Addressing the Biggest Questions About NBA Draft Prospect James WisemanAugust 23, 2020
Scouts predicted last summer the 2020 NBA draft would lack obvious star power, but consensus No. 1 recruit James Wiseman was one of the few prospects mentioned as a candidate to be picked first. Then one week into the college basketball season, he was ruled ineligible for Memphis.
Some evaluators still saw quite a bit of talent from the limited college reps. "What did he end up with against Oregon? Fourteen points and 12 rebounds, and he didn't even play the first half," said one scout willing to buy Wiseman's natural gifts.
Others had questions they were waiting for him to answer, and he couldn't through just three games. "Buyer beware," another exec said. "He's very average."
NBA front offices now have to rely on previous scouting and older tape from AAU, FIBA, the McDonald's All-American Game, the Jordan Brand Classic and the Nike Hoop Summit. The possibility of no live workouts during an abbreviated predraft process means even more uncertainty regarding where Wiseman is developmentally.
How Early Is Too Early to Draft a Center?
The NBA keeps evolving. In 2013-14, 27 teams averaged over 10 post-ups per game. This past season, only 10 teams averaged that many. Few offenses are being run through centers, unless that center is a high-level creator or passer.
Will that be Wiseman? If not, is it worth drafting him in the top five (over guards and forwards), where it's long been assumed he'll go?
It's also worth noting that a handful of lottery teams are already invested in centers. While drafting the best player available is the common mindset and practice, there is a fear of repeating the Orlando Magic's mistake when they used the No. 6 pick on Mohamed Bamba, only for him to serve as a backup behind Nikola Vucevic and miss out on important reps for development.
Unlike some bigs who were recently taken early—Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Jonathan Isaac, Zach Collins, Wendell Carter Jr.—Wiseman can only play one position. He's a true center, lacking the skill set or perimeter movement to also play forward. Only teams that could use an upgrade at the 5 will presumably consider Wiseman, which would limit his possible suitors—even more so if Andre Drummond opts in for 2020-21 and the Cleveland Cavaliers plan to re-sign him long term.
And why would the Golden State Warriors use a top pick on a center when he'd be the fourth or fifth option? Couldn't they sign a relatively inexpensive free agent to do what Wiseman would be asked of (finishing) in an offense run through its guards, wings and forwards?
Teams just searching for talent—Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards—might not worry as much about drafting a center. But how high he's worth selecting depends on one's level of confidence in his skill development.
How Confident Should Teams Be in His Development?
The draw to Wiseman stems from his spectacular physical profile: 7'1", 240 pounds, 7'6" wingspan. Plus, he can jump. NBA standouts who measured similarly before their drafts include Joel Embiid (7'0", 240 lbs, 7'5" WS), Dwight Howard (6'10¼", 240 lbs, 7'4½" WS), DeAndre Jordan (6'11", 250 lbs, 7'6" WS) and Hassan Whiteside (6'11½", 227 lbs, 7'7" WS), per NBA.com.
Where on that spectrum of big, strong, long centers will Wiseman fall? It will depend on his skill development, and at this stage, he doesn't appear close to where Embiid was at the same age.
Wiseman's value is fueled by his physical tools and bounce for picking up easy baskets. Of his 20 made field goals at Memphis, 17 came from transition, putbacks, cuts or rolls, per Synergy Sports. He totaled one assist in 69 minutes.
He's currently a rim runner and finisher, and that's fine, because with his size and bounce, he should continue to be a high-percentage target and cleanup man around the basket. But that won't be enough to justify top-five overall value.
How much can and will he improve his shot creation, shooting and passing?
Throughout high school, he liked to try to show he could execute step-backs and knock down threes. He's capable, but he's not proficient with any particular skill. How reliable will his jumper look in his prime? How tough of a cover will he be working one-on-one from the elbows and short corners? Will he learn to draw double-teams and hit the open man?
As of today, between his lack of polish and the way the NBA has changed, he doesn't project as the type of scorer coaches will feature. He'll set screens and dive, run the floor and put back misses, but guards won't feed him the ball to create, and he won't be attempting or hitting many outside shots early in his career.
Looking at the league's premier centers, they each have some distinguishable strength outside of size and athleticism. Embiid, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Vucevic and Deandre Ayton have their go-to post games. Nikola Jokic adds special playmaking. Karl-Anthony Towns has his three-ball. Montrezl Harrell brings unteachable energy. Bam Adebayo's versatility checks boxes across the board.
What can Wiseman's signature be? Whiteside and Rudy Gobert don't have one on offense, but both have earned substantial paydays for their rim protection.
Can He Be a Defensive Game-Changer?
In front of dozens of NBA representatives from across the league last April, Wiseman blocked six shots in USA's win at the Nike Hoop Summit, using his massive wingspan to cover airspace and deny drivers. His tools create defensive potential, and becoming an effective rim protector is critical for his value, particularly if his offensive skill development sputters.
But shot-blocking numbers don't always equate to impact defense, and there is enough evidence on Wiseman that shows questionable instincts and fundamentals. His reads in pick-and-roll coverage were never convincing. He's also prone to mistiming jumps, biting on fakes or lunging to close out.
He doesn't project to be very switchable, and opponents will surely try to pull him away from the hoop and target him in space.
Wiseman has the necessary physical traits to effectively anchor a team's defense from the paint, but he has a lot of room to improve, and his value could plummet if he doesn't.
Motor and Demeanor Questions: Legit or Overblown?
Before arriving at Memphis, Wiseman's motor and intensity had been questioned. You didn't always get the impression he was going all out. His demeanor is on the calm side, which isn't necessarily a negative, but it could be a turnoff to certain coaches.
It was a criticism that may have been overblown. It's possible energy will be a complete non-issue and that it was just a result of being young or lacking motivation in certain settings.
But for any scout who did have some concerns, Wiseman didn't get an opportunity to diminish them during his brief stint at Memphis.
Wiseman in the Draft
It seems unlikely the Minnesota Timberwolves would see a fit with Towns. The Atlanta Hawks just traded for Clint Capela. Wiseman can't play with Ayton in Phoenix. And the Cavaliers acquired Drummond, presumably with the intention of trying to keep him. Even the New York Knicks could show more interest in grabbing a point guard and developing Mitchell Robinson.
Wiseman will be competing for looks with mostly guards and wings—LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, Deni Avdija, Killian Hayes, Isaac Okoro and Tyrese Haliburton. Teams with room to add bigs will also look at Obi Toppin and Onyeka Okongwu.
Wiseman is more impressive physically than both, and he's roughly three years younger than Toppin, a superior scorer who struggles defensively. Meanwhile, Okongwu just averaged 16.2 points and 2.7 blocks on 61.6 percent shooting, and though he isn't as tall (6'9") as Wiseman, he appears further ahead in offensive moves, defensive impact and motor.
Okongwu quickly became the No. 1 big on my board early in the season. Traditional laws of upside suggest Wiseman may have more, but whether he unlocks it will come down to his skill development, defensive growth and level of engagement.