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James Wiseman: More question marks and less exclamation points, please.
October 18, 2019Posted by on
It’s fitting to start off this 2020 NBA draft prospect season with the incoming freshman who’s widely recognized as the top prospect of the 2019 high school class: James Wiseman. But it’s also fitting for a blog that rarely takes hard and fast stances to pick a player who the experts love, but draft Twitter cocks a skeptical eyebrow towards. And I’m an appropriate author of such a piece as my viewing experience has revealed a case of not one or two Wisemans (Wisemen?), but multiple Wisemans. More appropriate yet is that these schisms in style are part of a long tradition of basketball playing big men whose basketball-playing selves (to say nothing off their non-basketball playing selves) are caught in a crisis of uncertainty between how others view their potential and they themselves view it. Or, to quote the writing of the great Leo Tolstoy, “There was something terribly lacking between what I felt and what I could do.”
For Wiseman, there’s not much doubt about how he sees himself. It’s expressed in his play and through his words, “I’m a very versatile player, I can shoot, I can dribble, I can run the floor really well for my size.” He’s “patterned” his game on “Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, and even David Robinson.” His high school coach, Jevonte Holmes, sees KG, Bosh, and Marvin Bagley and his new coach at Memphis, former NBA player and portrayer of the fictional Butch McRae, Penny Hardaway, also sees Bosh. It makes good sense to model your endeavor, whatever it may be, on the best. I think there was a time where I fancied my writerly self some kind of Jack Kerouac even if my style and talent in no way matched. Wiseman at least shares physical dimensions with the aforementioned and I may have shared similar measurements to Kerouac. Wiseman appears longer than his comps (although his long-reported 7-foot-6 inch wingspan may be closer to 7-foot-4) with a massive 7-1, 240-pound frame that moves with the fluid ease of the Mississippi rolling along Memphis’s border; it’s a body that expands and explodes to block shots as though it were a natural birthright.
The clips I’ve watched of Wiseman span from the 2018 EYBL season up through the 2019 Nike Hoop Summit with his 2018-19 high school season in between. The player I’ve watched is wildly inconsistent, a player capable of flattening oppositions like that giant lizard-dinosaur and that gorilla in Rampage (these characters appear to be unimaginative knockoffs of King Kong and Godzilla, but are not those name brand giants) in one sequence and morphing into an overdribbling, fade-away shooting wannabe Kobe Bryant (but without the touch) on others. Younger players will inevitably be less consistent than their older, more physically developed and experienced players, but with Wiseman there appears to be a yawning gap between capability and even moderately efficient reality.
As far as identity is concerned, Wiseman isn’t alone and isn’t completely at fault for any incongruities between what he is and what he thinks he is. Basketball and big men have a long, strange, unimaginative history that has taken creative, experimental minds to untangle. A year ago, inspired by a draft class of versatile bigs, I wrote about basketball’s relationship with its tallest players, a relationship that for years yielded to orthodoxy. In that piece, I argued that players like Bob McAdoo, Dirk Nowitzki, and Draymond Green, paired with creative coaching in Jack Ramsay, Don Nelson, and Steve Kerr, redefined not just what big men could be, but what was required of them. As presently deployed, James Wiseman is the experiment gone too far.
From 2005 to 2012, Dwight Howard was mostly an ideal marriage between ability and execution. I say mostly because, despite being surrounded by shooters, for every assist he threw, he turned the ball over twice. But beyond the occasional detour into playmaking or advanced post moves, Howard dunked home over 40% of his 4,000-plus made field goals. He set screens, rolled, caught and dunked. He anchored what was consistently a top-five defensive team with defensive awareness, effort, and scheme combined with an idealized mix of size, length, and explosiveness. He won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards and was MVP runner-up in in 2011. But throughout Dwight’s history of being elite Dwight, there was the insistence on being an offensive focal point which were accompanied by mumblings and rumblings desiring a greater share of the offense and in his recent vagabond years, even an expressed a desire to become “his own version” of Kevin Durant or Draymond Green. The problem isn’t that Howard wants to expand or improve his game, it’s that his strengths and abilities don’t align with his stated role models.
The original big man who navigated a complex on-court identity crisis was Wilt Chamberlain. I don’t believe him to be the greatest of all time or even the most dominant, but I have no issue with people who make those statements about a man once nicknamed the “Big Musty” for his overwhelming body odor. But Chamberlain was a sensitive man who heard all the criticisms and responded with an almost childlike obstinacy. Peter Vescey, then of the New York Post, wrote in 1999:
He once told me the one regret he had was that he didn’t play more aggressively against Russell. Red Auerbach would say stuff and get into his head, and the papers would write stuff and get into his head. He let the criticism affect him.
