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How a trip to Olive Branch, and a talk with Penny Hardaway got DJ Jeffries back on track

The Tigers sophomore scored 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting Friday vs. Central Arkansas after struggling early this season
Credit: Joe Murphy
MEMPHIS, TN - December 2, 2020

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — DJ Jeffries felt he had something to prove, but the evidence was not showing up. 

The sophomore wing scored eight points or less in three of the Tigers' first four games, shooting just 30.2% from the field. His demeanor was off, forcing shots that he normally would not take. One of Memphis' starring attractions, whose name appeared on 2021 mock draft boards this summer, was not meeting expectations--most importantly his own.

There was no question Jeffries was pressing. 

So Thursday night, he went back to the one place where he always found refuge: Olive Branch High School.

"That’s where we go to figure out everything," said DJ's uncle CJ Jeffries, also the Conquistadors assistant coach. "We sat him down and just told him to be Olive Branch DJ."

For two hours, DJ's father Corey, CJ and OBHS head coach Eric Rombaugh ran through their old drills. They worked on his mid-range shot, his free throws, and his confidence.

His breakout 15-point performance in Friday's 85-68 win over Central Arkansas was a step forward, and a reminder that Jeffries has a quality base to fall back on.

"He's been in his own head. Feeling pressure that wasn't there," Corey said. "Sometimes you have to go back to your roots to get it together."

Jeffries scored a season-high 17 points in the Tigers loss to VCU on Nov. 27, but Friday was by far his most complete game. He found open looks for himself and his teammates, making an impact on defense and on the boards. He achieved those 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, tallying four assists and three steals to go with four rebounds. 

“I just let the game come to me," Jeffries said. "Every chance I got I either scored or made a play with somebody."

The Olive Branch training session was preceded by a long talk with Penny Hardaway Thursday. 

"I just kind of calmed him down and talked to him," Hardaway said. 

“We believe so much in DJ. He’s our most talented player for sure, top to bottom, with his athleticism, his speed, his scoring ability, his playmaking ability. He showed all that tonight. And we’re rooting for him because he works his butt off."

That work was on display this summer, as Jeffries recovered from a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in his left knee that ended his freshman campaign. He tried to work through his offensive struggles by contributing on the boards, grabbing 19 rebounds in the Tigers first two games in South Dakota. Ultimately, Jeffries credited his getting back on track to Thursday's heart-to-heart with Hardaway.

"He simplified the game for me," Jeffries said. "For him doing that, it helped me out a lot and it helped me bring my confidence back up, so I appreciate him doing that for me."

Jeffries will face tougher competition than a Southland Conference opponent in the weeks and months ahead. But his coaches and family have him back in the right mindset now, and will be there to do it again next time he struggles or stresses.

"He seems to be back to having fun," Corey said. "And that matters more than anything to us."