Dancing With Noah

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Category Archives: memphis

Scouting Dump: Week of November 11th

The below ranking is made up of players exclusively scouted from 11/12/19 thru 11/16/19. All rankings are fluid. Some I changed while writing and didn’t want to rework everything. I will no doubt be filled with regret and seek to course correct as the season goes on. Zero flags have been planted in the writing below though perhaps in some cases, land is being probed for potential flagpoles.

Games reviewed:

  • 11/12/19: Memphis at Oregon (in Portland)
  • 11/14/19: Michigan State at Seton Hall
  • 11/15/19: West Virginia at Pittsburgh
  • 11/15/19: Gonzaga at Texas A&M
  • 11/16/19: USC at Nevada

 

  1. James Wiseman, Memphis:

Stock change: no change

To be honest, USC’s 6-foot-9, 245-pound freshman center Onyeka Okongwu has probably passed Wiseman, what with his overwhelming 21 free throws attempted against Pepperdine on November 19th, but I’m leaving Wiseman ahead for now. It’s probably less out of stubbornness on my part and more out of familiarity. The best I’ve seen of Wiseman shows me an emphatic, intimidating giant of a young man who swats shots with the vigor of Mitchell Robinson and snatches boards with the aplomb of Dikembe Mutombo. These skills have a higher likelihood of translating to the NBA, the only problem is that they happen in spurts and that was no different in a loss to Oregon on November 12th. Wiseman spent the first half in foul trouble, then picked up zero fouls in the second half on his way to 14 points and 12 rebounds (four offensive) and only one or two truly head scratching jumpers. We also got to see him switched on the perimeter: first against combo guard Will Richardson and then against point guard Payton Pritchard. Wiseman struggled to stay in front of Richardson and gave Pritchard too much space. It’s a tiny sample size, but both in terms of mobility and technique, there’s a lot for him to work on.

  1. Onyeka Okongwu, USC:

Stock change: rising

This is probably unfair since I watched Okongwu kick the ever-living crap out of Pepperdine a night ago, but Big O, Double O, Onyeka, or whatever the hell you want to call him is a bully. I mean that in the most positive way possible. In basketball competition, he’s an explosive brute who’s built kind of like J.J. Hickson and kind of reminds me of Hickson as well. Okongwu’s dunks have a bullish ferocity to them, but his athletic exploits aren’t limited to dunk shots. Rather, he puts it to work on the defensive end where he’s good as a rim protector and help defender and is at least showing good instincts and execution sliding his feet in help situations. On the glass, he highpoints the ball with strength and precision. He’s shown hints of having a mid-range jumper though he needs to wind up and has a slower release. He shot threes in the AAU circuit, but it doesn’t appear to be part of his USC arsenal yet. I look forward to see him go against NBA caliber bigs at some point.

  1. Oscar Tshiebwe, West Virginia:

Stock change: rising

Tshiebwe is a walking, breathing brick wall. He’s got around 15 pounds on Okongwu, but looks quite a bit thicker and strong which is saying something. There are a few quick things to get out of the way with Oscar: He plays in Bobby Huggins’s hyper-intense defensive scheme and is averaging over six fouls-per-40 minutes. This player/coach fit is ideal in that Tshiebwe has a motor that doesn’t quit and a coach like Huggins can deploy him like a modern-day Danny Fortson, but the flip is that he’ll wind up in foul trouble and deliver uneven performances. I was lucky enough to catch Oscar’s best game (of three played to-date) against Pitt and it’s true: Oscar is a physical marvel who sucks rebounds up like a giant human vacuum inhaling all in his orbit. His hands and fingers appear to have built-in stickum and vice grip-like strength. This is what we knew coming in, but against Pitt what impressed me were the smaller, more nuanced parts of his game. Pitt threw a zone at the sizable WVU front line and the result was an oscillating triangle of Mountaineers rotating through the post and flashing high into the lane. From this middle spot, Tshiebwe had opportunities to show some passing chops, decisiveness and awareness while also incorporating a show-and-go move that the defender unwisely bit. On another possession, he worked and reworked, using his feet instead of his bulk, to get into ideal position with an inside seal and then mix in a change of direction to free himself up for an easy finish. The physical makeup and effort will get him to the league. The nuance and skill development will allow him to excel there.

