College basketball recruiting: Team Thad finally goes to Peach Jam, which is back but still not normal

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Norton Hurd IV co-founded Team Thad more than a decade ago and quickly built it into one of the best grassroots programs in the country even if it was largely overshadowed in its hometown.

Team Thad was a nice program.

But, with all due respect to the 14-year NBA veteran, Thaddeus Young is not Penny Hardaway. So Team Thad didn’t register in Memphis like Team Penny registered in Memphis — and there was no way for Team Thad to get on the prestigious Nike EYBL circuit because as long as Hardaway had a grassroots team, Hardaway’s grassroots team would be the Memphis-based program with a strong Nike affiliation.

“If Penny still wanted to do AAU, as big as Thad is, Thad is the second biggest name after Penny to come through it,” Hurd said. “So, of course, Penny would’ve kept the Nike deal if he wanted it.”

But, as you likely know, in March 2018, Penny Hardaway decided he wanted something more than to run a grassroots program; he wanted to coach his alma mater. So when Memphis fired Tubby Smith after two seasons, there was only one real candidate to replace him. And after Hardaway officially became the coach at Memphis, Team Penny ceased to exist in its previous form, clearing the way for Team Thad to move from the Under Armour circuit to the Nike circuit.

The move was announced in September 2019.

Hurd had just led Team Thad to the 2019 Under Armour Association Finals championship and was anxious to try to win a Nike title in his first year on the EYBL circuit thanks to a roster headlined by high-major prospects like Moussa Cisse (Memphis), Kam Jones (Marquette), Alden Applewhite (Mississippi State) and Carter Whitt (Wake Forest). He had the talent to make a run at it. But then the COVID-19 global pandemic hit our country and shut down nearly everything to different degrees — the EYBL included. So there was neither a spring circuit nor a summer circuit. There was no Peach Jam. There was basically nothing.

“It was very different because that’s a time when you [usually] play against really good people, against the best players in the country. And coaches come. And that’s when you show what you can do,” said Team Thad guard Chandler Jackson, a consensus four-star prospect in the Class of 2022 who already has offers from, among others, Alabama, Auburn, Creighton, Florida State and Memphis. “So it was just different last year; you couldn’t really do that. But this year, I’m thankful that we can.”

And on Wednesday, they will.

The EYBL has returned this week to the Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta, S.C., for the first time since 2019. Team Thad is scheduled to play Team Durant on Wednesday, then Expressions Elite on Friday, the first day college coaches and NBA executives will be allowed in the gym to evaluate prospects.

So we are inching back to normal.

Hooray to that.

But, alas, we’re still not quite back to normal — and it’s not hyperbole to suggest this will be an experience like no other, in part because some teams will be competing in North Augusta for 13 consecutive days rather than the normal four or five. Beyond that, fans won’t be allowed to attend, which will obviously take away from what is often a rowdy environment. And all players and coaches will be tested for COVID-19 every three days, which means a positive test combined with contact tracing could knock an entire team out of the EYBL at any point over the next two weeks. Think VCU basketball. Think NC State baseball.

“It makes you a little nervous,” Hurd acknowledged. “You just keep your fingers crossed and try to prevent it as much as you can.”

That goes for all of us, I guess.

Team Thad’s Brandon Gardner dunks during a recent practice in Memphis.

Needless to say, it’s impossible to know whether this will go smoothly. And who knows how much the absence of fans will take away from the showdowns between elite players that have forever been a July staple? But, either way, the best high school prospects will spend much of the next two weeks competing in front of the best college coaches in a building where hundreds of NBA players have starred before them.

That’s a great thing.

For a year, it was gone.

But now Peach Jam is back — slightly different, but still worthwhile.

“There aren’t going to be any fans, and that’s a little bummer,” said Team Thad star Jalen Hood-Schifino, a consensus top-30 prospect in the Class of 2022. “But at the end of the day, you wanna go against the best players, and that’s what we’re getting to do. So it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a good experience.”