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The Book on James Wiseman’s Draft Prospects

The freshman center’s tenure with the Memphis Tigers is over. Here’s the scouting report on the potential top pick of the 2020 NBA draft after just three college games.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

James Wiseman’s run with the Memphis Tigers is over. Wiseman is a projected top pick in the 2020 NBA draft because of his physical tools and flashes of stardom as a two-way center. He was plagued by an inconsistent motor and shaky production throughout high school, and the hope was that he would use a strong year in Memphis to hush those concerns. But Wiseman was given a 12-game suspension and required to pay $11,500 to charity—the amount in expenses his family accepted from Penny Hardaway, now the Tigers head coach, to move to Memphis in 2017. And instead of returning on January 12, Wiseman signed with an agent Thursday and left college basketball for good after playing in just three games.

Wiseman, 18, will be one of the toughest players for NBA scouts to evaluate. Virtually all of his potential strengths are followed by a “but.” A few examples:

  • Wiseman is built like an ideal modern big at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and a muscular, 250-pound frame. But he lacks physicality battling against opposing bigs in the paint, and he’s too comfortable settling for a jumper.
  • Wiseman projects as a versatile scorer who can throw down lobs at the rim and space the floor. But he’s a subpar shooter from the line and the field, raising questions about his touch from outside; to make matters worse, he has poor shot selection.
  • Wiseman uses his long arms and explosiveness to block and alter shots at the rim; he could become a feared threat simply because of his presence inside. But he lacks discipline, often jumping at pump fakes, and fundamental skills like poor footwork and awareness need work.

Prospects can get nitpicked to no end in the run-up to the draft, but you don’t need to zoom in to find Wiseman’s flaws. That’s why scouts wonder whether he could slip in the draft like did Myles Turner did in 2015 after a shaky freshman season at Texas. I’ve talked to NBA executives who have Wiseman ranked in the top three, and others who wouldn’t put him in the top 10. But he had the upside of becoming the unanimous top prospect if he had an impressive freshman season.

I watched all three of Wiseman’s games. Here’s my favorite sequence:

Wiseman beats his man up the floor then shakes the rim. It’s simple stuff, but that’s the type of high effort you want to see—plus, he displayed good hand-eye coordination in receiving the ball. This season was supposed to give Wiseman a chance to show he’ll keep his motor revving all season, which he’ll need to do in the NBA.

It’s rare that a young NBA player would receive regular post touches; in general, NBA teams are posting up less than ever. Early in Wiseman’s pro career, he may need to get his opportunities through activity—rim running, crashing the offensive glass for tip-ins, and screening-and-rolling. Through three games, Wiseman looked as wonderful as anticipated on the roll.

Wiseman’s first two games were against mid-major opponents, so this might look like a drill without any defense being played. But you still get a good look at his screening, 9-foot-6 standing reach, and explosiveness around the rim.

Wiseman will have a chance to play with some excellent playmakers next season; most of the worst NBA teams have them. But—and there’s that but—for Wiseman to be worthy of the no. 1 pick, he must become more than a player who relies on others. Here are two made baskets he created for himself:

Wiseman’s appeal is in his ability to create plays for himself off the dribble. The problem is he doesn’t make jumpers at a high percentage, and he takes them far too frequently. Both of the looks above are low-efficiency jumpers taken early in the clock, which was a problem in high school that hasn’t gone away. Here’s a miss:

Ah, the off-balanced fadeaway taken with 22 seconds left on the shot clock. What a beautiful, moving tribute to Ben Simmons. Wiseman actually shoots with the proper hand, but whether he shoots well enough to warrant so many shots is the problem. He isn’t a Karl-Anthony Towns type of big who can shoot like a guard from the perimeter; he’s probably more like a Joel Embiid, a career 31.8 percent 3-point shooter, though you’d hope for better. But at this stage, Wiseman lacks Embiid’s defensive ability.

Embiid had raw fundamentals as a freshman at Kansas. He fouled too much and was often slow to make reads. But effort was never a question. At lower levels, Wisemen would go through long stretches of not rotating or not battling against opposing bigs. Wiseman played hard in all three of his college games, which is a good sign. But other concerns were still apparent. He’d bite for pump fakes and missed rotations. Against Oregon, Memphis had him switch ball screens and he got blown by on a few occasions.

Wiseman is theoretically a switchable defender because of his sheer athleticism, but he’s not always in a stance and is sluggish moving laterally. Few teams run a lot of ball screens in college basketball, so Wiseman wouldn’t be truly tested defending the pick-and-roll until he’s in the NBA. But it’s critical that he make progress. In that sense, he’s like Deandre Ayton, who entered the league with fundamental concerns about his defensive effort and technique. The difference is that Ayton already did a good job of defending without fouling.

Wiseman is jumpy. He needs to learn how to balance, when to stay grounded, and when to block a shot into orbit.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Wiseman’s game. He can do a little bit of everything as a scoring big, and he looks the part of an enforcer on defense.

Soon enough, top prospects like Wiseman may not need to take a “gap year” in college before entering the pros. The NBA still intends on allowing high school prospects to go straight to the draft at some point. This summer, National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said, “I suspect that we’ll have some news in the next few months.” No news has come. The NBA and NBPA were at a standstill over the issue of teams receiving medical records on all incoming prospects, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. I was told that this remains the reason for the staring contest; teams want the medical records, and both players (and their agents) want to retain control since it’s used to create leverage in the draft. Team executives I’ve spoken with remain on edge about when the change to the draft’s age limit will happen. The one-and-done era was originally supposed to end in 2022, but if the impasse continues, multiple league front office executives I spoke with believe the decision will be pushed to 2023.

It doesn’t matter for Wiseman. Instead of waiting out the NCAA’s punishment, he’s decided to forego the rest of his college eligibility and get a head start on his pro career. Now the NBA needs to decide how good he can be at the next level after just three games.

This story was updated on December 19 at 3:13 p.m. ET, after Wiseman dropped out of college and signed with an agent.