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The curious case of James Wiseman’s development

Placed between the Warriors’ championship window and youth movement, Wiseman has a lot to prove during the upcoming season.

Golden State Warriors v Sacramento Kings Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

James Wiseman presented arguably the largest point of contention within the Warriors organization — and the Warriors fandom — throughout last season.

Playing 39 out of a possible 72 regular season games was uniquely paradoxical. Wiseman needed more reps on the floor, more experience against the increased level of competition the NBA presents. Yet, at the same time, there were moments where the 20-year-old rookie looked every bit the young greenhorn that he was, a proverbial deer in headlights struggling to adjust against a combination of peak athleticism, grown-man strength, and basketball savvy, all of which contributed to an eventual shift away from a starting role and reduction of minutes.

There were flashes of Wiseman’s potential. Height is, after all, unteachable, and Wiseman’s 7-foot frame provides him with a base that not a lot of players are gifted with. But natural physical traits can only take you so far. The irony of height in basketball is that it allows you to get away with far more things than the average player — but it also serves as potential fool’s gold, an excuse to approach the game with a laissez-faire attitude, mistakenly thinking that talent beats hard work when there is an overwhelming amount of it.

That is not to say that Wiseman possesses such an attitude. By all accounts, he is a hard worker, and is eager to improve and become a force in the NBA. He is perhaps harder on himself than anyone could ever be; that much was evident with every mistake he made on the court, where his body language suggested that he took every missed rotation, every foul committed, and every missed shot with self-deprecating candor.

Wiseman finds himself in an interesting point of Warriors history. The organization — itself in somewhat of a crossroads in terms of franchise direction — is sandwiched between two trains of thought, with the most obvious one being the closing championship window dictated by the capabilities (and health) of its three franchise talismans. On the other end of the spectrum, the team finds itself with talented youth, representing the beginnings of a future championship core — but one that could be years away from realizing such potential.

Wiseman, of course, belongs to the latter, but if the Warriors are to take full advantage of their current core’s remaining golden years, there may be the need for Wiseman to not just improve incrementally — he may also need to make a monumental leap.

Offensive development

Part of Wiseman’s appeal before the 2020 NBA Draft was his offensive versatility. Despite the lack of extensive college footage and the dearth of pre-draft workout material, the snippets that came to light were enough to make some teams drool. Clips of Wiseman touting a smooth jumper quickly generated buzz, adding to his draft stock and playing a huge part in the Warriors taking him as the second overall pick.

After a full season, has that jumper fully translated to the NBA?

Looking at the raw numbers, it seems as if it didn’t. Wiseman averaged only 1 three-point attempt per game, while having a success rate of 31.6% on threes. On a purely results-based grading scale, Wiseman’s long-range shooting seemingly has a lot of ground to cover in order to obtain a passing mark. But from a process standpoint, there’s a lot of promise that — with a few tweaks in terms of mechanics and shot selection — portends a legitimate in-and-out stretch 5 who can leverage the threat of his jumper to unlock the rest of his potential.

Wiseman’s threes last season came in many forms. He was able to operate as a trailer in transition, using the gravity of his teammates to garner open looks. He drifted beyond the arc after setting a screen, in what were classic pick-and-pop possessions that took advantage of slow close-outs from opposing big men in drop coverage. There were even the occasional down-screens set for him, which made defending such shots funky and weird for bigs who weren’t accustomed to defending a mobile shooter, especially one possessing a rare combination of size, length, and agility.

While taking threes when the opportunities present themselves isn’t something he should be discouraged from doing, Wiseman did have the tendency to settle for mid-range jumpers — an area where the stats haven’t justified his propensity for taking them. On long mid-range shots, defined as the area 14 feet away from the rim up till the three-point line, Wiseman shot a measly 31% — 48th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass.

Eliminating long twos — especially when they compromise the flow of the overall offense — is paramount to Wiseman’s offensive development. Better use of Wiseman’s skill-set must also be considered. While we are all still yet to witness what skills may have been developed or refined during the off-season, what we do know is that Wiseman is already a proficient rim-running force, especially in the pick-and-roll.

By virtue of being a huge human being, Wiseman naturally acts as a humongous obstacle for pick-and-roll defenders. Screen setting is a skill that needs sharpening, but even if such picks don’t fully connect, on-ball defenders still need to navigate around his large frame. Combine that difficulty with Wiseman’s speed, agility, and long strides — and of course, the prospect of defending the most efficient pick-and-roll operator in Stephen Curry — and you have the makings of a roll-gravity-generating machine that could one day rival Rudy Gobert.

Using Wiseman in all sorts of screen-and-roll action — high ball-screens, dribble hand-offs, empty side-pick-and-rolls out of the Warriors’ staple “Motion Weak” set, double drag screens — is virtually low-hanging fruit.

