NBA

James Wiseman’s halted rookie season leaves Warriors with more questions than answers, and the clock’s ticking

Word broke on Sunday afternoon that Golden State Warriors rookie James Wiseman reportedly suffered a torn right meniscus, and if his season is indeed done, suffice it to say, this is not how anyone in the organization envisioned Year 1 going. To this point, Wiseman has played 39 games, starting 27, and though the biggest names in the organization love to talk up the rookie’s endless potential, the reality of his play has been less auspicious. 

To say Wiseman hasn’t been good this season would be an understatement. In most ways, he’s been flat-out bad. And unlike most high-lottery picks who go to bad teams, and are thus afforded a longer learning curve, Wiseman was taken No. 2 overall (over LaMelo Ball, mind you) with the hope that he would, in very short order, be ready to fill a position of need on a team that expects to return to championship contention. 

He’s not even close to being able to do that. His defense was bad all season. His offense might’ve been worse. Steve Kerr was trying, rather futilely, to balance Wiseman’s development with actually trying to win as the Warriors chase a playoff berth, and in the short term, this injury eliminates that dilemma. 

The Warriors are 12.3 points per 100 possessions worse with Wiseman on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, and the starting lineup was minus-13.2. Flip Wiseman out for Kevon Looney, and the starting lineup goes to plus-6.2 per 100. That’s almost a 21-point difference for a team operating on the thinnest of margins. 

Specifically, Wiseman undercuts the effectiveness of Stephen Curry, who has the Warriors’ offense operating at 120.1 points per 100 possessions (95th percentile league-wide) as long as Wiseman is on the bench, per CTG. Put Wiseman on the floor with Curry, and the offense plummets to 103.2 points per 100 — which overall would rank last in the league and slots Golden State in the sixth percentile among all lineups that have played at least 15 possessions together. 

Again, under normal conditions, all of this struggle would be in the name of development. But no development really happened for Wiseman. We’ve watched No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards go from one of the most inefficient scorers in the league to averaging 24 points a game over the past six weeks on 44 percent shooting. LaMelo Ball was getting yanked from games for turning it over early in the season, but by February he was in the starting lineup and arguably the Charlotte Hornets‘ best player preceding his potential season-ending injury. 

There’s already a clear picture of what those guys can be forming on the court. Whatever you think Wiseman can be still lies in pure speculation. You’re looking at his size and athleticism and extrapolating absent actual basketball evidence. There have been flashes, sure, but nothing more. 

Everyone lost their cookies when Wiseman stepped out and hit a couple 3-pointers in garbage time to start the season; look, a 7-footer who can shoot! But the truth is he ranks in the 20th percentile as a mid-range shooter and the 12th percentile as a 3-point shooter among big men league-wide, per CTG. 

Being capable of making a shot here and there and being a shooter are two entirely different things. He’s not going to create off the dribble, and he’s not a good passer. Kerr runs offense through the post to ultimately pass back out or to find cutters. Wiseman is not an offensive hub, and his putting together a post move every now and then that looks flashy on “SportsCenter” is fool’s gold within the context of Golden State’s offense. 

Will Kerr flip the offense, then, to accommodate Wiseman? The one and only action he’s shown legitimate promise running is pick-and-roll with Curry. On size and athleticism alone Wiseman can finish around the rim, particularly lobs. His wingspan falls somewhere between a condor and a 747. But Kerr is yet to show a willingness to re-tailor his offense to the personnel he’s now working with. 

Entering play on Sunday, the Warriors rank 28th (when the ball-handler finishes the play) and 30th (when the roller finishes the play) in pick-and-roll frequency, per NBA.com’s tracking data. If Kerr won’t go that route this season, he almost certainly isn’t going to rely on that action when Klay Thompson returns next season. 

And perhaps he shouldn’t. Pick-and-rolls make it easy to blitz and trap Curry. In a sense, Kerr would be bending his principles not for the team, but for Wiseman, who isn’t anywhere near ready to contribute in any other capacity. It’s understandable. The guy just turned 20 a few weeks ago. He’s played 42 non-high-school-level games (three in college and 39 in the NBA). There is no fair system in which this amount of evidence would ever amount to a verdict. 

But this is the expedited timeline on which the Warriors are operating. They’re running out of time to decide whether Wiseman is worth more as a future foundational player or a current trade piece. That’s not the case for teams like the Hornets with Ball, the Timberwolves with Edwards, the Bulls who drafted Patrick Williams, or the Knicks with Immanuel Quickley, or the Kings with Tyrese Haliburton. They all don’t have to make that decision right now because they don’t expect to compete for a title in the short term either way. They can take their time. Let the play on the court tell the tale over a reasonable amount of time. 

The Warriors are in a different place as Curry’s prime winds down. They need to go for it now. If the Warriors trade Wiseman or the Timberwolves’ 2021 top-three protected first-round pick, they will get a good return. If they trade them both, they will get a great return. In either of those scenarios, the Warriors will be legit title contenders next season assuming health. If they go the other way and keep Wiseman, the outlook becomes significantly hazier. 

Ask yourself: What have you seen from Wiseman that suggests he can be something significantly more than, say, Boston’s Robert Williams, let alone a core contributor to a championship run, at any point in the next few years? 

You can’t really look further out than that in today’s NBA. Even if the Warriors don’t trade Wiseman, they’ve got two more seasons to decide whether to give him a max extension, and those are not going to be seasons in which they’ll be able to prioritize his development. 

That’s what makes this injury so tough. These last five weeks were supposed to serve a dual purpose for the Warriors: Try to make the playoffs, but perhaps more importantly, get a better read on what they have, or don’t have, in Wiseman. This was going to be their last chance to evaluate their prized draft pick in a relatively safe space. 

If they don’t make the playoffs this season, it won’t be the end of the world. If they flame out next season because Wiseman still isn’t any good and another year of the Curry-Thompson-Draymond Green core goes down the drain, that’ll be a decidedly tougher pill to swallow. This season was supposed to provide a few answers about Wiseman and how the Warriors will move forward either with or without him. Instead, it appears to have ended with nothing but more questions. 



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