This is a one player draft
Will the Warriors' tanking pay off with James Wiseman?
BY DAVID THORPE
The NBA is flooded with mystery these days. The questions are fundamental. Will there be a season? When will it start?
But perhaps the most interesting open questions surround the Warriors. Just as they were mid-dynasty last season—having won three titles in four years—almost every key Warrior was sidelined with injury almost all of the time. They lost Kevin Durant and gained Andrew Wiggins and the second overall pick in November’s draft. On top of all of that, while they were out, the landscape changed—several new rivals ascended.
In Vegas’s view all of that leaves the Warriors as the NBA’s fourth-most likely to win the 2021 title, which is either too low or too high for this team, depending mainly on the NBA’s most fun mystery of all: What will the Warriors do with that pick?
The arguments, often based on well-sourced insider reports, are all over the place.
They will trade it, because rookies seldom help teams win and the age of the Warriors stars indicates they need to win now.
They will keep it and take Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman, or Deni Avdija.
They will trade up in the draft, or down.
Here’s one more theory: The team knows exactly what it will do, because there is one obvious choice—and plugged in reporters are getting the runaround because the Warriors would like to keep their rivals confused.
Next month NBA commissioner Adam Silver will say, “With the second pick in the 2020 NBA draft, the Golden State Warriors select James Wiseman of the University of Memphis.”
My only concern in saying that is that he might not last to the second pick. But there’s zero chance Wiseman falls to the third pick. He’s perfect for Golden State. After a deep dig, learning a ton about the habits, temperament, and practice-gym skillsets of the 2020 draft’s top prospects, this is as clear to me as any NBA fact.
7-1 James Wiseman is the best prospect in the draft.
The Warriors desperately need size—several European teams have taller rosters.
Big men with guard skills—Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, Nikola Jokic—are the NBA’s newest must-have, and Wiseman is on that path.
November 8, 2019, was a Friday before anyone knew the word “coronavirus.” The impeachment trial was underway. Michael Bloomberg was reportedly considering running for president. Believe it or not, that was less than a year ago.
That night in Brooklyn, James Wiseman suited up at the Barclays Center Classic against the University of Illinois-Chicago—a solid mid-major program. Nobody knew how many games Wiseman would play, owing to a little trouble with the NCAA. (Former NBA star Penny Hardaway, a longtime Memphis booster, had paid Wiseman’s family’s moving expenses in 2017. It was a generous thing to do, but then Hardaway not only became the Memphis head coach, he also successfully recruited Wiseman.) The NCAA suspended Wiseman, but a judge had declared Wiseman should keep playing while it was all worked out.
But on this night, he would play. I am so glad he did; you can learn a lot from the video—including something important and rare I will explain in a moment. Wiseman took four shots and made them all. He made nine of 13 free throws. He blocked five shots, one of them into the bleachers. It would be his second, and second-to-last college game.
That same night, Wiseman could have helped the Warriors 800 miles away, struggling in Minnesota. Steph was already out for the season, as were Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney. But D’Angelo Russell managed a career-high 52, a team effort from players like Willie Cauley-Stein and Alec Burks led to nine blocks. Minnesota never led in the fourth, but tied it at the buzzer. In overtime, the Warriors lacked focus, missed 3s, barely rebounded, turned the ball over, and lost to the efforts of Robert Covington and Wiggins (who was then a Timberwolf).
Wiseman evaluations tend to ignore one of my favorite things about him, something that will matter every minute he plays in the NBA: his defensive stance. Without it, you can’t be a very agile on-ball defender.
Wiseman has a staggering ability to “sit down” on defense. Knees bent, butt down, arms wide, head over shoulders, shoulders over hips … many legends of NBA defense could never get in that position. But it’s what you must do to meet the challenge of guarding in space in today’s NBA. This is how you move quickly with balance—slide, drop, change directions fluidly, and start or stop with aplomb.
