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The Mystery of James Wiseman

An evaluation of the unknown.

There are many problems facing the couch-bound NBA draft evaluator during what has become a year-long draft evaluation process. Such as, is my leg asleep? and how many open tabs does it take to crash a computer? But perhaps, the greatest frustration of all is the limit that information can put on knowledge, primarily the sure number of known unknowns at play. The developmental arch of 19-year-old basketball players is a wild and various thing and during this most peculiar year, it’s in a few cases occurring almost entirely in secret. This problem is exemplified best in the curious case of James Wiseman, who not only has been developing out of sight but also left behind an archive of just three total collegiate games two of which were against less than formidable opponents, a 2019 Nike Hoop Summit, and some pretty wacky EYBL footage. Needless to say, that what even the most meticulous observer of Wiseman doesn’t know greatly outweighs the minuscule amount of available game film.

Standing 7’1″ with a 7’6″ wingspan, Wiseman possesses every measurable an NBA team could ask for, but his short tenure at the University of Memphis did little to close the gap between his significant potential as a player and, you know, on-court proof of concept. At Memphis, Wiseman at times often appeared unsure of what defensive scheme he was being asked to execute. While an elite straight-line athlete, with significant end to end speed and verticle explosion, Wiseman was plagued by both slow feet on the perimeter and bad hands in the paint. Often settling for difficult fadeaways and finesse finishes over using good positioning to attack the rim.

There is a dissonance in watching the biggest guy on the court outrun everyone, bury his defender in the post only to take a two dribble fade-away jumper against, let’s just say not exactly the stoutest defensive competition. We’re talking about a prospect who’s an elite lob threat with a huge catch radius, yet has difficulty securing entry passes. A shot blocker who struggles to process off-ball rotations or maximize angles. An athlete capable of getting starting center minutes for any team in the world, despite the fact that I can’t imagine a single NBA team being comfortable closing games with a defense anchored by Wiseman.

I say all that, to say this; what I think I know about James Wiseman might amount to little more than a shadow on the wall. A small figure exaggerated by light, blown out of proportion, and most importantly misrecognized.

Wiseman’s path to NBA rotation player is clear as day. Players who look and move like Wiseman don’t fall out of the league often. The question facing NBA front offices at the top of the draft is to what degree does Wiseman’s potential rise above the level of rim running, energy rebounding,5th starter/rotation-ish NBA big. Will he ever develop enough lateral mobility and feel to play outside of an exclusively drop scheme? Or, perhaps could Wiseman become more than just another MLE rim-running/drop coverage big. Could he instead, parlay his unique marriage of size and effort into becoming an elite enough rim-running/drop coverage big to justify a team building a scheme around his burgeoning if still narrow strengths. 12 months is a long time, and while I would be bullish when it comes to certain aspects of Wiseman’s game improving in his time away from competitive basketball (ie. passing, of which he’s shown little inclination) it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a degree of technical development particularly in areas not directly tied to feel.

Though, Wiseman finds himself projected as a top 3 pick in Wednesday nights draft by a majority of the mainstream draft community he currently sits at 13 on my personal big board.  It’s as high as the mystery of all the known unknowns surrounding Wiseman’s past 12 months of development could lift him given my on film concerns. Every NBA team, despite an increased level of access, will have to come to terms with their own internal tolerance for mystery, formulate their own weighted equation of what is, and what might be. Where ever Wiseman lands on draft night, his journey will remain an interesting case study in what has been a particularly peculiar draft process.

Shay Youngblood

Written by Shay Youngblood

Shay lives in New Orleans and writes about Basketball and other American arts.

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