FOX Sports NBA Analyst
It’s easy to see why the Warriors believe James Wiseman can become the rim-protecting presence they so desperately need to protect their aging stars and keep their status as a perennial NBA title contender alive.
It’s also easy to understand why anyone outside of the Warriors’ sphere would have doubts.
Wiseman checks in at 7-foot-2 and 240 pounds. Its large frame can be moved horizontally and vertically with ease. Coming out of high school, he was the top recruit in the country. And after just one season in Memphis, the league was later shut down when Golden State, fresh off three titles in five seasons, got the No. 2 pick in the draft after Steph Curry and Klay Thompson played a combined game . five games in 2019-20 due to injury and Kevin Durant played in Brooklyn in the offseason.
“The Splash Brothers” would soon return to prominence and now, Golden State had a young, athletic shot blocker. In other words, the dynasty would continue.
And in 2021-22, the Warriors did it again, winning their fourth ring in eight seasons, but it had little to do with their young center.
Instead, he has struggled mightily in the NBA, and last week Wiseman was assigned to the team’s G League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, located a 70-minute drive south of franchise headquarters of the big league in San Francisco.
“He’s an amazing kid,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told FOX Sports. “So committed, so genuine. He’s never played a lot of high-level basketball and he has to play every night to get better. It’s not fair to him or us.”
Now in his third season in the NBA, Wiseman’s impact is still waiting to be felt. He has played in just 50 total games, after suffering a torn meniscus as a rookie. He missed his entire sophomore season and is averaging 10.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.8 blocks for his career.
“Poor instincts,” said one former NBA center. “Struggles to protect the rim without fouling at the NBA level. Gets stuck vertically at times when he should be competing. Has the athleticism to improve, but will need a ton of teaching and reps.”
Through it all, the Warriors forced court time on him to start the season, an average of 17 minutes through the first five games. Wiseman showed he could be an efficient scorer, but his defensive deficiencies resulted in double-digit plus-minus in four of five games. The force feed was scrapped when the Warriors went on a five-game losing streak and Kerr shortened his game rotation, prompting Wiseman to record three straight DNPs.
Wiseman wasn’t the only reason for the losses, by any means, but when the Warriors rattled off back-to-back wins without him while playing improved defense, there was no motivation to resurrect the plan.
The final concession was last week’s G League assignment. There is no timetable for his return to the NBA team, but he will spend a minimum of 10 days with the G League club, Kerr said.
The Warriors don’t need to be told how crucial Wiseman’s development is — it was clear who he was in his first game in Santa Cruz last weekend against the South Bay Lakers. Warriors coaches and players were in Houston to begin a two-game road swing, but virtually the entire front office brain trust made the trip south, including owner Joe Lacob, his son and executive vice president of basketball operations Kirk, assistant GM Mike. Dunleavy Jr., player development coach Hilton Armstrong and director of player affairs Shaun Livingston.
Based on Wiseman’s performance that night and two days later in Utah against the Salt Lake City Stars, 10 days won’t be enough.
The South Bay Lakers’ guards had no trouble sizing up Wiseman to shoot floaters over him or deliver rebound passes to their big men for layups in a 111-91 victory. Wiseman’s foul trouble continued in Santa Cruz as well, picking up his fifth foul in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter.
However, Santa Cruz Warriors head coach Seth Cooper praised Wiseman for trying to play effective defense.
“There would be a lot of guys that would try to come in here and have the ball all the time and score 30 points,” Cooper said. “His attitude has been incredible.”
Although Warriors guard Jordan Poole has encouraged him to take an unapologetic gunner’s approach, Wiseman said his entire focus is on developing his rim-protecting skills.
“Being able to make sure that when I go around the block, I can get it,” he said. “It’s more like checking boxes. Playing cat and mouse with the guards. Working on my verticality. It’s all about getting reps.”
Wiseman hasn’t gotten a ton of game reps at any level in the past four years, not entirely by choice. As a freshman at the University of Memphis, he was suspended 12 games by the NCAA for accepting funds from former NBA point guard Penny Hardaway, now the head coach of the Tigers, who was then simply a student and a booster, to move his family from Nashville. in Memphis. Wiseman played three games before the punishment was imposed; he quit the team in protest, sitting out the rest of the year.
