By Eric Bucher
FOX Sports Writer NBA
A player’s performance in the Summer League usually doesn’t mean much to teams that have just captured a player. NBA championship.
James Wiseman and the Golden State Warriors are an obvious exception.
The image of Wiseman, a 7-foot center with elite athleticism and a 7-foot-6 wingspan, looming behind the Hall of Fame core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green appealed to the team. and his fans since the night of the 2020 NBA Draft, when Golden State selected him with the No. 2 overall pick.
That image returned to center stage last week when Wiseman made his first appearance on national television in nearly 16 months, after returning from a meniscus tear in his right knee. He smashed an alley-oop dunk, blocked a shot on the other end and casually buried a 3-pointer, all within the first 70 seconds.
Focus on that brief run, shed light on the details and the rest of the night and the possibilities would make any Warriors fan giddy. It was in this direction that headlines and TV broadcasters went to portray Wiseman’s performance against the San Antonio Spurs. The Celtics’ play-by-play broadcaster said Wiseman had a “great game” against Spurs, and a dot-com headline read “Wiseman impresses in 2022 NBA Summer League debut.”
Warriors assistant general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr., however, balked when asked what impressed him most about Wiseman in an in-game interview. “Just seeing him there with a smile on his face is nice to see,” he said. “You can see the talent, the size, the length, the speed. For him, it’s just catching up and learning the game.”
Ah, yes, learning the game. It means knowing how to use all that skill, size, length, and speed. This is where the pesky details show up. Wiseman, primarily opposed to Spurs’ 6-foot-9 undrafted center Dominick Barlow, finished with 11 points, two rebounds, two blocked shots and three turnovers in 20 minutes.
His numbers were more balanced two nights later against the Celtics, contributing six points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in nearly 21 minutes, but they weren’t as impressive as those of Celtics center Mfiondu Kabengele, who had 21 points , 13 rebounds and two blocked shots in 28 minutes.
Stats and box scores, of course, can be deceiving, and the Warriors don’t necessarily need Wiseman in a triple-double to help them defend their title next season. They just need him to show that he’s made some kind of progress since being pulled as a starter midway through his rookie year, then suffering a knee injury and having missed all of last season except for three appearances with G League team affiliate Santa Claus. Cruz Warriors.
So FOX Sports interviewed four rival scouts who were on the court side for Wiseman’s long-awaited appearance in Las Vegas, asking them to rate what they saw and what their expectations are for him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the responses were decidedly mixed when it came to optimism versus pessimism about his future.
An Eastern Conference scout offered the most optimistic takeaways.
“He had some good times,” he said. “His body looks good, his midrange sweater looks good, he’s still a bit raw but moves well. He has a real chance.”
A second Eastern Conference scout was a bit more skeptical.
“It’s not a good sign that Kabengele kicked his ass,” an Eastern Conference scout said bluntly. “[Wiseman] is a good empty gym workout player. The actual games are the part he struggles with. He has so many physical abilities that it would be surprising if he wasn’t a decent player after all. But he’s gone now, and he has flaws that will probably prevent him from living up to his supposed potential.”
Asked to identify those flaws, the scout said, “Slow reactions, bad instincts, bad contact around the basket on anything other than a dunk. High center of gravity, weak hands.”
A Western Conference scout pointed to other issues.
“He still struggles with quick reaction movements. The footwork is unsure. His perimeter jumper is improving but needs time and space to be effective. His dribbling attack is limited – solid on a one-rebound attack, but more than one dribble becomes an adventure.”
However, the same scout predicted that the combination of the Warriors’ elite coaching staff and player talent could find a way to utilize even Wiseman’s raw ability.
“His straightforward attacking game will be enhanced by playing with elite veterans,” he said. “If there’s one team that can make both tactical and personality changes, it’s Golden State. They have the coaching and veteran quality to come up with productive solutions.”
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What’s made the Warriors’ offense particularly effective is finding big men — or players who can play big — with solid field vision and passing skills. This allows their shooters, led by Curry and Thompson, to find gaps in the defense by moving without the ball. That’s why Green has been the team leader for six of the last seven seasons and center Kevon Looney finished with 16 assists, the third on the team, in the Finals against the Celtics.
So far, Wiseman hasn’t shown that putting the ball in his hands as a playmaker is a particularly good strategy. In his 39 games as a rookie, he had 26 assists and 60 turnovers. In his two Summer League games in Las Vegas, he recorded an assist, a pass to Jonathan Kuminga on the right wing, which Kuminga took and sliced between two Celtics defenders with a power dribble for a lay-up.
“He has no passing sensation and the ball can stay in his hands,” admitted the Eastern Conference’s first scout. “He can’t pass from the top of the floor like Draymond nor is he fluid in dribbling transfers to give guys a look. He needs minutes but at the expense of style which is conducive to Steph, [Jordan] Poole and Clay.”
The Western Conference scout countered that the Warriors could benefit from a secondary offense suited to Wiseman’s strengths.
“Different doesn’t have to be worse,” he said. “Sometimes different is just different. Subtract assists [from what he can contribute], true, but throw in some real nose-down rim pressure, which they now lack, and the ability to play the vertical game, and they have new weapons to exploit. I trust the Warriors to solve this puzzle and turn it into an asset.”
How fast the Warriors think they can do it could determine if they even try. League executives speculated for several months that Golden State could wrap Wiseman in a trade for a player with less potential but more immediate value to them. The goal would be to maximize their title chances before their core – Curry (34), Thompson (32) and Green (32) – give Father Time irretrievable ground.
Golden State could also go in another direction in an effort to rack up more titles. Rumors persist regarding a possible return of Kevin Durant to the Bay Area.
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Perhaps the trickiest part of gauging Wiseman’s potential is that he’s spent so little time playing. He left the Memphis program after three games to protest his suspension by the NCAA because Penny Hardaway, acting as a backup before becoming Tigers coach, helped Wiseman’s family move from Nashville to Memphis. He’s played a grand total of 45 games over the past three years, including his three-game stints with the Tigers and Santa Cruz.
But that decision to end his college career raised a question for the Western Conference scout about whether Wiseman is playing basketball because he’s physically fit or because he’s passionate about it.
“He has a bright future as a really good modern big – if he’s dedicated,” he said. “But he has to choose the game and prove that the game didn’t choose him.”
Las Vegas Summer League is unlikely to provide a definitive answer.
“The skills are there, and the athletic traits are there — in short stints in the Summer League,” said a third Eastern Conference scout. “He wasn’t playing against or with NBA players. It’s Summer League. Only the fact that he’s healthy right now really matters. Any judgment beyond that is biased.”
But the NBA clock that starts once a player enters the league doesn’t have a pause button. It doesn’t matter why a player’s development has been hindered. A new generation of challengers arrives every year, eager to step over those who came before them. Two other draft classes are blowing on Wiseman’s neck, including this year’s No. 2 pick and 7-foot shot blocker Chet Holmgren, who faces Wiseman on Friday.
Yes, it’s only Summer League. But if Wiseman hopes to show he can contribute — now, not three years from now, and not just as an NBA player but as part of a championship formula — demonstrate he’s better than the last second pick. overall wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and authored two books, “Rebound,” the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with Parkinson’s disease, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds”, the story of NBA center Yao Ming. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher”. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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