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James Wiseman’s picks are becoming less of a smokescreen

Wiseman’s screen-setting is getting better with more reps.

NBA: Summer League-Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Bringing up the term “screen assist” will probably induce more scoffs than props — we all have Rudy Gobert to thank for that (unjustifiably so, in my opinion) — but hear me out.

On a team that has an ungodly combination of on-ball shot creation and off-ball movement, screening is arguably their greatest offensive currency. You can’t set your shooters free if you can’t set a proper screen; hunting mismatches of all kinds isn’t going to happen if defenders can easily fight over picks; if you can’t at least use your large frame to create a large obstacle for on-ball defenders to navigate around, then you cause a possession to stagnate quickly.

That is why screen assists are a quick way to deduce which players in the league are the best at getting the most out of their picks. Gobert has topped such a category in recent years — his 6.3 screen assists per game during the 2021-22 season led all players, while he was second behind Domantas Sabonis the season before.

We only have one regular season of evidence from James Wiseman (half a season, in reality), but for all the talk of his problems as a screener, the numbers say that he wasn’t at all bad at helping generate points as a screener.

During his rookie season, Wiseman’s 2.4 screen assists per game was 2nd-best among all rookie centers; only Isaiah Stewart (2.9) bested him in that department. Widening the scope to all centers, Wiseman was 40th out of 73 centers who appeared in at least half of the 72 games during the 2020-21 season.

With someone of Wiseman’s size, it’s not at all ridiculous to expect him to garner screen assist averages approaching that of the elite screen-setting bigs — somewhere around the 4-6 per game range. But he may not even have to look far for inspiration and goal-setting.

A really good argument can be made for Kevon Looney being the best screen setter on the Golden State Warriors. A team that bypasses a typical pick-and-roll-heavy scheme isn’t bound to generate a continuous stream of screen assists, so Looney’s 3.4 per game this past season — tops on the team — is technically considered average among bigs in the league.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that Looney is a foundational screener — and Wiseman can take plenty of inspiration from his veteran in that department.

In fact, he may already be incorporating some of the things he has observed this past season, as well as from the teachings he has received from the Warriors’ resident big-man whisperer, Dejan Milojević.

Take this possession during the Warriors’ Summer League game vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder, for example:

Wiseman’s handoff screen off of a run-of-the-mill low-post split action feels Looney-esque — even to the point of Wiseman treading that thin line between setting a legal screen and getting called for a moving screen. But the question of legality aside, his screen accomplishes its goal: setting the ball handler free for the baseline layup.

These are the kinds of reps that Wiseman will get within the Warriors offense. As a low-post hub, he will need to develop plenty of skill sets — finding cutters and shooters is the number one priority, while polishing his back-to-the-basket game as a scorer with touch will be the following step.

Other than those, setting screens should be his main focus. The game against the Thunder flashed several instances of Wiseman setting effective screens that led to scoring opportunities.

This “snug” pick-and-roll (a ball screen set closer to the rim) between Wiseman and Gui Santos is a great example:

Santos’ pick-and-roll partnership with Wiseman was of particular note. One thing to admire about Santos is his ability to use his screening partner effectively — he waits for Wiseman to get set, and only then does he make his move.

Contrast that with this possession involving Mac McClung, who moves just a beat too fast for Wiseman:

What most people forget is that screen-setting is as much of a two-player effort as it is proper screening fundamentals. No matter how good you are at setting picks, if your partner moves in an impatient manner, you will get unjustly punished with an offensive foul.

(This isn’t limited to lower-level players and inexperienced youth. We’ve seen plenty of times where Stephen Curry caused Looney and Draymond Green to commit offensive fouls because he moved a beat too soon. At their level, it’s a matter of minimizing such mistakes to the point that they are rarely committed.)

When given the opportunity, timing, and proper context to set a screen, Wiseman has shown that he is adept:

A 14-7-2 night against the Thunder was another promising notch on Wiseman’s belt. In a game where the Warriors lost by 8, they outscored the Thunder by 2 points during his 20.5 minutes on the floor.

Numbers don’t matter as much in this environment. You have to look at players’ progress through a lens of process rather than results. Wiseman has had plenty of flashes in terms of process, while clearly still having areas to iron out.

Much like other aspects of his game — scoring, rebounding, rim protection, etc. — Wiseman needs a continuous stream of reps to upgrade his screening craft. Some of that is already peeking through; if it translates to Looney-levels of screening and screen assists or beyond, we’re in for one heck of a Wiseman comeback season.

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