How Penny Hardaway sold Illinois transfer Dain Dainja − and his mom − on Memphis basketball

Dain Dainja was a raw but obviously talented freshman eager to make a name for himself at Park Center High in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

It was a Friday in September 2016. The school’s football team from the Minneapolis suburb was hosting DeLaSalle hardly a stone’s throw from where boys basketball coach James Ware was keeping watch over an open gym. Ware already knew about Dainja, a 6-foot-6 center with a strong pedigree who had made the move from Edina to Park Center a year earlier.

But it wasn’t until that fall evening that Ware realized Dainja – who announced last week his decision to transfer to Memphis from Illinois – could be special.

“We had a really good player, DJ Purnell,” recalls Ware, a former assistant coach at Minnesota, Utah State and Santa Clara. “Tough as nails.”

Dainja, as Ware tells it, was not intimidated. Rather than succumbing to nerves or shying away from contact, the big-bodied underclassman flashed a rare-for-his-age physicality, repeatedly bullying his way to the basket through the more physically mature Purnell’s chest. It was a prelude to four star-making seasons for Dainja and a preview of his path to success in college.

“I fear none,” he told The Commercial Appeal. “Just being tough and having the right mental can carry you a long way.”

Now 6-10 and 258 pounds, Dainja hopes to carry the Tigers a long way. Last week, the 21-year-old (who will turn 22 in July) became the second transfer coach Penny Hardaway has landed this offseason, joining former Tulsa guard PJ Haggerty.

Adapt and overcome

One of the more impressive aspects of his overall game is Dainja's ability to shoot and finish at the rim with both his right and left hands.

The son of LaTasha Kilgore and former Minnesota guard Baba Dainja, he was born a left-hander in Romeoville, Illinois. But, when he was 3, a broken left arm (the result of him and his older brother sliding down a spiral staircase in a laundry basket) meant he had to learn how to use his right hand for everything.

What was a rather serious injury and a painstaking healing process, it helped instill a sense of resourcefulness that has served him well.

"Highly skilled is kind of an understatement, in my opinion," said Ware, who also coached former first-round NBA draft pick Kris Humphries in high school and college. "You just don't see people move the way he moves. He can finish with his right hand (and) left hand with all sorts of pivots, step-throughs, up-and-unders. And I think what people will start seeing that they might not have gotten the chance to see at Illinois is he's a very good playmaker. It's not just about him, although he can score a ton."

'Meant to be'

Dainja began his career at Baylor. But a logjam in the then-defending national champions' frontcourt, coupled with Jones fracturing his right foot, left him looking for a fresh start closer to home.

It paid off. As a redshirt freshman in 2022-23, Dainja averaged 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds for coach Brad Underwood in 20.6 minutes per game. He also defended well, notching 39 blocks and 25 steals. But Underwood reworked his system before this season. The switch meant fewer minutes (and, consequently, less production) for Dainja.

He knew it was time for another fresh start. This time, he leaned on his mother for guidance and support. She had only one question and one prerequisite.

" 'Who's the coach?' Kilgore said. "Dain just laughed. I said, 'If the coach hasn't been in the NBA and he hasn't played, I'm not talking to him. I said, 'I'm sick of this stuff. I need someone who played the game and can recognize talent.' "

Despite drawing interest from more than 50 schools − including Kansas, Nebraska and Georgetown, according to Kilgore − she and Dainja took only one visit: Memphis. Kilgore said she connected with Hardaway immediately. Everything from his "authenticity" to the promise that Dainja's complete skillset will be utilized sold Kilgore on the Tigers.

MEMPHIS BASKETBALL: Why Illinois transfer Dain Dainja said he picked Tigers, Penny Hardaway

“(Hardaway) looked at Dain’s whole career and saw he wasn’t able to everything he can do,” said Kilgore. “At Illinois, they were just playing (Dainja) like every other big. But now he’s going to be part of a team that’s already doing what he would’ve liked to have done at Illinois. It's an opportunity to finally fulfill his dream.

“When you know something is meant to be, it doesn’t take long.”

Lighter on his feet

Dainja is listed as 270 pounds on But, when he arrived last week for his official visit, Hardaway and his staff were skeptical.

"They were like, 'You're not 270, right?' " said Dainja.

He quickly set the record straight, indicating he most recently weighed in at 258. Dainja also expressed a desire to work his way down to a playing weight of 240. He and his mother discussed that with strength and conditioning coach Darby Rich.

“We can't forget about Darby. I liked that he was very confident with what he can bring to help assist Dain,” said Kilgore. “He said, ‘Dain, we’re not going to change anything. We’re just going to elevate.’ “

“(Rich is) big on whatever fits me,” Dainja said. “Whatever weight that I play my best at, that’s his big emphasis. But I want to be quicker off my feet and faster up and down the floor. I feel like that could make me a pro.”

Reach sports writer Jason Munz at or follow him @munzly on X, the social media app formerly known as Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: What Memphis basketball is getting in Illinois transfer Dain Dainja