The Santa Cruz Warriors lost 109-99 to the Stockton Kings on Thursday, but few were watching the score. Instead, Golden State Warriors center James Wiseman was the main attraction as he made his long-anticipated return to an official game. Wiseman, of course, has been out since he tore the meniscus in his right knee last April.
The second overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft was finally cleared for action earlier this week. However, the Warriors announced that he will play two games with their G-League affiliate before the team sets a timeline for his return to the NBA. Wiseman averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 39 games (27 starts) with the Warriors last season.
Wiseman’s rust showed in his first stint on Thursday, which lasted the first few minutes of regulation. While Santa Cruz’s offense was clearly centered around him, he was held scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting from the field.
Still, there were some early positives even in those quiet minutes. Despite his prominent involvement on offense, Wiseman remained under control. No one would have been surprised if Wiseman came out chucking shots after such a prolonged absence, but he allowed the offense to come to him. He showed similar patience defensively.
Wiseman was caught out of position constantly during his rookie season, particularly guarding the pick-and-roll. On one play early in Thursday’s game, Wiseman did a good job not overhelping and staying in position to defend the roller. When a pass came inside, Wiseman contested the shot and forced an airball. He immediately ran back on offense, looking for a bucket in transition. While he was unable to score, it showcased his ability to potentially help Golden State turn defense into offense.
Warriors center James Wiseman did a solid job defending in the post and tried to turn it into a transition bucket. He got a firm "welcome back to pro ball" from Stockton Kings center Neemias Queta. pic.twitter.com/7Vv9dBxB92— Marc Delucchi (@maddelucchi) March 11, 2022
From that point forward, Wiseman did not miss many offensive opportunities. He went 7-for-8 on two-point shot attempts and showed off his developing arsenal. Unsurprisingly, he did the bulk of his damage in the pain, making hook shots, layups, dunks, alongside a mid-range jumper. He also drew several fouls, including two in the act of shooting. Stockton simply had no defender who could slow Wiseman down in the half-court.
James Wiseman couldn't finish his first look off this pick and roll, but he rebounds his miss and flushes it down through some contact. pic.twitter.com/FFDO1bmD5u— Marc Delucchi (@maddelucchi) March 11, 2022
Nice job by James Wiseman to get himself in position inside and showing nice touch on this hook. pic.twitter.com/AFLtkecSVy— Marc Delucchi (@maddelucchi) March 11, 2022
James Wiseman knocked down this jumper on his final offensive possession. Warriors coaching staff probably won't want him settling for this shot too much, but still a positive sign to see him knocking it down. pic.twitter.com/HJGBF9TPqE— Marc Delucchi (@maddelucchi) March 11, 2022
Wiseman played just under 21 minutes and recorded 18 points and 6 rebounds. However, he could have come much closer to a double-double had Santa Cruz’s players not showcased a strange trend of fighting with each other for rebounds. While Wiseman will need to be tested against more physically imposing competition, he was not overmatched or pushed around inside and on the glass.
Santa Cruz ultimately lost by 10 but trailed by north of 20 points for most of the game. Yet, Wiseman consistently avoided the negative side of the plus/minus. When he was on the court, the Warriors did far better than when he was on the bench. In fact, he led the team in plus/minus for nearly the entire contest. He finished tied for a team-best +9 with Jacob Evans, who only matched Wiseman’s mark playing the final minutes of garbage time.
Wiseman failed to record a single block or steal, but his patience, size, and athleticism seemed to make Stockton afraid to drive inside. He seemed to be dictating what the opposing offense did. While he got caught in the air occasionally, he finished with two fouls, he was far more poised than he looked throughout last season. Offensively, he was similarly under control, only committing one turnover and dropping one entry pass—something that has been a consistent problem.
As a rookie, Wiseman consistently scored at an impressive clip for a teenager (19.3 points per 36 minutes) despite his struggles adjusting to NBA basketball and the Warriors system. However, metrics like plus/minus and his on/off splits showed that Golden State played better when he was on the bench. While it’s hard to read too much into one G-League game, it’s good to see Wiseman bucking that trend against lesser competition. Yes, he scored at a fantastic rate (more than 30 points per 36 minutes), but it also came alongside his team’s best stretches.
It’s important to add some G-League caveats to Wiseman’s promising debut. Former Warriors guard Quinn Cook was Stockton’s leading scorer and is averaging 23.3 points per game this season. Plenty of fringe and ineffective NBA players dominate the G-League. Still, had Wiseman blended into the crowd it would have justifiably been a cause for concern. He didn’t. He was clearly one of the best players on the floor whenever he was playing.
Wiseman will play at least one more game with Santa Cruz when they take on the G-League Ignite this Sunday. I expect the Warriors to keep Wiseman in Santa Cruz until he has worked his way back to playing 30 minutes a game. However, given Nemanja Bjelica’s recent struggles, Wiseman showed me enough on Thursday to convince me he could be in the Warriors NBA rotation next week.
Golden State does not need Wiseman to be an immediate impact player. His physical tools are enough to make him a positive contributor if he just stays patient and poised. His length can impact how offenses attack the Warriors and he has the offensive skills to capitalize on the opportunities playing alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole can create. He showcased it all in his first game in roughly 11 months.