James Wiseman’s precarious draft stock

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has caused the NBA and all its subsidiary events to reside in a state of uncertainty. Currently, the league’s focus sits firmly on a return to action at Disney World Florida. Yet, while the focus is on a return to play, hundreds of draft-eligible players are waiting, itching to be informed on what 2020’s draft will entail.

No player exists in a higher state of purgatory than James Wiseman. The former consensus number one pick’s stock has fallen following the recruiting scandal that ended his collegiate career after just three games. With Wiseman having opted to spend the remainder of the season working out with his trainers, the opinion was that he would look to impress during the combine and team workouts.

Now that the combine looks to be gone with the wind, and team workouts seem far less possible by the day. Scouts will undoubtedly be pawing through each prospect’s college footage, further hindered by the absence of March Madness, to understand how these players perform underneath the media lights.

With such a small sample size to watch, scouts will likely turn their attention to Wiseman’s high school performances, where he was a stellar prospect. Unfortunately, judging a player’s ability based on their exploits against lesser talent, in a league with parity in terms of age, prevents scouts from making an accurate read on Wiseman’s ability and ceiling.

The modern NBA does not allow for a prep-to-pro jump, instead a minimum ‘one-year removed’ rule is in place. Wiseman would’ve undoubtedly been a candidate to transition from high school to professional if the route still existed.

All this uncertainty has led to Wiseman slipping in some recent mock drafts and big boards, while he remains the number one pick on others. Financially, falling down the ladder costs a player millions of dollars, as shown in the below table.

Rookie Sclae Contracts - per Real GM
Rookie Scale contract – per Real GM

What’s crazy is that Wiseman projects as a potential generational big, with scaleable skills on both ends of the court. A menace of defense, Wiseman’s a shot-blocking extraordinaire with an insatiable hunger on the glass.

Offensively, he offers a team verticle spacing and is a mid-range threat off the catch. An exceptional athlete, Wiseman can run the floor at pace, enabling his team to run the break and pose a lob threat when doing so. The space that a lob creates is essential to a team’s spacing when their big man can’t hit from deep, and it draws defenses into the paint, which in turn allows shooters to get free in the corners.

Rookies are a peculiar entity: for all their upside, they enter the league shrouded in a mist of uncertainty. Wiseman is no different from any other rookie, entering the league with clear questions around his mobility and lack of strength in the post. Multiple times throughout his short NCAA stint, Wiseman lacked the power to impose his will against sturdy opponents, instead regularly opting for contested turn-around jumpers or a flimsy-looking hook shot.

On defense, there are legitimate questions about his commitment, with multiple instances of Wiseman appearing to switch off during rotations or leap into pump fakes. Athletic bigs who swat shots for fun, generally enter the league with pogo-stick like defense. There have been recent examples of bigs opting to jump at shooters with the likes of Robert Williams of the Boston Celtics and Mohamed Bamba in Orlando.

The issue is, when a player standing at 7’1 enters the league lacking strength and defensive IQ, they project as a long term project more than an immediate impact maker. Projects are selected deeper into the draft, and these days high lottery picks are seldom be used on a center unless they’re considered generational talents in the mold of Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis.

Is it far fetched to envision Wiseman tumbling down the draft with the deficiencies in his game, the lack of college experience and the strength in depth of guards available? If a team is drafting by the best player strategy, is Wiseman going to be their top choice?

Players such as LaMelo Ball and Killian Hayes project to enter the league as starting-caliber guards on non-playoff teams, while Wiseman should expect to develop his game while coming off the bench. Tankathon currently predicts that the Golden State Warriors will win the draft lottery and enter the draft with the first pick, at which point Wiseman makes sense.

The Warriors do not require another guard as desperately – they need a defensive-minded big. The impact of a passing maestro, such as Ball, would be better served on a squad not containing the ever-impressive Steph Curry. Therefore, it’s feasible Wiseman would be their choice, but there is still competition from USC’s Oneyke Okongwu should the Warriors be solely basing their pick on the defensive upside of a player.

Questions surround this year’s draft like no other, from when it will be held to how the format will look in the face of social distancing. For Wiseman, these questions are all an unwelcomed addition for who might be the most polarizing prospect in the class. As things currently stand, it’s easy to envision Wiseman going first or 10th in this draft.

One thing’s for sure, what team takes Wiseman will be getting a raw athlete with incredible upside. The only problem is that these natural athletes don’t always fulfil their potential.