  1. Xavier Tillman, Michigan State:

Stock change: rising

Oh hey, another 6-9, 240-some-odd pound big man. What Tillman, a junior, lacks in terms of Onyeka’s and Oscar’s athleticism, he makes up for with far superior passing and basketball IQ. Tillman can attack a closeout, make plays out of the short roll, and his offensive awareness allows him to react quicker than the defense, swinging the ball to open shooters or picking up hockey assists. His perimeter shot, from mid-range and three, looks fine, but he has a slower release hasn’t shot it too well this season. Given his mechanics, I imagine he’ll be able to develop into a serviceable standstill shooter. Defensively, he’s shown himself to be an excellent team defender, able to help and recover while utilizing his bulk and length to harass attackers. Against Seton Hall’s massive front line (7-2 Romaro Gill, 7-2 Ike Obiagu, 6-10 Sandro Mamukelashvili), he struggled at times on the offensive end which, for a player who doesn’t have a great jumper and isn’t a high-level leaper, is something worth noting. Overall, Tillman’s skillset is significantly more advanced than the three centers above him while his physical tools and upside put a lower cap on his ceiling.

  1. Myles Powell, Seton Hall:

Stock change: rising

Best scorer in college basketball perhaps? Scores at all three levels with NBA range. Can score off bounce, off catch, off the move. Can hit all the shots, all the time. If this was a fun ranking, he’d be at the top of the list; particularly with his performance against Michigan State: 37 points on 6-14 from three and 7-9 from the line. I had Powell ranked in the 30s before he pulled out of the draft last year and like him quite a bit more than St. Johns’ Shamorie Ponds – a somewhat comparable player as a smaller scoring guard. I’ve seen comparisons to Lou Williams which are probably unfair given Williams’s long-term scoring and playmaking development. Beyond the scoring though, the Williams comparison raises another issue with Powell’s current utilization: he has his highest career usage rate with the lowest assist rate (14.5%) and assists/gm (1.8) since his freshman year. I don’t doubt Powell can generate points at the pro level, but can he do it efficiently and within the framework of a winning offense? I didn’t get a good enough read on his defense to comment here, but plan on seeing him in person in December and will relay to you my findings at that later date.

  1. Aaron Henry, Michigan State:

Stock change: rising

Henry is a sophomore lefty who has the requisite size at 6-6, 210-pounds, along with mobility and athleticism that projects well as an NBA wing. While watching him against Seton Hall, I learned he hates clowns. He also had a nasty ankle roll, but was thankfully able to play through it though it did appear to hamper his elevation and he sat out their next game. Henry is partial to attacking with his dominant left, but is capable of finishing with both hands. While not quite an initiator, he’s shown flashes of making good reads and passes. Defensively, he’s competent and capable with strength and awareness. Against both Seton Hall and Kentucky, I saw him get visibility frustrated – once with the refs and once with a defensive miscommunication. This is hardly a red flag and is rather standard in the NBA, but in terms of scouting, it’s usually: See something, say something. Also worth noting that Henry’s broad array of skills and size likely make him a more transferable pro than Powell although none of his skills currently rise to the level of Powell’s shooting or scoring.

  1. Cassius Winston, Michigan State:

Stock change: Rising

I look at Cassius Winston and his 43% three-point shooting on 460 career attempts, his round Bonzi Wells-ish face, and stout build and I think Kyle Lowry, Jalen Brunson. I don’t think these are accurate comparisons, but merely surface level. Though, like Lowry, Winston can impact games and fill box scores without flashing a little leg. As a four-year acolyte of Izzo and a three-year starter, Winston is college basketball’s embodiment of stability. He might have that little Clyde Drexler-like leg pump on his jumper, but what’s it really matter when he can hit threes off catch or bounce at that 43% clip? His handle is competent, if a tad loose, but again, over a 113-game stretch, he’s at a nearly 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He runs the pick-and-roll with veteran savvy, can drop the pocket pass, sees and typically makes the right pass, and is generally a highly effective college basketball player. Given the development and impact of players like Fred Vanvleet and Devonte’ Graham, I find myself wandering in a forest of uncertainty with these four-year point guards. If nothing else, the shooting seems to translate and if it does for Winston, that’s a path to an NBA role.

