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Examining James Wiseman’s Summer League debut

Areas of improvement notwithstanding, Wiseman had plenty of promising flashes.

James Wiseman being interviewed Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

It wasn’t perfect by any means — to expect perfection within this context only sets you up for a world of massive disappointment, and I don’t know if that’s healthy for you — but James Wiseman’s Summer League debut went pretty well, considering the circumstances.

It’s wild to think that this is Wiseman’s first ever Las Vegas Summer League game, but that’s what happens when a rookie season is preempted by a global pandemic. That’s also what happens when a season-ending injury doesn’t allow for participation in subsequent off-season activities.

Wiseman hasn’t had the fortune of privilege that usually accompanies top draft picks. He deserves some leeway in that regard.

That said, there’s been a pile of expectations surrounding Wiseman; that extends to his fellow youth movement teammates in Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. With the Golden State Warriors’ depth chart expunged of veterans, the onus is slowly being placed upon the trio to take the reins that Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, and Nemanja Bjelica once held as solid bench options.

Wiseman arguably has the biggest microscope focused on him, by virtue of being a high draft pick and the position he occupies. Despite the Warriors’ penchant for playing small throughout their dynastic run, their big-man pedigree has arguably played an equally crucial role in their championship success.

To live up to defensive stalwarts such as Andrew Bogut and Kevon Looney, while also having the athleticism and potential for roll gravity like JaVale McGee, is indeed a tall task. Add in the difficulty of trying to blend in within an intricate motion offense that makes big men more of play connectors than play finishers — something that Wiseman has a natural proclivity for — and it’s not hard to see why he has struggled.

That said, his Summer League debut was full of flashes of the kind of game he can bring. It wasn’t as a play connector — in all honesty, the Summer League environment doesn’t reward connectors as much as it does finishers — but to see Wiseman get any sort of reps is something everyone will gladly take.

In 19.5 minutes of time on the floor, Wiseman put up 11 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 blocks. He took 7 shots and missed only 2 of them, with his sole three-point attempt being a successful one. Only hauling in 2 rebounds, in addition to committing 7 fouls (Summer League allows for 10) are the two numbers of concern in an otherwise solid outing.

The importance of Wiseman getting reps and touches wasn’t lost on Jama Mahlalela. True enough, the very first play of the game was drawn up specifically for Wiseman to announce his arrival with aplomb.

It’s your run-of-the-mill Pistol/Chin action that has a single high ball screen between Jonathan Kuminga and Wiseman as its endpoint. With the weak-side low man reticent to help off his man to tag the roll — and with help from Kuminga’s downhill juice and excellent lob placement — Wiseman gets his first bucket of the night.

Being a finisher will primarily be his role, especially when surrounded by a plethora of capable creators and distributors in Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, and Draymond Green. He won’t get as much reps trying to self create, and quite frankly, until he shows that he can be consistent in that regard, he won’t be given those chances.

But Summer League gives him room to experiment with his self-creation chops. While his teammates — draftees and players on the fringe who are all trying to make a name for themselves — didn’t particularly do a good job finding him on seals and entry passes, Wiseman made the most out of every post touch he did manage to obtain.

It would behoove him to let low-post split actions play out before he decides to seek his own shot, but if this is the kind of process and outcome that result in such situations, it won’t be hard to overlook the desire to score:

The turnaround fadeaway above is decisive, quick-hitting, and most important, accurate.

Another mid-range jumper came during this possession, with Wiseman fighting for position on the high post/elbow, facing up, and swishing the pull-up:

During his rookie season, Wiseman shot a pedestrian 31% on “long” mid-range jumpers, slotting him in the 48th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass. That compounds the notion of him not warranting post-up isolations until he can prove to be an above-average scorer in that area, but these flashes are nevertheless promising.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Wiseman on offense is his improving ability to set solid screens. Arguably the biggest knock on him has been his lack of proper screening fundamentals — he shies away from contact, slips and rolls a beat too soon, and his positioning often renders his efforts futile.

Being paired with Curry during ball-screen action — most of which were of the empty corner variety born out of the Warriors’ staple “Motion Weak Fist” action — masked Wiseman’s deficiencies in setting screens. Teams will naturally gravitate toward Curry, which allows Wiseman to roll unimpeded despite the lack of solid contact.

While Wiseman still has to be consistent in terms of making contact, he caught on-ball defenders a couple of times during his Summer League debut, seemingly more so than at any point during his rookie season. Dejan Milojević has clearly been working with him in that department, and the results were glaring.

Defensively, Wiseman also had eye-opening flashes. Most notably, his proficiency as a drop big seems to have improved. Previously, he had trouble navigating the precarious in-between space that treads the thin line between letting ball handlers turn the corner and letting rollers slip behind to act as dump-off/lob targets

This time, he seems more poised and controlled, gobbling up shot attempts with blocks and verticality contests:

His awareness off the ball in terms of rotating and helping on drives was a glaring positive:

(Technically, this should be Kuminga’s help to make as the low man. It’s his responsibility to “trap the box” on the drive, while Wiseman should be sinking behind to help the helper. But Wiseman is so fast and decisive that his rotation from the nail and toward the paint renders that fundamental concept irrelevant, at least in this case.)

If there was one glaring wart in Wiseman’s defensive profile, it’s his propensity for being caught out of position. Feet positioning and hip flexibility continue to be question marks when trying to stop downhill drives, which often finds him playing catch-up; when he’s a beat too late, it can result in blow-bys and fouls.

Coupled with the rebounding concerns (only hauling 2 despite being a 7-footer is noteworthy, but I’m waiting for a bigger sample size to conclude if there’s a pattern) and fouling (which may be a function of rust and conditioning), Wiseman still has some warts to iron out.

But again, let’s consider the context. Wiseman is playing his first competitive game in 4 months; there is bound to be a reacclimatization period. At this point, what he needs is more playing time, more reps, perhaps more touches, and guidance to boost his craft and confidence.

It would be preposterous to say that Wiseman has answered most of the questions about his game from this performance — but it’s hard not to be bullish about his progress.