It is not a requirement. Clunky movers can play tremendous NBA defense. Patrick Ewing, Al Horford—there are 100 examples. (The Suns’ Deandre Ayton is not so fluid and has great defensive potential.) But you know how rigid, tall players move. You can picture the stiff, unnatural stances of many seven-foot big men. Increasingly, though, NBA big men find themselves defending in new situations, not in the post, in space. They know they have to sit down, but when they do, it’s a scene from a yoga class gone awry. The lower they get, the more their heads tend to get out in front of their sneakers, which ruins balance and explosion. Nothing crisp or graceful happens from there. (Common next step: They know they will react slowly to whatever the offense does next, and will risk a foul. So they “open up their hips,” tilting away from contact to avoid the collision. The problem is, that also gives drivers a lovely path right to the hoop.) Training can help enormously, but it’s very hard for a “stiff” player to ever move like Wiseman.
He moves and slides like a strong six-foot guard. He is just very comfortable in his stance. Chris Bosh had that ability, and advanced stats showed him, for a time, to be the best pick-and-roll defender in the league. Anthony Davis and David Robinson are icons of the genre. Athletically, Wiseman is very similar to all three. These are critical skills in the NBA of 2021 and beyond.
In the runup to the 2016 draft, I noted Ben Simmons’ rare combination of fluid movement and size, suggesting he had the makings of a defensive player of the year. Simmons just earned his first “All-NBA Defense” first team selection, with more to come. Wiseman doesn’t project quite as high … but close. It is absolutely possible that Wiseman will be a top-three defensive center. A lot of fine big men now sit in crunch time, for reasons we’ll explore. But then you defend like that, you get important fourth-quarter minutes no matter what’s happening with your offense.
On offense, Wiseman remains incredibly long and mobile. The gifts that help him on defense are equally as valuable, setting screens for a ball handler 25 feet from the basket, and then dunking a lob one second later. He flies down the middle of the court in transition, and wants to dunk any pass he gets. His agile and balanced body already allows him to be a capable ball handler.
And he has a pretty shooting stroke from the field and from the free-throw line. There is every reason to believe he will be a solid 3-point shooter in the NBA. And while it’s silly to expect he can ever be the ball handler and shot maker that Kevin Durant is, it’s not crazy to think he can score in isolations against an array of defenders big and small.
We just profiled Anthony Davis after the Lakers won the championship, and pointed out that “he has rare athleticism for his size with great hands, power, speed, skill, and agility.” Wiseman has similar gifts.
I can see no reason Wiseman isn’t the clear top pick in this draft.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There are two reasons: 1. He only played three games in college, and ... 2. Luka Doncic. It used to be that drafting the best available center was a no-brainer (two centers were picked before Michael Jordan). As the game has evolved into “pace and space” and 3-point shooting contests, the idea is that a big man like Wiseman shouldn’t go number one because the game values true centers less. Luka is the reason a current NBA front office would think twice about taking the best available big man, which the Suns did in taking Ayton first overall. It was, in retrospect, the kind of mistake that could get you fired.
But it’s crazy talk that big men don’t matter anymore. Instead, the job has changed to be more about skill. Rudy Gobert is elite against the pick and roll, rim running, and protecting the rim. Brook Lopez can protect the rim and shoot 3s. Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns can’t be effectively defended with smaller players. And so on.
The change is that many gigantic men without perimeter skills can be forced to the bench. Some matchups make them obsolete. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee once would have bullied a player like Adebayo, but now he can expose their lack of mobility by creating with the ball far from the hoop. On defense the Heat can use team tactics to keep Adebayo from being bullied. So it’s Howard and McGee who must sit.
It’s not that big men don’t matter anymore, it’s that now your big men must be skilled. This only enhances the case for Wiseman, whose potential lies somewhere between Adebayo and Davis. He might be the rare true center who can play in crunch time against any lineup because he can score inside, shoot, and protect the rim. Or, we’ll see how he develops, he might become a playmaking big man who can guard multiple positions and the perimeter.
A month ago we wrote that big men with guard skills are taking over the league. Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, and Nikola Jokic routinely blew our minds with their play. Last week I did an interview for a Israeli journalist who asked me the question “what will the NBA look like in 2040?” I answered, “there will be a whole bunch of Anthony Davises running around a much wider court.” Ask me again in five years and don’t be surprised if I replace Davis with Wiseman.
