FOX Sports NBA Analyst
It’s easy to see why the Warriors are confident that James Wiseman can become the rim-protecting presence they so desperately need to protect their aging stars and keep their status as perennial NBA title contenders alive.
It’s also easy to understand why someone outside the warrior realm would have doubts.
Wiseman checks in at 7 feet, 240 pounds. Its substantial frame can move horizontally and vertically with ease. By the time he left high school, he was the nation’s top recruit. And after spending a single season in Memphis — more on that later — the league shut down when Golden State, fresh from three titles in five seasons, landed the No. 2 draft after Steph Curry and Klay Thompson played a combination in five Games in 2019-20 due to injury and Kevin Durant shooting for Brooklyn in the offseason.
“The Splash Brothers” would soon be back to prominence, and now Golden State had a young, athletic shot-blocker. In other words, the dynasty would endure.
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 fought mightily in the NBA, and last week Wiseman was assigned to the team’s G-League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, located 70 minutes’ drive south of the big-league franchise’s San Francisco headquarters.
“He’s an amazing kid,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told FOX Sports. “So committed, so sincere. He’s just never played much high-level basketball and needs to play every night to get better. It’s not fair to him or to us.”
Now in his third NBA season, Wiseman’s impact is still waiting to be felt. He has only played 50 games total after tearing his meniscus as a rookie. He missed his entire sophomore season and has averaged 10.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.8 blocks for his career.
“Bad instincts,” said one former NBA center. “At the NBA level, he fights to protect the rim without fouling. He sometimes gets stuck in the vertical when he should be fighting. He has the athletics to get better, but he’ll need a lot of tuition and repetition.”
All of this is why the Warriors force-fed him playtime early in the season, averaging 17 minutes in the first five games. Wiseman showed he could be an efficient scorer, but his weaknesses on defense resulted in double-digit demerits in four of the five games. Force-feeding was abolished when the Warriors went on a five-game losing streak and Kerr cut his game rotation, resulting in Wiseman recording three straight DNPs.
Wiseman was far from the only reason for the losses, but with the Warriors clinching back-to-back wins without him while playing improved defense, there was no motivation to revive the plan.
The latest concession was last week’s G League outing. There is no timeline for his return to the NBA team, but he will spend at least 10 days with the G-League club, Kerr said.
Needless to say, how crucial Wiseman’s development is to the Warriors – it was clear who played their first game against the South Bay Lakers in Santa Cruz last weekend. The Warriors coaches and players were in Houston to start a two-game road swing, but virtually the entire front-office Brain Trust made its way south, including owner Joe Lacob, his son and executive vice president of Basketball Operations Kirk, assistant to 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 measuring Wiseman to shoot floaters over him or delivering bounce passes to their big men for layups in a 111-91 win. Wiseman’s foul problems continued in Santa Cruz – he caught 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 an effective defense.
“There would be a lot of people trying to come down here and have the ball all the time and get 30 points,” Cooper said. “His attitude was amazing.”
Although Wiseman was encouraged to take the no-holds-barred shooting approach by Warriors guard Jordan Poole, Wiseman said his entire focus is on developing his rim protection skills.
“To be able to make sure I get it when I go on the block,” he said. “It’s more like checking boxes. Play cat and mouse with the guards. Working on my verticality. It’s all about getting reps.”
Wiseman hasn’t had many game representatives at any level over the past four years, not entirely by choice. As a freshman at the University of Memphis, he was handed a 12-game ban by the NCAA for accepting monies from former NBA guard Penny Hardaway — now the Tigers head coach, who was then just an alum and a booster — to move his family from Nashville to Memphis. Wiseman played three games before the penalty was imposed; He left the team in protest and sat out the rest of the year.
The Warriors still picked him as the runner-up overall because he was clearly the big man with the most potential in the draft, and they were keen to add athleticism and size to complement their pool of perimeter talent – Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Poole.
Wiseman’s losing streak was then extended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the cancellation of the NBA summer leagues and the 2020-21 season, which began just before Christmas. He played 39 games before tearing a meniscus in his right knee with 19 games left. The surgery to repair the tear cost him the entire 2021-22 season.
The reality? He’s not just learning how to be an NBA caliber center — he’s learning how to play the game, period. That’s why Anthony Lamb, an undrafted forward from the University of Vermont on a two-way contract, is past not only Wiseman but two other young Lotto picks, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, into the rotation of the Warriors jumped.
Warriors starting center Kevon Looney was asked what the common denominator is for young players like Lamb finding a niche alongside the team’s championship core.
“Usually it’s guys with a high IQ who have a great feel for the game who usually fit into our system very well,” he said. “We rely a lot on our distance, ball movement, cutting and knowing where we need to be to outplay Steph and Klay. When you’re the fourth or fifth man on the court with these All-Stars, you need to know where to be, when to make the right play, when to be aggressive, and when to turn down a shot. In order to be able to do that, it takes a special ability 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 with his G League performance. 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 one-on-none practice, the ability to play, wherever it may be, is not a given.
“I’ve been through a lot of dark times,” he said. “I don’t see that as a demotion at all.”
On almost any team other than the Warriors, Wiseman could develop with less control. And more patience. But few teams have such high expectations, coupled with the need for a shot blocker and defensive tackle, like the Warriors. The Warriors didn’t send him to the G League because they gave him up. Instead, they’re hoping he can develop into what they need in the postseason as they fight their way back up the standings. They currently rank 11th in the Western Conference.
“The pressure he is under to play at championship level is unreal and in a way unfair compared to other young players,” said a former player. “If he were at Spurs he would have a chance to learn at a decent pace and make mistakes.”
Wiseman and the Warriors could also have more room for error if their established players weren’t also struggling 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 some margin.
That’s ultimately why Wiseman is in the G League. Cooper made it clear that Santa Cruz is an incubator dedicated primarily to developing what the big league team needs. In Wiseman’s case, the drills include 3v2 and 2v1 drills to improve Wiseman’s ability to keep opponents guessing when and how he will challenge their shot. And no matter how high the bar is set, and no matter how far Wiseman has to go to reach it, Cooper believes it’s possible.
“We still think he can reach that point this year,” he said.
Several former players have mixed views on how good Wiseman can be as a shot blocker based on what they’ve seen so far.
“It’s a natural thing, an innate ability,” said a former great man-turned-talent evaluator. “To me, he lacks the processing speed and you can’t teach him that.”
A second former great man didn’t disagree 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 trying to learn the game in general,” he said. “He has to play a lot and slow down the game in his head and figure out what he can rely on to consistently help win games. The Warriors need consistent players and Wiseman is a sometimes maybe player at the moment. But I think he can turn the corner if he just keeps playing.”
It just might not be on the timeline the warriors need.
“Has Wiseman played 10,000 hours of basketball in his life?” asked the second former player. “That feeling and timing to play the cat and mouse game that great shot blockers play comes from playing a lot of basketball. The NBA is not the place for 99.9 percent of the world to learn something that is a god. received as a gift.”
The Warriors hope Wiseman accounts for that 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 authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
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