Partnering Wiseman with Curry just seems like the obvious choice. Curry’s propensity to draw doubles and traps off of ball-screens leaves Wiseman free to roll to the rim, with a compromised defensive backline left to deal with the downhill rampage of a 7-foot athletic specimen.

Justifying Wiseman’s minutes on the floor is a much easier proposition when more screen-and-rolls were run for him — less so, however, whenever Wiseman resorted to low-post isolation possessions, where the evident lack of lower-body strength accentuated his struggle against stronger opposing centers, as well as the occasional shorter defender who compensated for the theoretical mismatch by applying pressure against Wiseman’s base.

The numbers support the overwhelming evidence shown through film. Per Synergy, Wiseman as the roll-man in the pick-and-roll produced 1.118 points per possession (PPP). While that placed him at a middling 49th percentile and was given a grade of “average,” consider the fact that in post-up possessions, Wiseman produced 0.711 PPP — 14th percentile and rated as “poor.”

The prospect of adding multiple spacers on the floor — in the form of Nemanja Bjelica, Otto Porter Jr., and the returning Klay Thompson — could portend an uptick in Wiseman’s effectiveness as a roller. Hesitating to tag him on the roll is a pick-your-poison scenario that defenses may have to swallow, lest they leave corner shooters open. Such scenarios have the makings of an efficient attack that is preferable to Wiseman trying to self-create shots in an inefficient manner.

Until Wiseman develops lower-body strength and justifies himself as a legitimate scoring threat in the post, he is better off being a rim-runner than a bully-baller.

Defensive problems

Shot-selection problems aside, there were flashes of his offensive development that make it hard to pass up on Wiseman. The defensive side of things, however, was another story.

Being a young center in the modern game of pace-and-space can be a daunting task. Whereas the blue-chip centers of antiquity flashed near-immediate transcendence, the modern center needs more time to adjust to a game that has become too fast and too spread out for the traditional big man.

Wiseman had to contend with like-sized centers who not only possessed the advantage of being grown men, but also possessed the craft and savvy to make a rookie center look completely foolish, let alone a rookie center who played only 3 college games and no Summer League reps.

Additionally, he had faster wings and guards on the perimeter to contend with. While the Warriors shifted away from a switch-everything scheme to a more typical drop-coverage pick-and-roll defense with him on the floor, Wiseman was a mixed-bag in terms of trying to navigate that precarious in-between real estate as the roll-man defender. On some occasions, he was able to corral ball-handlers effectively while preventing drop passes or lobs to rollers, even managing to time his jumps on lay-up attempts to swat them away.

Unfortunately, that was more the exception than the norm. Wiseman overall struggled to juggle that fine line between committing to the ball-handler and cutting off the roll-man release valve; being thrust straight into a starting role in the NBA will do that, especially if little-to-no preparation time was allowed.

Wiseman’s lack of strength was visible in a lot of these possessions. Stronger men dislodged him from his position, and ball-handlers were able to dig into his core to nullify the length discrepancy. As a result, Wiseman’s lack of proper positioning and being caught off guard resulted in him committing a boatload of fouls, mainly due to struggling to maintain any semblance of verticality and being caught with his arms down.

Crafty perimeter operators often caught Wiseman with his hands in the cookie jar, a big-man rookie mistake that typically is born out of an inexperience in defending out on the perimeter during switches. It was also very easy to lure him into a jump, leveraging his shot-blocking instincts to draw fouls and preying on his lack of control and insight.

It is not ideal for a starting center to average nearly 7 fouls per 100 possessions, nor is it flattering to have a foul rate of 5.5% (13th percentile). In order to gain legitimacy as the center of the future, not only does Wiseman have to perform when he’s on the floor — he also has to stay on the floor for as much as possible.

Which calls into question Wiseman’s minutes during the 2021-22 season. There isn’t much depth in the center position — only Kevon Looney and Wiseman could be construed as true-blue centers, with Draymond Green moonlighting as a small-ball 5 in closing lineups. Even so, Looney possesses an understanding of schemes and is a battle-hardened veteran, despite being less-gifted than Wiseman. That could very well place him over Wiseman in the depth chart.

There is also the possibility of seeing Wiseman with the Santa Cruz Warriors in the G League, a move that has done wonders for the likes of Jordan Poole and Juan Toscano-Anderson. Wiseman can dominate against lesser opposition while refining his craft, serving as a confidence boost of sorts that could reap dividends when he is called back up to the big leagues.

Otherwise, unless he shows massive improvement despite recovering from a season-ending meniscus injury, it may be best to relegate him to second-unit stints, with Poole and Andrew Wiggins as his running mates and floor spacers such as Bjelica and Porter to feed off of his roll gravity. Once Wiseman earns more minutes and proves that his struggles last season were nothing more than rookie woes, he can graduate to a role that places him alongside the core of Curry, Thompson, and Green.

Until then, Wiseman has a lot to prove, in a championship contention window that is closing fast and may not align with his development window. That alone spells the necessity of his accelerated improvement.