This was supposed to be the year James Wiseman justified the hype.
The Memphis freshman entered the season as a prospective No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, but questions lingered surrounding his approach to the game and his fit in the modern NBA. Now, answers will have to wait a bit longer.
After just 69 minutes of action to start the season, the NCAA ruled Wiseman must sit out of competition until a Jan. 12 contest against South Florida as a result of inducements his family received prior to his enrollment at Memphis.
NBA MOCK DRAFT 2020: Where does does Wiseman land?
Since talent evaluators won’t see Wiseman play for over a month, it feels like a good time to recap what we’ve seen from him so far from an NBA perspective with an eye on where he might end up come June.
Wiseman’s profile starts with the enormity of his frame. At the Tigers’ Pro Day earlier this year, he measured in with a nearly 7-5 wingspan and a 9-6 standing reach. Those numbers flag Wiseman as one of the longest prospects in recent memory, placing him somewhere in the middle of Myles Turner and Rudy Gobert.
Defensively, his length alone means the 18-year-old is capable of patrolling the interior like few other collegians. Here, for example, he blocks a shot near the top of the backboard square against Illinois Chicago:
Opponents are making just 32.8 percent of their two-pointers with him on the floor this season, per Hoop Lens. Individually, Wiseman is averaging 5.2 blocks per 40 minutes with a 15.0 percent block rate. Freshmen don’t tend to sustain those numbers over an entire season. If Wiseman does, it will be hard to deny him as a special defensive prospect.
These block numbers are important because they help emphasize Wiseman’s floor. Even if they slip slightly, he will likely hit benchmarks suggestive of a successful NBA career.
Let’s say Wiseman registers a more reasonable block rate just above 10.0 percent while continuing to post a 20.0 percent defensive rebound rate — a fairly safe bet. Only 15 freshmen 6-10 or taller have hit those numbers since 2008. That group includes the likes of Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and the aforementioned Turner plus Nerlens Noel, Larry Sanders and Hassan Whiteside.
Wiseman is still obviously an imperfect defender. He’s young and jumpy. He likes to chase blocks looking to put a ball into the crowd for the highlight play. It can result in him looking quite silly on pump fakes:
He’s also not there yet as a perimeter defender. It’s not clear he’ll ever be a big who can consistently switch onto smaller guards.
Wiseman struggles to flip his hips to match the movements of opposing guards. In college, he’s able to make up for it with his length by recovering to challenge the shot from behind. It’s less likely he’ll be able to do so in the pros:
Given the success several NBA teams are having employing drop coverages, Wiseman’s inability to be a fully switchable big on the perimeter probably deserves to be more of a side note than an outright concern. He’s looked reasonable in coverages that don’t require him to switch, and his reputation for taking plays off in high school doesn’t appear to have traveled to college.
We’ll see if that keeps up. For now, his rim protection and rebounding mean his overall defensive potential includes some elite outcomes.
However, in order to be a franchise center and one of the best bigs in the league — a fair hope for a team selecting him in the top three — Wiseman will need to be more than a defensive stalwart. Using ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus from last season, it’s easy to see the most impactful centers in the NBA usually contribute on both sides of the ball:
This is where it becomes more difficult to justify Wiseman as a top selection. He certainly isn’t close to possessing the passing acumen of Jokic. He’s got one assist in three games this season. During his final year of Nike EYBL play, he logged 14 in 21 games.
He’s also missing the dominant post game of Embiid, and not for lack of opportunity. Plenty of Memphis’ offensive possessions involve Wiseman on the block with his hand raised. When he gets the ball, there aren’t many signs of an advanced post game like those Embiid flashed at Kansas. Remember the Dream Shake?
Assuming he’s willing to embrace a lesser role, Wiseman can still be a positive influence on offense in large part thanks to his rim running. He runs the floor well in transition and understands there are lanes to be filled that can result in easy dunks:
In the half court, Wiseman’s best offense comes out of ball screens. He can occasionally get lackadaisical with his screen setting. When engaged, he’s able to set screens that generate space and force adjustments in defensive coverages. The result is frequently an open dunk for him at the rim:
If there’s a criticism, it’s that Wiseman is a two-foot leaper who can take time to load up for his finishes. The good news is his long arms mean he doesn’t have far to go.
Beyond the rim running, Wiseman may also possess some untapped potential as a jump shooter. He’s not someone who is likely to knock down shots off complex actions in the future, but seeing his upside as a player capable of hitting corner 3-pointers, trail 3-pointers and some pick-and-pop 3-pointers doesn’t require much squinting. He’s already had some impressive makes from midrange this season and is comfortable taking these types of shots:
He may be a bit too comfortable with them. Role concerns arise because Wiseman all too often resorts to his jumper, and in some cases does so early in the shot clock to the detriment of the offense as a whole. Launching shots like this with eight seconds off the clock would drive anyone mad:
The Memphis freshman developing into an All-Defense player in the future is within his realm of outcomes. Wiseman becoming the focal point of an offense in the mold of Jokic, Towns or Embiid is probably not.
Centers who generate the majority of their value on defense can still be significant contributors to winning. Consider this list from last season:
For now, Wiseman sits behind the best offensive creators in the class on my draft board. The upside of the ball-dominant guards like Cole Anthony, Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Maxey is more valuable than the archetype Wiseman represents, even if he’s a safer bet.
These rankings aren’t final, though. Perhaps the offense comes along quicker than expected. He’s only 18 after all.
Wiseman’s got time to offer us more answers. We’ll just have to wait a bit to find out. See you on Jan. 12.
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