  1. Filip Petrusev, Gonzaga:

Stock change: Rising

I’m probably higher on Petrusev than I should be, but against A&M, and in other games, he’s just been a model of composed, refined big man play. He lacks the power and athleticism of the top-four centers on this abbreviated list, but at 6-11, he has a mature understanding of how to utilize his size. He keeps the ball high on catches and boards, has touch off the glass, and a good nose for the ball on rebounds. With his back to the basket, he reads the floor well and against A&M, had numerous plus-passes including cross court and picking out backdoor cutters. Defensively, he shows engagement, focus, and competitiveness. He may be a bit light in the pants for beefier or more athletic bigs, but between his competitiveness and length, can be serviceable on that end. Like Okongwu, I look forward to see Petrusev against higher levels of competition as the A&M bigs offered little challenge.

  1. Malik Hall, Michigan State

Stock change: Rising

I’m happy to own this as a near-term over-rank with potential for some longer-term validation. Against Seton Hall, Malik was incendiary off the bench. He shot 7-7 including 3-3 from three on what were exclusively unguarded threes. Having seen Hall in EYBL, he’s always had an Izzo-player type sheen to him with good footwork, consistent effort, above average BBIQ and athleticism, and an ability to play big. For a stretch, Izzo had him playing some center against Seton Hall’s monstrous frontline and instead of being devoured by the 7-2 Ike Obiagu, Hall was on his David & Goliath, stretching the big man out of his comfort zone and using his feet to navigate around Obiagu’s meager attempts at posting up. Hall doesn’t project as ever being a star, but he already gets the finer points of playing winning basketball and is in a program that will nurture it.

  1. Isaiah Mobley, USC

Stock change: no change

Right now, Mobley’s probably more fun than he is effective. At 6-10, 235-pounds, he has a bag of tricks filled with all types of moves that are mostly foreign to 19-year-old basketball players. There’s a European style to his play: hyper aware on offense with a bevy of craft and deception, high-level fakes and footwork that remind you that basketball is art and can be an expression of a higher plane of the mind-body meld. I see Mobley and I see shades of Naz Reid, but also Dario Saric, just loads of skill and imagination bringing glee to basketball fans young and old. On the flip side, as I watched Mobley against Nevada, I noted, “not too fond of bending his knees.” Defensively, he’s rarely in a ready position. He stands straight up and down, susceptible to being beaten by quick, decisive moves on or off the ball. Between his lack of engagement on the defensive side, average athleticism, and a body lacking strength, Mobley will have some straightforward challenges at the next level, but his skill level is so high and unique at his size that he can and should be able to survive and contribute at the pro level.

