonathan Givony and Nick Friedell contributed to this report.