The Warriors drafted him with the second overall pick anyway, because he was clearly the most promising big man in the draft, and they were desperate to add athleticism and size to complement their perimeter talent: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew . Wiggins and Poole.
Wiseman’s dry season was then extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the cancellation of NBA summer leagues and the 2020-21 season starting shortly before Christmas . He made 39 appearances before tearing the meniscus in his right knee with 19 games remaining. Surgery to repair the tear cost him the entire 2021-22 season.
The reality? Not only is he learning to be an NBA-caliber center, but he’s learning to play, period. That’s why Anthony Lamb, an undrafted forward out of the University of Vermont on a two-way contract, has surpassed not only Wiseman but two other young lottery picks, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, in the Warriors’ rotation.
Kevon Looney, the Warriors’ starting center, was asked what the common denominator is for young players like Lamb who find a niche playing alongside the team’s championship core.
“They’re generally guys who have a high IQ, who have a great feel for the game, who tend to fit our system very well,” he said. “We rely a lot on our spacing, our ball movement, cutting and knowing where to be, playing against Steph and Klay. When you’re the fourth or fifth guy on the court with these All-Stars, you have to know where to be , when to make the right play, knowing when to be aggressive and when to turn down a shot. It takes a special skill to be able to do that, to see the game like that. The front office does a great job of finding guys like that.”
Perhaps that’s why Wiseman refuses to be disappointed by his G League stint. He’s confident enough to believe he can develop that vision and smart enough to know he doesn’t have it yet. And after years of rehab and individual drills, the opportunity to play is not something to be taken for granted, wherever he is.
“I’ve been through a lot of dark times,” he said. “I don’t see it as a demotion at all.”
On almost any team other than the Warriors, Wiseman could develop under less scrutiny. And more patience. But few teams have as high expectations, along with the need for a shot blocker and a backcourt defender, as the Warriors. The Warriors didn’t send him to the G League because they waived him. Instead, they’re hoping he can become what they’ll need in the postseason as they fight their way back into the standings. They are currently ranked 11th in the Western Conference.
“The pressure he has to play at Championship level is unreal and in some ways unfair compared to other young players,” said one former player. “If I was at Spurs, I would have the opportunity to learn and make mistakes at a decent rate.”
Wiseman and the Warriors could also have more room for error if their established players don’t also struggle defensively, a team source said. Thompson and Poole currently have the worst defensive ratings on the team, and Green has the worst rating of his career by a wide margin.
That’s ultimately why Wiseman is in the G League. Cooper made it clear that Santa Cruz is an incubator committed, first and foremost, to developing what the big league team needs. In Wiseman’s case, practices will include 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 drills to improve Wiseman’s ability to keep opponents guessing when and how he will challenge his shot. And as high as the bar is set, and as far as Wiseman has to go to get there, Cooper believes it’s possible.
“We still think it can get to that point this year,” he said.
Opinions from several former players are mixed on how good of a shot blocker Wiseman can be based on what they’ve seen so far.
“It’s a natural thing, a skill that’s innate,” said a former senior who is now a talent evaluator. “For me, what it lacks is processing speed and that’s not something you can teach.”
A second former big man didn’t argue with that premise, but believes Wiseman can improve enough in the G League to be effective, if not elite.
“The NBA is an extremely difficult place to learn a new skill when you’re trying to learn the game in general,” he said. “He’s got to play a lot and slow the game down in his mind and figure out who he can rely on to help them win games consistently. The Warriors need consistent players and Wiseman right now is a sometimes player, maybe. But I think he he can turn a corner if he keeps playing.”
It may not be in the timeline the Warriors need.
“Has Wiseman played 10,000 hours of basketball in his life?” asked the second former player. “That feeling and moment to play the cat-and-mouse game that great shot-blockers play is about playing a lot of basketball. The NBA, for 99.9 percent of the world, is not the place to start learning any thing that is a God. given.”
The Warriors expect Wiseman to be 0.1 percent.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young-onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds”. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @Rick Bucher.
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