  1. Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga at Seton Hall, trending up: I’ll admit this is probably me playing to my favorites more than it is a genuine rank of prospects, but the 6-5 sophomore point guard from France has elite quickness, wiry strength, plus-length, an ability to attack with both hands, and well above average BBIQ. He can and does do a bit of everything when he’s on the court and has been impossible for me to take my eyes off at both FIBA U19’s this past summer and with Gonzaga this season. His shot needs work, but hot damn, his per-40 numbers are: 11-points, 7-assists, 13-rebounds, and over 3 steals.
  2. Anton Watson, Gonzaga, no change: Smart people whose opinions I respect (Ross Homan, Mike Gribanov, Jackson Frank) are super duper high on Watson which means in all likelihood that I’ve overlooked Watson’s shine in favor of Ayayi, Drew Timme, and Corey Kispert in Gonzaga’s games. If anything else, it gives me another area to focus my attention in future Zags games. I’d seen Watson in high school and noted an advanced skill level and consistent effort. He has a strong handle, can pass or get his own shot, and competes defensively. He plays at a mature, unrushed pace filled with nuance and timing. I’m assuming he’ll climb my rankings as I consume more Zags games.
  3. Corey Kispert, Gonzaga, up: side note: for the longest time, I thought his name was Cody. Kispert is 6-7, 220 pounds with a rock solid build. He looks like he’s in a state of perpetual sweat and, from what I’ve seen, is prone to going balls to the wall (BTTW). He’s from Edmonds, Washington (just north of Seattle) and I’d been aware of him from his high school days, but never thought much of his pro prospects until I saw him against Alabama State earlier this year when he went for 28 points on 10-13 from the field and 5-6 from 3. For his Gonzaga career, he’s shooting 37% on over 300 attempts. But I don’t think the shooting is his best skill; rather it’s his wing size, defensive versatility, athleticism combined with the shooting that make him an intriguing 3-and-D prospect.
  4. Emmitt Matthews, West Virginia, trending up: Good sized (6-7) shooter with offensive awareness, plus passer (lot of zip on passes), who needs to get stronger.
  5. Xavier Johnson, Pittsburgh, trending down: great size (6-3, 190) at point guard, strong kid with length, at his best going downhill, powerful change of direction, decent vision, form on jumper needs work: shooting 40% on 3s, 33% on 2s, 57% from the line. Sloppy at times with ball control: nearly 4 turnovers/game over 39-game career. There’s a prospect here, but he’s still learning to be the best version of himself.
  6. Boogie Ellis, Memphis, trending: no change: good shooter, strong athlete, competes on both ends, would like to see more of him.
  7. Precious Achiuwa, Memphis, trending down: 20-year-old 6-9 freshman shooting 47% from the line. Good feel passing and moving without the ball. Struggling to adapt to defending at college level, can’t just out-physical opponents like he could in high school. All the physical tools, but long way to harness it all. I’m not certain what his NBA skill or role are at present.
  8. DJ Jeffries, Memphis, trending up: At 6-7, 225-pounds, Jeffries projects as a big wing who plays bigger than his size. Against Oregon, he was up and down, but showed flashes of rim protection and the versatile offensive attack that initially attracted my attention in EYBL. He’s a good athlete with an above average handle for his age and position, he can make improvisational reads and passes off a live dribble. While just six games into his college career, it seems he’s still trying to settle into the pace of play, particularly in Memphis’s young, stacked offense. Averaging 2.7 stocks in 26 minutes/game.
  9. Lester Quinones, Memphis, trending up: 6-5, 220-pound combo guard. I’m not convinced he’s actually 220, but he wears short shorts and goes BTTW. Strong lower body, makes hustle plays, competes, likes to shoot (24% on 5 3pas/gm), 14-15 from line (93%), touch comes and goes. Won’t be surprised to see him put up 40 in a G-League game in two years.
  10. Damion Baugh, Memphis, no change: first time seeing Baugh, a 6-3, 185-pound combo guard. Strong, pass first guard can attack off bounce, pick out open man, run pick-and-roll, and compete defensively. Odd allergy to shooting: scoring 9 points and taking 5 shots per-40 minutes.
  11. Drew Timme, Gonzaga, trending up: fun big listed at 6-10 though he looks shorter to me. Excellent passer with great footwork and feel for game. Doesn’t shoot threes (zero attempts in five games) and very little presence protecting the rim although averaging a block-per-game. Would like to see him develop some sort of jumper.