Following the Jayhawks’ 1-point defeat to unbeaten UNC, Wilt never could seem to shake his loser’s image. A couple insufferable setbacks in championship games to the Celts and everybody readily bought into the perception. Maybe even Wilt himself, who became more insecure and defensive as Russell’s hands swelled with rings.
Somewhere along the way, Wilt, like everybody else, got numbed by his numbers, blinded by his brilliance and spoiled by the spectacular.
Rather than bully people, he badgered them. Instead of becoming vengeful, Wilt often got passive. Instead of piling it up from point blank range, he upgraded his degree of difficulty. Instead of dunking on people’s domes, he aided them by adopting a fadeaway. Other times, he hardly shot at all in an attempt to prove critics he could accomplish anything he wanted. One season he decided to become league leader in assists, refusing to pass the ball to cutters whose field goal percentages didn’t warrant the risk. Wilt became consumed with proving his success wasn’t based on brute force, but elan and aptitude.
In his GOAT: The 40 Best Careers in NBA History series, Ben Taylor made the case that Chamberlain’s (9th all-time on his list) “four best teams, by far, come from his non volume-scoring years, and the last two come from his ‘Tyson Chandler’ vintage.” Chamberlain was unstoppable on the offensive end, but, Taylor shows, that dominance didn’t make his teams better offensively. And as Vescey points out, he got in his head to lead the league in assists, but as Taylor again articulates, “he was letting defenses off the hook by looking to pass too much.” Chamberlain’s greatest contributions to winning were done on the defensive end as a rim protector, rebounder, and fast break initiator and yet he was almost dragged, kicking and screaming, into this role by Los Angeles Lakers coach Bill Sharman. It’s not that Chamberlain should have played like Russell, he was far too talented offensively to be an equal cog in the wheel, but that his utilization required a moderation that he struggled to accept and likely never fully accepted. Chamberlain was a great scorer and excellent passer, but instead of a steady diet of either, much of his career was spent overexaggerating these skills at the expense of team success because, like most everything Chamberlain did, he did it to excess.
Which brings us back to James Wiseman, the 18-year-old supposed Chris Bosh. I’m not bringing Howard and Chamberlain (a Hall of Famer and future Hall of Famer) into the conversation to make any comparison in terms of ability, but rather to draw direct and emphatic comparisons regarding the fickle nature and deployment of NBA big men. At this point, it’s even fair to pose this as a chicken/egg question with Wiseman. If he never fell in love with the top-of-the-key three-ball or shitty fadeaways, does he elicit the same excitement and “unicorn” hyperbole? If teenage Wiseman operates as a back-to-the-basket dunker and rim protector (I suggest that because the roll man role doesn’t exist at the high school levels in a way that allows a player to define himself), is he still as attractive to the scouting world? Put another way, Clint Capela is not sexy.
If Wiseman can escape the ghost of Bosh and play his game, what can he be? Despite a lanky build, Wiseman is sturdy at 240 pounds, but it’s a 240 that he’s still figuring out how to use. While not being the most physical interior presence, with his size, footwork, and ability to squat low into position, he’s exceptional at gaining position on interior seals and being a big, high-reaching target for lobs. Against college teams with advanced scouting, this type of action won’t be as readily available, but Wiseman has an improving basketball IQ and if he can incorporate his interior seals and spin moves into improvisational reads, he’s fleet footed enough to get easy, high-percentage attempts more frequently than most players.
Wiseman has exhibited inconsistent competence in reading the floor out of the post – in isolation and against doubles. While his reactions to doubles aren’t the quickest, he’s able to use an escape dribble and his size to find an open man, but this comes and goes. Sometimes he’ll look calm reacting and seeing the crosscourt pass while others will find him panicking to get rid of the hot potato before someone steals it. The skill is further mitigated when he takes a premeditated shot; which he’s shown a tendency to go from catch-to-post move all in one motion without regard for the lay of the court or defense. He can make basic reads and occasionally advanced reads, but in the EYBL circuit specifically the lack of spacing limits these opportunities.
