2020 NBA Draft: Upside Should Win Out with James Wiseman

Three games is all James Wiseman got during this college career at the University of Memphis. The NCAA ruled him ineligible early in the season in a complex and unfair situation where head coach Penny Hardaway allegedly acted improperly in getting Wiseman’s family to move to Memphis.

The young center’s college career ended, and he dropped out of school after the NCAA mandated he pay $11,000 to charity without accepting the money from other sources.

That lack of collegiate game experience has led Wiseman to be out of sight and out of mind for many. A true seven-footer with freakish athleticism and mobility, a sweet-looking jump shot and versatile defensive chops, there’s a reason he was highly touted coming out of high school.

The kid looks the part and has (mostly) produced like he’s a top-five selection.

So why isn’t a guy like this (in a so-called weak draft class) seen as a frontrunner and regarded as a transcendent talent? Some of it may have to do with his absence from the stage, and some of it may be about the aesthetics of his current weak spots.

Clips from Wiseman’s time at Memphis really don’t do justice to his size and length. By design, Hardaway assembled a group of long, versatile athletes in the frontcourt. Early in the season, he would trot as many as three of them out at a time, hoping to overwhelm adversaries with that raw talent.

Because Wiseman didn’t pop size-wise in comparison to his teammates, it can get lost how rare a blend of skills he possesses.

The Tigers also lacked high-level guard play. They hunted mismatches, shot the ball poorly and relied heavily on transition. During the three games Wiseman played, he only engaged in three pick-and-rolls where he got an opportunity to finish.

Thus, Memphis’ offensive system wasn’t set up to illustrate the aspects of his game that most readily translate to NBA success.

Without that context, Wiseman looks like an ill-fitting big on offense: a guy who doesn’t have dominant low-post scoring, who isn’t a pick-and-roll threat and who is a bit trigger-happy on jump shots. It’s easy to dislike that for how it fits in the modern NBA.

But if we’re going to over-analyze a three-game sample from his college career, let’s make sure we do it with a complete understanding of the confines around him.

Be good at what you do frequently.

It may sound simple, but the concept can get lost in the insane amount of detail now available to scouts and coaches. Advanced statistics, combined with the modernizing of skillsets for big men (to the point where they are as capable on the perimeter as anyone), leads to a robust amount of data points to analyze.

But for all the NBA game has changed over the last decade, it’s still a fairly simple game for big men at its core: Protect the paint and rebound, finish off the pick-and-roll, be versatile enough on defense to guard in more than one scheme effectively, and you get bonus points if you can shoot from the corners and top of the key.

That’s four areas to excel at.

Some guys, like Utah Jazz foundation Rudy Gobert, only have to be elite in two areas to reach All-Star status. Others, like Anthony Davis, garner MVP consideration because they excel in all four.

Wiseman checks off all four of those, though to what extent he becomes elite in those areas remains to be seen.

Skill No. 1 – Protect the Paint and Rebound

Nov 12, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Memphis Tigers center JamesÊWiseman (32) dunks the ball as Oregon Ducks guard Will Richardson (0) looks on during the second half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the skills Wiseman possesses, his most NBA-ready trait is how he attacks the glass.

He’s long and uses it, grabbing 32 rebounds at Memphis and putting up an absurd 18.6 rebounds per 40 minutes. He boards in traffic, high-points the ball and reads it off the rim. He’s great at getting caroms outside his area but is able to sustain box outs against strong, well-built opponents.

If a big man is going to be elite at anything these days, it needs to be at guarding the rim. Wiseman’s length will necessitate dependence on him blocking shots and lowering attackers’ success rate.

His timing and leaping skills are fantastic on that front. From my vantage point, he’s the most athletic seven-footer to come out of the draft since Dwight Howard and can similarly patrol the paint as a weak-side shot-blocker.

Wiseman still needs to see growth with his discipline while guarding the charge circle, however. He tends to fall in love with the sexy play and leaves his feet to block shots. He falls for pump fakes, strays a bit too far from his primary assignment and hasn’t yet mastered the art of verticality.

But those are all skills that can be taught.

As Wiseman matures, he’ll learn patience. As he adds strength, his chest will grow and improve his effectiveness at verticality as opposed to lining up block attempts. The natural upside his athletic frame possesses makes him a super intriguing rim protector and a long-term defensive anchor.

Skill No. 2 – Finish off the Pick-and-Roll

Nov 5, 2019; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Tigers center James Wiseman shoots the ball over South Carolina State Bulldogs forward Ian Kinard during their game at the FedExForum on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Mandatory Credit: Joe Rondone / The Commercial Appeal via USA TODAY NETWORK

As mentioned above, Wiseman doesn’t have a ton of experience finishing as a pick-and-roll guy. He was a great finisher in the open floor, slammed home a few lobs and had some impressive putbacks on the offensive glass.