  12. Will Richardson, Oregon, trending up: Probably one of my favorite things with young players is seeing how they develop physically from season-to-season. Richardson is a 6-5 combo guard with twiggy arms and legs as a freshman and while he’s no Tshiebwe as a sophomore, he’s filled out quite a bit and it shows in an improved ability to attack off the bounce and absorb contact. Richardson was a point guard in high school and has retained his ability as a passer with high BBIQ in addition to becoming a more confident three-point shooter. He’s only taken eight threes in five games this season, but is 5-8 in addition to shooting 11-13 (85%) from the line compared to 67% a year ago. He just looks more confident. His craft and IQ help to compensate for average athleticism. He’s almost like a smaller, less hypnotic version of Kyle Anderson.
  13. Payton Pritchard, Oregon, maybe trending up: Pritchard’s a four-year starter at Oregon, a career 36% three-point shooter and 78% free throw shooter who’s shooting career worsts in both, but a career-high 63 true shooting on the strength of 68% on nearly eight two-point field goal attempts/game. At 6-2, 195, he’s not going to overwhelm you with size, speed, or strength. He shares Myles Powell’s size, but nowhere near the breadth or depth of his scoring ability. That said, against a young Memphis squad, he was able to use his experience to hunt mismatches against Achiuwa and Wiseman. Against Achiuwa, he bumped the younger player off balance for a clean look while he took advantage of Wiseman giving him too much of a cushion on the perimeter to bust his ass from three. He competes, but doesn’t project as an NBA player.
  14. Nick Rakocevic, USC, trending up: fresh off a 27-point, 16-rebound, 5-steal game against South Dakota State, the 6-11 senior, Rakocevic used all his refined fundamentals and relentless motor to shit all over Nevada (24p on 10-15, 11r). He’s a legit 6-11 with narrow shoulders, a high motor who’s exceptional running the floor and an above average passer. He’s not a great rim protector and while he’s a smart player, he hasn’t blown me away as a team defender. He’s shown a turn-and-face and mid-range game at USC, but is just 2-9 from three in his career. Absent stretch ability and rim protection, it’ll be hard for him to land in the league, but his energy, effort, and smarts give him some potential as a two-way player. More Zeller than Plumlee.
  15. CJ Walker, Oregon, trending: no change: Walker’s a spindly 6-8, 200-pound combo forward for the Ducks. He committed three fouls in five minutes against Memphis and is averaging less than a point in his first five college games. Early returns aside, Walker is a high-level athlete with questionable BBIQ who has long-term potential as a multi-position defender due to his length and high-energy play. He also has potential to get lost in the shuffle.
  16. Chandler Lawson, Oregon, trending up: The younger brother of Kansas’s Dedric Lawson, Chandler is a 6-8, 205-pound Memphis native who’s similar to Walker in that he’s rangy and plays with energy. Based on the Memphis game alone (8p on 2-3 shooting, 4-5 FTs, 4r – 2 offensive), he’s the more college-ready player. His activity and length translate well and he’s a competent and capable passer. His strength and handle are areas he can improve upon.
  17. Jazz Johnson, Nevada, trending up: Gotta love a 5-10 combo guard who’s shooting 42% from three on over 440 career attempts. Johnson doesn’t have the athletic pop of shorter guys like Isaiah Thomas or Chris Clemons, but he’s probably a better long-range shooter and defender. Longshot for the NBA, but likely G-League or overseas guy.
  18. Jalen Harris, Nevada, trending up: had never heard of Jalen Harris before Nevada played USC, but he’s a 6-5, 195-pound incoming transfer from Louisiana Tech. According to coach Steve Alford, he’s an “elite athlete with great BBIQ.” The athleticism was easy to see, but he was 3-19 from the field and just kept firing up contested looks. He’s at 46 TS on the season so the cold streak wasn’t limited to one game. That said, Harris has feel for the game. On a Nevada squad lacking in playmaking, he’s one of their primary initiators with nearly 4 assists/game. He’s a plus-rebounder (over 6/game) with a strong frame and potential as a multi-positional defender. In an ideal role, he’s a standstill shooter who can attack closeouts and defend both guard spots.
  19. Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall, trending: no change: Mamukelashvili is an unconventional big, a 6-10 native of Georgia (Stalin’s Georgia, not Dominique’s) who’s not particularly good at rim protection or shooting, but is a primary creator on Seton Hall’s Powell-heavy offense. He has a fluid handle and moves well with a great feel for the game on both sides of the ball. His fundamentals are sound and he’s strong as a team defender. Against Michigan State, he was able to attack off the dribble, but struggled to finish through contact and control the ball. He was 3-7 on twos with four TOs. He’s a fun player, but one who likely has to many holes to succeed in the league.