His greatest strength at present is his defense. This was best on display at the 2019 Nike Hoop Summit in May when he blocked seven shots in under 23 minutes of play. This was on an NBA court (Portland’s Moda Center) with a 24-second shot clock and against high D1 players. Wiseman was on full throttle, but he remained in total control of his effort. Instead of swinging for every shot attempt like pros Hassan Whiteside or Mitchell Robinson are prone to do, his contests were measured, but relentless. While he blocked seven, he deterred or forced adjustments on many more. He was most impactful as a help side defender as the World team struggled to make him pay for helping, but in one-on-one possessions against Kofi Cockburn (Illinois) and N’Faly Dante (Oregon), he frequently stayed between man and the basket while holding his ground despite giving up pounds to both. In the clip below, he blocks two shots and contests a third in about a five-second stretch which, maybe it’s because I’m 38 and overweight, but it’s exhausting considering jumping with exertion that many times in a row.
If Wiseman is capable of bringing that type of defensive effort with consistency, he can directly impact winning in both college and the pros. In the 10-plus games I scouted, unfortunately, this effort wasn’t consistent. Against four-star big man and fellow 7-footer, Hunter Dickinson, Wiseman’s effort was semi-catatonic, a 7-foot pylon outworked physically, unable or unwilling to compete. It was the kind of performance that triggers red flags. When fully present and working, defense is the greatest utilization of his copious physical gifts and given his size and athleticism, it has the potential to translate early on. In terms of switchability and perimeter defense, I haven’t seen a ton of examples showing he can or can’t move his feet on the perimeter. I have seen him use his length to get out on jump shooters and contest shots that typically be clean looks. While this ability doesn’t mean he can move laterally, he’s long enough that he can use his length to create somewhat of a cushion, but again, less than his ability to move side-to-side on the perimeter, consistent effort will be the deciding factor in his effectiveness.
In terms of weaknesses, the biggest issues arise on the offensive side of the floor where Wiseman is maddeningly inconsistent. His offensive decision making, particularly his shot choice, was so poor at the 2018 EYBL that I wondered if I should throw out the entire league when assessing his play. The amount of contested threes, step backs, and fade-aways are mind boggling. According to D1Circuit.com, Wiseman shot 4-27 (~15%) from three. He was a much more respectable 54% from twos and shot 55% from the line. For his 2018-19 high school season, one broadcast in December had him shooting 17% from three, but his high school coach claimed he shot 42% – which is a hard number to accept given his previous rates and the shot in general.
It’s not just that Wiseman is an inaccurate marksman, it’s that he insists on taking contested attempts and, at least in EYBL, he had the team running sets where Wiseman would sprint to the corner for quick catch attempts – which just enables the kid. I get the need to develop and the need for in-game reps, but between game film and stats, there’s no reason Wiseman should be taking these shots with any level of frequency. It would mildly more acceptable if he was seeking out catch-and-shoot threes, but in the true spirit of mucking it up, he prefers contested, off-the-dribble attempts and has the awful habit of straddling the three-point-line. It’s all strange and reinforces the damn Tolstoy quote above: “There was something terribly lacking between what I felt and what I could do.”
I don’t know the ideal blend of in-game reps versus practice reps for a move or skill. A high school coach I had suggested we need to be able to hit 8 of 10 shots unguarded to be able to attempt it in a game. Does Wiseman shoot 80% on step backs, fade-aways, and threes in practice? It’s certainly possible. At times, he exhibits soft touch on his jumper and in my notes I, just like Penny and Jevonte Holmes and Wiseman himself, wrote of a particular fade-away: “that’s the most Chris Bosh-like thing I’ve seen from him.” But at what point does a glimpse become a possibility or a building block? I’ve seen enough Wiseman to know why people make the comparisons they do, but the slivers and snippets of good-to-great basketball moves are outweighed by the accompanying bumbling of it all.
There are two clips below: one of Wiseman utterly destroying top-3 2021 prospect Evan Mobley. The other of Wiseman settling for a crappy contested jumper and having it blocked by a shorter, weaker, less-gifted-but-still-very-gifted player. Neither of these clips defines James Wiseman – either as presently constructed or as imagined. His basketball reality and future live somewhere in a vast infinity of possibility which will, bizarrely, make perfect sense whenever we arrive there. Wiseman has a supreme confidence in self, but is that confidence enough to bridge the gap between what he feels and what he can do? Or is his destiny an endless pursuit of congruity? Could he be the best of his class? It’s possible. After all, just because I didn’t sniff the heights of Kerouac doesn’t mean I was wrong for trying.