Boom or bust? Assessing James Wiseman’s Warriors return in Summer League

By Ric Bucher
FOX Sports NBA Writer

The performance of a player in Summer League generally doesn’t mean much for teams that have just captured an 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 has tantalized the team and its fans ever since the night of the 2020 NBA Draft, when Golden State selected him with the overall No. 2 pick. 

That image came back into focus last week when Wiseman made his first national TV appearance in nearly 16 months, after returning from a meniscus tear in his right knee. He crushed an alley-oop dunk, blocked a shot at the other end and casually buried a 3-pointer, all within the first 70 seconds.

Focus in on that brief run, go light on the details and the rest of the night and the possibilities would have any Warriors fan dizzy. Which is the direction the headlines and TV broadcasters went in describing Wiseman’s performance against the San Antonio Spurs. The play-by-play broadcaster for the Celtics’ game said Wiseman had a “great game” against the Spurs, and a dot-com headline said “Wiseman Impresses in 2022 NBA Summer League debut.”

Warriors assistant GM Mike Dunleavy Jr., though, demurred when he was asked what impressed him most about Wiseman in an in-game interview. “Just seeing him out there with a smile on his face is great 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. That means knowing how to utilize all that talent, size, length and speed. That’s where the pesky details show up. Wiseman, matched primarily against the 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.

Statistics and box scores, of course, can be misleading, and the Warriors don’t necessarily need Wiseman turning in triple-doubles to help them defend their title next season. They merely need him to show that he has made some sort of progress since being pulled as a starter halfway through his rookie year, then suffering the knee injury and missing all of last season except for three appearances with the team’s G League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors.

So FOX Sports surveyed four rival scouts who were court side for Wiseman’s long-awaited appearance in Las Vegas, asking them to assess what they saw and what their expectations are for him. Perhaps not surprisingly, the responses were decidedly mixed as far as optimism vs. pessimism on his future.

An Eastern Conference scout offered the most upbeat general takeaway. 

“He’s had some good moments,” he said. “His body looks good, his mid-range jumper looks good, he’s still a little raw but moving well. He’s got a real chance.”

A second Eastern Conference scout was a little more skeptical.

“It’s not a good sign that Kabengele kicked his ass,” said one Eastern Conference scout bluntly. “[Wiseman] is a good empty-gym workout player. The actual games are the part he struggles with. He has so much physical ability that it would be surprising if he is not eventually a decent player. But he is a ways away now, and he has some flaws that will probably prevent him from living up to his supposed potential.”

Asked to pinpoint those flaws, the scout said, “Slow reactions, bad instincts, bad touch around the basket on anything that’s not a dunk. High center of gravity, weak hands.”

A Western Conference scout pointed out other issues. 

“He still struggles with quick reaction moves. Footwork is unsure. His perimeter jumper is improving but needs time and space to be effective. His dribble attack is limited — solid on one-bounce attack, but more than one dribble becomes an adventure.”

However, the same scout anticipated that the combination of the Warriors’ elite coaching staff and player talent could find a way to utilize even Wiseman’s raw ability. 

“His simple offensive game will be enhanced by playing with elite veterans,” he said. “If there is a team that can make both tactical and personality changes, it’s Golden State. They have the coaching and veteran quality to find productive solutions.”

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What has made the Warriors’ offense particularly effective is finding big men — or players capable of playing big — with strong court vision and passing skills. That allows their shooters, led by Curry and Thompson, to find gaps in the defense moving without the ball. It’s why Green has been the team leader in assists six of the past seven seasons and center Kevon Looney wound up with 16 assists, third-most on the team, in the Finals against the Celtics.

So far, Wiseman has not shown that putting the ball in his hands as a playmaker is a particularly sound strategy. In his 39 games as a rookie, he had 26 assists and 60 turnovers. In his two Las Vegas Summer League games, he registered one 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 layup.

“He doesn’t have a passing feel, and the ball can stick in his hands,” the first Eastern Conference scout acknowledged. “He can’t pass from the top of the floor like Draymond and isn’t fluid in dribble handoffs, either, to give guys looks. He needs minutes but at the expense of the style that is conducive for Steph, [Jordan] Poole and Klay.”

The Western Conference scout countered that the Warriors might benefit from a secondary offense tailored to Wiseman’s strengths.  

“Different doesn’t have to be worse,” he said. “Sometimes different is just different. Subtract passing [from what he can contribute], true, but add real pressure on the rim on the dive, which they lack now, and the ability to play the vertical game, and they have new weapons to exploit. I trust the Warriors to solve this conundrum and turn it into an asset.”

How fast the Warriors believe they can do that could determine whether they even try. League executives have speculated for several months that Golden State could package 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) — gives any irretrievable ground to Father Time.

Golden State could also go in another direction in an effort to rack up more titles. Rumors persist regarding a possible Kevin Durant return to the Bay Area.

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Perhaps the trickiest element to assessing Wiseman’s potential is that he has spent so little time playing. He left the Memphis program after three games in protest over being suspended by the NCAA because Penny Hardaway, acting as a booster before becoming the Tigers’ coach, helped Wiseman’s family move from Nashville to Memphis. He has played a grand total of 45 games over the past three years, including his three-game stints with the Tigers and in Santa Cruz.

But that decision to end his collegiate career did raise a question for the Western Conference scout about whether Wiseman is playing basketball because he’s physically suited for it or because he has a passion for it. 

“He has a bright future as a very good modern big — if dedicated,” he said. “But he must choose the game, and prove that the game didn’t choose him.”

The 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 Summer League,” said a third Eastern Conference scout. “He wasn’t playing against, or with, NBA players. It’s Summer League. It really only matters that he is healthy right now. Any judgments beyond that are skewed.”

But the NBA clock that begins once a player enters the league does not have a pause button. It does not care why a player’s development has been hindered. A new crop of challengers arrive every year, eager to step over the ones who came before them. Two more draft classes are breathing down Wiseman’s neck, among them this year’s No. 2 pick and 7-foot shot-blocker, Chet Holmgren, who will square off with Wiseman on Friday.

Yes, it’s only Summer League. But if Wiseman hopes to show that he can contribute — now, not three years down the road, and not just as an NBA player but as part of a championship formula — demonstrating he’s better than the latest second overall pick 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 has written two books, “Rebound,” the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, 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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