The top-ranked recruit in the 2019 high school class, James Wiseman ended up logging just 69 minutes with the University of Memphis this past season.
And even those 69 minutes were actually a bonus, considering they only took place under the protection of a restraining order a local judge in Tennessee issued against the NCAA’s decision to suspend Wiseman from the start of the college basketball season, something you don’t see very often.
The NCAA ruled him ineligible due to his long-standing connection with head coach Penny Hardaway, who assisted Wiseman’s family during a move from Nashville to Memphis a couple of years ago, so he could then enroll at Memphis East High School, where Hardaway coached before getting hired by Memphis.
The NCAA and Memphis eventually negotiated a 12-game suspension to be served after the team’s loss to Oregon, its most anticipated non-conference game of the season, but soon thereafter Wiseman realized that a prospect of his caliber does not need to jump through hoops for the NCAA’s benefit and left the school to focus entirely on preparing for the draft.
As was the case with Darius Garland last year, missing essentially the entire season is unlikely to hurt his stock in any meaningful way, as ESPN currently ranks him third on its top 100 and buzz of him maybe ending up the top pick depending on which team wins the lottery remains.
That’s the case because Wiseman showed in his time at Memphis East and his appearance at the Nike Hoop Summit a year ago potential to become a pure center who is special enough to escape the league’s deemphasizing of the position over these last few years.
Part of it is physical talent. Wiseman measured at six-foot-11 without shoes, with a seven-foot-four wingspan and a 247-pound frame in the Memphis Pro Day. Those are elite measurements for a 20-year-old. He’s also athletic, in terms of elevating quickly off the ground to make plays at the rim on both ends and flashing some coordination with the ball on face-up drives.
Another part of it is the flashes of skill he’s shown as a passer on the move and as an outside shooter, which suggests he could be useful to assist the ball movement process and/or help space the floor on occasion, though there is no data to support those impressions, given he’s never shot well or recorded all that many assists in the higher profile events he’s participated in.
His three NCAA appearances took place against South Carolina State (which ended up losing 18 of its 29 games in the season), Illinois-Chicago (which ended up losing half of its games) and Oregon (which ended up winning 24 of its 31 games). In those, Wiseman averaged 34.2 points per 40 minutes on 76.3% effective shooting and compiled a 47.8 PER.
But despite those video game numbers, his brief cup of coffee in college really only served to suggest that some of his more ambitious adventures on offense (face-up driving from the top of the key and shooting on the move) will probably be phased out of his game as he moves up through the levels, as his offense was entirely based on attempting to overwhelm the competition with his size around the rim.
Wiseman was able to show more promising traits on the other end, mostly in help defense, where his activity near the rim translated right away, but also in pick-and-roll coverage, especially against Illinois-Chicago, when he was able to extend pick-and-roll coverage far beyond the foul line and contest a pull-up three-pointer effectively, though it’s noteworthy that his least impressive performance was against Oregon, which was by far the best team he played against.
Though those three games didn’t exactly offer a substantial video sample, we were able to see Wiseman stressed in pick-and-roll coverage and Memphis asking him to defend it in a couple of different ways.
Against South Carolina State, Wiseman was asked to go up to the foul line and drop back to prioritize protecting the paint. He was seen approaching the ball handler in a stance, which was an improvement over his more lackadaisical approach during the high school All-Start circuit.
Wiseman got beat foul line down by the ball handler here and there but flashed a fast-twitch reaction recovering to block the dribble driver from behind on one instance. The hustle was impressive but in the NBA, that driver tends to get to the rim before the shot blocker can get to him.
He was stretched a little more in the next two games; flipping between show-and-recover and hedging, under both strategies working to make himself a presence at the three-point line.
Wiseman proved capable of influencing the ball handler and cutting off access to the other side of the floor with his hedges, though his quickness in recovering back to his man left something to be desired.
His work on show-and-recover seemed more effective. He hasn’t yet developed a knack for leveraging his length into shutting down passing lanes (one steal in 69 minutes) but showed to be well-coordinated sliding laterally to prevent the ball handler from turning the corner right away off the pick a fair amount and put in the effort to contest pull-up three-pointers.
Wiseman bends his knees to get down in a stance defending face-up big men out on the perimeter, showed some decent lateral quickness against stiffer types and proved explosive enough to block a shot defending on the ball. But he doesn’t seem fit to switch onto smaller players out on an island, as he was shaken side-to-side pretty badly in the couple of times he did so against Oregon.