Who might be the Luka of this draft? Georgia’s Anthony Edwards deserves a long look. I look forward to writing about LaMelo Ball soon. If I were Minnesota, I would take Wiseman first overall—even with Karl-Anthony Towns on the roster. Wiseman could play 14 minutes a game subbed in for Towns, and another 10 alongside him. Twenty-four minutes a game is great for a developing rookie, especially when he gets to play 30 or more minutes in the games Towns sits for rest or injury. It’d be fantastic, except that it would require the Wolves’ front office to have a lot of confidence that neither Edwards nor Ball will be the next Doncic. Drafting Wiseman would feel simpler if Wiseman had led Memphis to the Final Four. But he didn’t, so the challenge falls to scouting—and Wiseman may fall to the Warriors.
Perhaps some unknown fact about Wiseman will doom him? I made some calls to people who have coached him. It only made his value clearer. There is nothing, I repeat, NOTHING I learned that would get me to think the Warriors have any doubts about him at all. One person whom I respect a great deal and who knows Wiseman well said, “he’s the best prospect in the class, period.” I asked about every possible “red flag” and found nothing. Just talk of a very coachable player with a great motor and a high GPA. The Warriors surely investigated more than I did, but I’m confident in my sources.
The Lakers just won a title with Anthony Davis, surrounded by two seven-footers in JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jusuf Nurkic, Kristaps Porzingis, Zion Williamson, and Deandre Ayton will all be making trouble in the paint in the West for years to come. All but Zion are seven feet in sneakers.
The Warriors feature elite big men defenders in 6-6 Draymond Green and 6-9 Kevon Looney. The hope was that backups would emerge from last season, and you can make a case for Eric Paschall or Marquese Chriss, but they are 6-6 and 6-9, respectively. Many teams in Spain’s ACB have more size. An elite 7-2 defender like Wiseman would be a godsend.
Rookies very rarely help NBA teams, especially on defense. (They are called for a ton of fouls, on top of being new to opponents’ tendencies.) I would not expect Wiseman to have elite plus/minus stats this year playing for the Bulls or Kings. But in a limited role, surrounded by elite professionals, he might be different—the big-man equivalent of Tyler Herro. Wiseman could backup the wonderful Looney from the season’s start, and, as he progresses, become the starter in time. Steve Kerr would love to have Looney as the first big to replace Wiseman or Draymond. Green, Looney, Curry, and Klay Thompson could do for Wiseman what Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili did for Kawhi Leonard. His role at first would be tight, simple, and easily digestible. The Warriors could give the rookie a sure footing so that he might, in time, explore the outer reaches of his talents.
At a minimum:
Wiseman would upgrade their shot blocking, ranked 20th in the league last season.
With the space created by Curry and Thompson’s shooting, he’d have ample chances to attack the rim in transition or half-court sets. Defenses would be forced to cover the court from the rim out to 30 feet, where the Splash Brothers live.
The Warriors can give Wiseman real minutes on an excellent team, which is powerful royal jelly. This is where the Wiseman pick makes the most sense—over the next many years. Having a potential young superstar like Wiseman learning to play with fellow young talents like Paschall (a first team all-rookie last season) gives the franchise paths to contention through Steph’s golden years and beyond. Wiseman’s long-term potential is extraordinary.
In the short-term, the player I’d encourage you to think about is Bam Adebayo, who, in only his third season, was critical to a Finals run. Young players have been excellent in the playoffs. Ben Simmons’ 76ers barely missed out beating the eventual-champion Raptors when Simmons was just 22. Paul George was barely 22 when his Pacers had a 2-1 series lead against LeBron and the Heat. Even before he has fully arrived, Wiseman can improve the Warriors.
It’s possible that some team will make the Warriors a blockbuster trade offer. They’d have to think long and hard about opportunities to move Wiggins’ enormous contract for a great player. This draft pick could be good enough to make that happen. There’s no accounting for what another team might do.
But short of that, I don’t see how the Warriors pass on Wiseman, no matter how good Ball or Edwards might one day become. The second pick is a bit scary, if the consensus is there’s one best player. Their strategy to get him is to sow doubt, to make it seem like the choice is agonizing, that this is a draft with a dizzying number of elite prospects. They have gone on a noisy tour, getting to know every candidate, saying sunny things about every single one. In my view, it’s all NBA draft skullduggery 101.
The Warriors helped start the 3-ball revolution with Curry leading the way. Wiseman gives them the ticket to the next phase of the game, giant men who want to do it all from all parts of the court. He’s their target. Nothing else makes any sense.
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