It’s easy to understand why the Warriors have faith that James Wiseman can become the rim-protecting presence they so desperately need to shield their aging stars and keep alive their status as a perennial NBA title contender.
It’s also easy to understand why anyone outside the Warriors’ sphere has doubts.
Wiseman checks in at 7-foot, 240 pounds. His sizable frame can move horizontally and vertically with ease. Coming out of high school, he was the top recruit in the nation. And after spending a single season at Memphis — more on that season later — the league shuttered when Golden State, fresh off of three titles in five seasons, landed the No. 2 pick in the draft, after Steph Curry and Klay Thompson played a combined five games in 2019-20 due to injury and Kevin Durant bolted for Brooklyn during 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’s 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 the big-league franchise’s San Francisco headquarters.
“He’s an amazing kid,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said to FOX Sports. “So committed, so genuine. He’s just never played much high-level basketball and he needs to play every night to get better. It’s not fair to him or us.”
Now in his third NBA season, Wiseman’s impact is still waiting to be felt. He’s played in just 50 games total, after suffering a torn meniscus as a rookie. He missed his entire sophomore season, and for his career, he’s averaging 10.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 0.8 blocks.
“Poor instincts,” one former NBA center said. “He struggles to protect the rim without fouling at the NBA level. Gets stuck going vertical at times when he should be contesting. He has the athleticism to get better but will need a ton of teaching and reps.”
All of which is why the Warriors force-fed him court time to start the season, an average of 17 minutes through the first five games. Wiseman showed he could be an efficient scorer, but his deficiencies on defense resulted in double-digit negative plus-minuses in four of the five games. The force-feeding was scrapped when the Warriors went on a five-game losing streak and Kerr shortened his playing rotation, resulting in Wiseman recording three consecutive DNPs.
Wiseman wasn’t the only reason for the losses, by any stretch, but when the Warriors squeaked out consecutive 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 say how crucial Wiseman’s development is — it was made clear by who turned out for his first game in Santa Cruz last weekend against the South Bay Lakers. The Warriors coaches and players were in Houston to start a two-game road swing, but practically the entire front-office brain trust made the drive 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 again two days later in Utah against the Salt Lake City Stars, 10 days isn’t going to be enough.
The South Bay Lakers guards had no trouble measuring Wiseman to shoot floaters over him or deliver bounce passes to their big men for layups in a 111-91 win. Wiseman’s foul problems also continued in Santa Cruz — he picked up his fifth foul in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter.
Santa Cruz Warriors head coach Seth Cooper lauded Wiseman, however, for attempting to play effective defense.
“There would be a lot of guys that would try to come down here and have the ball all the time and score 30 points,” Cooper said. “His attitude has been unbelievable.”
Despite being encouraged by Warriors guard Jordan Poole to take the unapologetic gunner approach, Wiseman said his entire focus is developing his rim protection abilities.
“Being able to make sure when I go for the block, I can get it,” he said. “It’s more like checking off boxes. Play cat and mouse with the guards. Work on my verticality. It’s all about getting reps in.”
Wiseman hasn’t had a ton of game reps at any level in the last four years, not entirely by choice. As a freshman at the University of Memphis, the NCAA handed him a 12-game suspension for accepting funds from former NBA guard Penny Hardaway — now the Tigers head coach, who was then simply an alum and a booster — to move his family from Nashville to Memphis. Wiseman played three games before the punishment was meted; 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 big man with the most potential in the draft, and they were desperate to add athleticism and size to complement their cache of perimeter talent — Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Poole.
Wiseman’s playing dry spell was then extended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the cancelation of the 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 left. Surgery to repair the tear cost him the entire 2021-22 season.
The reality? He isn’t merely learning how to be an NBA-caliber center — he’s learning how to play the game, period. It’s why Anthony Lamb, an undrafted forward out of the University of Vermont on a two-way contract, has leap-frogged past not only Wiseman but two other young lottery picks, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, into the Warriors’ rotation.
Kevon Looney, the Warriors’ starting center, was asked what the common denominator is for young players such as Lamb who find a niche playing alongside the team’s championship core.
“It’s usually guys who have a high IQ, who’ve got a great feel for the game, that usually fit our system really well,” he said. “We rely a lot on our spacing, our ball movement, cutting and knowing where to be, playing off Steph and Klay. When you’re the fourth or fifth guy on the court with those All-Stars, you’ve got to know where to be at, when to make the right play, got to know 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 is why Wiseman refuses to be disappointed about his G League assignment. He is 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 drills, the chance to play is not something to be taken for granted, no matter where it might be.
“I’ve been through a lot of dark times,” he said. “I don’t see this as a demotion at all.”
On almost any team other than the Warriors, Wiseman might be able to develop with less scrutiny. And more patience. But few teams have as high expectations, coupled with the need for a shot-blocker and back-line defender, as the Warriors. The Warriors haven’t sent him down to the G League because they’ve given up on him. Instead, they’re hoping he can develop into what they’ll need in the postseason while they fight their way back up the standings. They currently sit 11th in the Western Conference.
“The pressure he has to play at a championship level is unreal and in some ways, unfair compared to other young players,” one former player said. “If he was on the Spurs, he would get a chance to learn and make mistakes at a decent pace.”
Wiseman and the Warriors also might have more margin 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 a wide margin.
Which is ultimately why Wiseman is in the G League. Cooper made it clear 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 hone Wiseman’s ability to keep opponents guessing on when and how he’ll challenge their shot. And as high as the bar is set, and as far as Wiseman has to go to reach it, Cooper believes it’s possible.
“We still think he can get to that point this year,” he said.
The views of several former players are mixed on just how good of a shot-blocker Wiseman can be based on what they’ve seen so far.
“It’s a natural thing, an ability that’s innate,” said a former big man who is now a talent evaluator. “To me, what he’s missing 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 has to play a lot and slow the game down in his mind and figure out what he can be relied on to consistently help win games. The Warriors need consistent players and Wiseman right now is a sometimes-maybe player. But I think he can turn a 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 yet in his life?” the second former player asked. “That feel and timing to play the cat-and-mouse game great shot-blockers play is from playing lots of basketball. The NBA, for 99.9 percent of the world, isn’t the place to start learning something that is a God-given gift.”
The Warriors are hoping Wiseman is 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 written two books, “Rebound,” on 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 @RicBucher.
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