Wiseman also doesn’t seem suited to defend stretch big men in the pick-and-pop, needing to sell out and flyby to be able to run the shooter off his shot.
Wiseman impressed the most as a presence near the rim.
He was active not just coming off the weak-side on longer rotations and stepping up to the front of the basket as the last line of defense but also shadowing post-ups to intervene at the last second and showing glimpses of being able to play center fielder making preventive rotations that deny the opponent space towards driving all the away to the basket.
Though prone to biting on shot fakes, Wiseman averaged just 2.9 personal fouls per 40 minutes, while consistently looking to make plays on the ball. He averaged 5.2 blocks per 40 minutes over his three appearances and made an impact in the hidden areas of the game as well, by actively challenging shots via verticality and guarding with his arms up near the rim to discourage an opponent from even attempting to finish over him on occasion.
Perhaps more impressively, Wiseman often showed the combination of quickness and effort needed on multiple effort plays, able to cut off a drive and force a drop-off then turnaround to contest his man at the dunker spot effectively.
Wiseman was consistently attentive to his boxout responsibilities, physical and even showed attention to detail by looking to put a body on the opponent before the shot even went up on quite a few instances in an attempt to prevent an opponent from getting inside position. His reactions chasing the ball off the rim were on point as well – collecting 26.6% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor.
He was just as effective on the other glass, leveraging his nine-foot-three standing reach into getting the ball at a higher point than most of the competition he played against – collecting 22.4% of Memphis’ misses when he was on the floor during his brief time at Memphis.
Wiseman logged 27.8% usage in his 69 minutes.
In high school, he showed strong ambition to develop as a face-up driver, consistently looking to draw the opposing center out and isolate from the top of the key. Though there were glimpses of coordination operating off the bounce, Wiseman didn’t show a quick first step out of a standstill and couldn’t often power through contact against similar-sized players. He pivoted into a not-all-that-fluid spin move on the fly and tried to go between the legs on occasion but didn’t have that level of ball skills for advanced dribble moves by that point. He had a loose handle for the most part and wasn’t strong with the ball on the go – prone to getting it stripped of him in traffic.
Wiseman was also a fairly aggressive outside shooter at Memphis East, not necessarily in terms of volume of attempts but in terms of the types of shots he took. He had the freedom to step out to the three-point line constantly and even toyed around with the idea of taking catch-and-shoot jumpers out of the pick-and-pop, as the trailer in transition and without his feet set off jogging to the top of the key.
Wiseman has flashed a shooting stroke that looks projectable for the long term, with a fluid enough release for a six-foot-11 player; launching the ball from the top and getting a good deal of elevation for someone his size, managing to get his shot off over closeouts somewhat comfortably.
He didn’t have the opportunity to handle as much or show his range in college, attempting a single three-pointer, on a delayed pick-and-pop, that missed short.
For the most part, he got most of his offense out of the post. Though he did get pushed off his spot by Chandler Lawson and Francis Okoro a few times in the game against Oregon, Wiseman was often able to set deep seals close to the basket due to his general size and was rarely crowded effectively, turning the ball over just three times total across his three appearances – a good mark considering his high 27.8% usage rate over his 23 minutes per game.
He did not show, in part because he didn’t have to, a versatile set of moves operating with his back to the basket. Wiseman mostly just overwhelmed smaller opponents near the rim and encountered little resistance to score effectively; 19 of his 26 total field goal attempts took place within close range , 15 of his 20 field-goal makes were assisted and he earned 27 free throws at a pace of 15.7 foul shots per 40 minutes.
He showed flashes of court vision throwing darts to the opposite corner over the crowd in high school but not as much in college, recording a single assist during his time in the NCAA.
In pick-and-roll, Wiseman showed to be a little more interested towards his approach on screens than he had in high school, when it was common to see him drag into setting picks. He hasn’t yet developed any sort of versatility to his screening but more often than not looked to widen his stance to set hard screens.
Wiseman can play above the rim as a target for lobs sneaking behind the defense, but it is unclear how explosive he can be diving down the lane in traffic. He has, however, flashed some impressive coordination catching the ball on the move and keeping it high while loading up to go up with force in a crowd.
When forced to act as a rim-level finisher, Wiseman hasn’t yet shown particularly noteworthy versatility to his finishing but did fine with his touch on non-dunk scores – converting 17 of his 19 shots at the rim.