  20. Derek Culver, West Virginia, trending down: A 21-year-old sophomore, Culver is a hulkish 6-10, 255-pounds with boulder shoulders and an average-to-below average feel for the game. He showed some unreal athleticism in the clip below, but for the most part, his athleticism doesn’t pop in game. He shows flashes of intrigue with the occasional nice pass or he-manish rebound in traffic, but there’s a lack of consistency to his game and his defensive awareness is consistency lacking as evidence by his 7+ fouls/40 minutes. He does have some touch and is currently shooting 88% from the line on 24 attempts this season.
  21. Marcus Bingham, Michigan State, trending up: near-seven-footer with decent looking jumper (0-5 from three this season) averaging over six blocks/40 this season. Rail thin. If he can increase volume on three ball and put on weight, shows touch of potential as a Channing Frye-type specialist.
  22. Rocket Watts, Michigan State, trending: no change: Believe his destiny is as a point guard, but alongside Cassius Winston, those opportunities are few and far between so the 6-2 freshman is a steward of sorts, charged with not fucking up and through four games, he’s done well in that role with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. His shot isn’t broken by any means, but he’s shooting just 3-17 from three and struggled at times in EYBL. Solid build, willing competitor and defender, rebounds well for size.
  23. Gabe Brown, Michigan State, trending up: lefty shooter with defensive versatility at 6-7; spent lot of time guarding Powell in game against Seton Hall. More athletic than I expected from a guy with a reputation as a “shooter.” In limited game film, handle hasn’t looked great. Shoots it well off catch and movement.
  24. Lindsey Drew, Nevada, trending up: had never heard of Drew before this season, but he’s a 6-4 point guard for Nevada who’s started 98 of 105 career games and has averaged 2 stocks/game for his career. Added a three-point shot this season and is shooting 40% on 5 attempts/game. There’s almost a laziness to his game in that his dribble and playmaking unfold slowly as he pokes and prods for holes in the defense and excels at keeping his dribble alive. He has a slower wind up on his catch-and-shoot jumper as well. Against USC, he struggled to stay in front of his man on defensive side and was limited in his overall defensive impact. He’s trending up here because I’d never even heard of him or considered him. Nothing to something equals rising.
  25. Ethan Anderson, USC, trending up: at 6-2, 210 with a thick neck, Anderson looks more football player than point guard, but the freshman is a consummate lead guard for USC. He’s averaging six assists with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He plays with poise and despite his lack of experience, doesn’t get sped up by the defense. He can change speeds, change direction, and mix in eurosteps as needed. His passing translates in half court and transition settings. The glaring issue with Anderson is his Omar Cook-like shooting: 42 TS through six games including 32% on 25 twos. If the shooting comes around, he’ll climb pretty quick for me.
  26. Shakur Juiston, Oregon, trending: no change: Not much to say. Broad shoulders, rebounds well.
  27. Savion Flagg, Texas A&M, trending down: looks the part at 6-7, 223 with a ripped frame, but maddening to watch with poor ball control and defensive lapses and miscommunications. 3.5 turnovers to 2.5 assists with a 22% usage this season.
  28. Tyrese Samuel, Seton Hall, trending down: has potential as a stretch-4 (6-10, 220 with a pretty jumper), but only sniffing the edges of the Hall’s rotation. Work-in-progress.
  29. Daniel Utomi, USC, trending up: 6-6, 225-pound grad transfer at USC. From 16 and 5 for Akron in the MAC to 20-minute/game role player with USC. Utomi looks like a brick shithouse with broader shoulders and sturdy frame, but is presently relegated to a supporting dirty work guy with this USC team. He can shoot it (39% on 7 3s/game last two seasons at Akron) and defend and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him starting or playing as sixth man for this USC team. Pro prospects: unlikely, but physical tools are there.
  30. Elijah Weaver, USC, trending down
  31. Trey McGowens, Seton Hall, no change
  32. Ike Obiagu, Seton Hall, trending down
  33. Francis Okoro, Oregon, trending down
  34. Jordan McCabe, West Virginia, no change

Unranked players that I noted, but didn’t get a large enough sample: Au’Diese Toney, Gerald Drumgoole, Karim Coulibaly (I do like him), Miles McBride (WVU reserve PG, probably better than McCabe), Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis (64% on 31 3pas this year – should be in mid-20s of list above), Foster Loyer, Emanuel Miller, Jay Jay Chandler, Andre Gordon, Nisre Zouzoua, and Justin Champagnie

James Wiseman: More question marks and less exclamation points, please.

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.

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