Wiseman also shot 80 percent from two-point range in the three-game sample. Granted, it came against South Carolina State, Illinois-Chicago and Oregon, two of whom trot out anything but NBA-level rim protection. Still, Wiseman was 5-for-7 in the Oregon game.

He has finished nearly everything at the rim.

Just based on what he’s showed through EYBL circuits, McDonalds All-American games and his high school film, it’s difficult to envision Wiseman as anything but a high-caliber finisher. Put him in lobs, let him be a screen-and-roll guy as his primary role on offense and the outlandish numbers he posted this season may not be so farfetched.

Skill No. 3 – Defensive Versatility for Different PNR Schemes

Nov 12, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Oregon Ducks guard Addison Patterson (22) drives for the basket between Memphis Tigers guard BoogieÊEllis (5) and center JamesÊWiseman (32) during the second half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Two types of pick-and-roll defense are common throughout the league: Drop coverage and switching.

In drop coverage, the big guarding the screener stays low and to the lane, mastering angles and inviting the mid-range jumper while swatting any attempts that come at the rim. Pick-and-pop bigs or elite pull-up shooters can find success against it.

With switching, a requisite level of athleticism is required. While the swap of assignments neutralizes the point of attack from the screen, natural mismatches occur as different sized players now come face-to-face. Bigs that thrive in switching use their length well, move their feet and aren’t afraid of getting blitzed off the bounce. So they actually get into the ball.

Classic bigs are a dime a dozen, so the overall draft upside of taking a big early has diminished. That is, unless they possess the rare ability to potentially be great in both drop and switch coverages.

If they can, they give a franchise an incredibly versatile weapon that allows it to tailor-make its defense to the rest of the roster and key opponents.

Wiseman is such a prospect.

He was utilized in a switch-heavy scheme at Memphis while also batting layup attempts into the front row. He’s a really gifted athlete, particularly with his lateral movements. He’ll must continue to strengthen his core to absorb contact from drivers, but his combination of size and quickness can be too much to pass up for teams looking for that level of versatility.

By no means is he polished in either. He does bite on shoulder fakes and leaves his feet too much as a rim protector. He also tends to stand a bit too far back and dare guys to shoot.

That won’t fly against NBA-level talent. When guarding one-on-one, the one place you’re guaranteed to have zero help is while you’re guarding a stationary player. If you let him rise up, there’s no helping you.

So the polish doesn’t exist, but the potential is there.

Skill No. 4 – Shooting

Nov 12, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Memphis Tigers center JamesÊWiseman (32) shoots the ball over Oregon Ducks guard Payton Pritchard (3) during the second half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Wiseman possesses a sweet stroke and a smooth jump shot. He didn’t make a 3-pointer in his few games at Memphis, but he does appear comfortable taking them with no mechanical flaws.

His high school tape also reveals a perimeter presence not many seven-footers possess.

One of the complaints I had with Wiseman was that his shot selection has to improve. Someone with his physical traits should live at the rim when finishing one-on-one inside. His arms are too long to alter shots late, and his leaping skills should give him an advantage from the jump.

Still, he seemed to favor post fadeaways, isolation jumpers and step-backs in the mid-range rather than punishing someone with a mismatch. (Oregon Ducks point guard Payton Pritchard held his own against Wiseman due to this.)

There’s some good and some worry in here. On the positive side, it’s reassuring to know Wiseman has that much confidence in his jumper. If he’s going to become a transcendent player, that jumper is a large part of the reason why. But he has to take the right ones.

High-end lottery picks who are placed on teams with a lack of high-end offensive talent don’t learn these skills until later in their career. He needs to find a way to fight the shot selection bug no matter where he ends up.

The NBA is a guard-driven league. Post-ups are gone, so manufacturing points late in games and during the postseason comes from a trusted source on the perimeter.

That may exclude Wiseman from the conversation for the top selection, but it shouldn’t take away from the fact he’s arguably the class’ top talent.

There are a few teams drafting in the higher end of the lottery who both have a positional need in the frontcourt and already possess their late-clock scorer in the backcourt. Wiseman would be a wise pick for them. So until the draft lottery plays out, it may be difficult to slot him.

That shouldn’t even matter, however. Wiseman’s upside is greater than anyone else in this class.

That alone makes him worth the gamble in the top three, and deserving of more hype than he’s currently getting.