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Why James Wiseman is the NBA draft’s most polarizing prospect

Wiseman’s college career is over at Memphis. Debate remains over how his game translates to the NBA.

James Wiseman looks on for Memphis.
James Wiseman is out at Memphis and is ready to turn pro.

James Wiseman was considered the No. 1 recruit in America as he headed to Memphis to begin his college basketball career. He was widely projected as the early front-runner for the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, too. Wiseman’s college career is now over after only three games. Amid a suspension for an illegal NCAA benefit his family received while he was in high school, Wiseman has decided to forgo his remaining eligibility, hire an agent, and start preparing for the draft.

While many are using this as an occasion to eulogize the final years of the one-and-done era or take the NCAA to task for driving one of its most exciting talents away from the sport, the bigger question is how Wiseman fits into the NBA. The team that selects him in the lottery come June will mostly be doing it off his high school tape, his physical tools, and blind faith.

The truth is that Wiseman was likely going to be one of the most polarizing prospects in the draft even if he played the full season. While ESPN’s highly respected draft team pegged him as the early No. 1 pick, there are evaluators who were all over the map on his stock coming into college. SB Nation had him as the No. 9 pick in our June mock. Other outlets have had him as low as No. 24.

Wiseman has a chance to be a great long-term player, and the NBA will give him every opportunity to succeed. But as he exits college basketball, there are a few reasons why he’s likely to garner a variety of opinions from NBA front offices.

Wiseman’s physical tools are immediately evident

Wiseman grew into the consensus No. 1 recruit in the high school class of 2019 largely because he has the ideal build for an NBA center. At 7’1, 240 pounds, with a reported 7’6 wingspan and 9’3.5 standing reach, Wiseman has tremendous length and a frame he should add muscle to over time rather easily.

Wiseman projects into a clear NBA role as a rim protector on defense, and lob threat on offense. In a modern NBA that is built around skilled guards in the pick-and-roll, Wiseman should be effective as a screener in the two-man game who rolls hard into the lane and can finish with a simple dunk or layup. He is in many ways built like Dwight Howard, only he’s entering the league at a time when big men aren’t expected to be polished in the post because those attempts aren’t all that efficient on a league-wide basis.

Wiseman’s defense will have to be his calling card. The early returns in his three games at Memphis were promising: he blocked three shots vs. South Carolina State, five shots against Illinois-Chicago, and one shot against Oregon. His three blocks per game at the college level compares favorably to his production as a high school player on Nike’s EYBL circuit, where he averaged 1.9 blocks over 21 games.

Wiseman’s physicality also aids him on the glass, where he should be an instant impact rebounder in the NBA. Wiseman averaged 10.7 rebounds per game at the college level after pulling down 6.8 per game in the EYBL.

Wiseman has a long way to go on offense

Wiseman is going to put up points just on dunks and layups around the rim. Beyond that, how his offense scales up to the next level will be one of the biggest points of discussion about his draft stock. While Wiseman averaged an impressive 19.7 points per game in his three games at Memphis, there remain major questions about how he’s going to score in the NBA.

Some evaluators believe Wiseman has long-term potential as a shooter, but he hasn’t fully shown it yet. Wiseman attempted one three-pointer at Memphis and missed it. In the EYBL, he went 4-for-27 (14.8 percent) from three-point range as a rising senior. Free throw percentage is also seen a big indicator of future shooting potential. Wiseman hit just 55.4 percent of 101 free throw attempts on the EYBL, but was much better at Memphis. Wiseman knocked down 19-of-27 shots from the foul line for the Tigers, good for a respectable 70.4 percent.

There is more to offense than just shooting, of course. Wiseman’s ability to finish putbacks will also come under the microscope. While he is a good athlete and quality rebounder, he lacks the elite second jump of the NBA’s best putback scorers. Unlike a player like Kings forward Marvin Bagley III who flies off the ground quickly, Wiseman takes some time to load up for his jumps and finishes.

While he’s still massive NBA standards, he won’t have such a pronounced size advantage when he gets to the NBA. He’s going to have to learn to score in different ways. So far, that remains a work in progress.

Wiseman’s archetype isn’t as valuable as it used to be

It wasn’t long ago that a center who had Wiseman’s physicality would go No. 1 overall based on his frame alone. In the modern NBA, however, ball handlers and creators have more value than big men — especially big men who aren’t polished shooters and passers. The best recent evidence of this is the debate over Luka Doncic vs. Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III in the 2018 draft.

Ayton is an interesting comparison point for Wiseman because they are about the same size but have completely different games. While Ayton is a monster scorer, Wiseman is clearly superior as a defensive prospect. But even if Ayton maximizes his potential, he’ll never come close to having the same impact as Doncic. That’s because Doncic can initiate the offense, create for teammates, and score off the dribble. Ayton, like Wiseman, isn’t going to do any of those things as a traditional center.

There is no prospect even close to Doncic’s level in this draft. There are a lot of talented guards projected to go in the lottery, though. Most teams choosing at the top of the draft will likely prefer a ball handler and initiator who plays on the perimeter because those players tend to provide the most value. Centers have become marginalized in the modern NBA because good ones are available for cheap on the free agent market or later in the draft. Wiseman is a good-looking prospect, but it’s fair to wonder how much value a player in his archetype really has in today’s NBA.

Wiseman’s draft stock will benefit from a weak class

The worst kept secret among NBA evaluators right now is that the 2020 draft class isn’t that strong. In my opinion, this is the weakest class since 2013, which is the year I began covering the NBA draft for for SB Nation. That draft will be remembered for Anthony Bennett going No. 1, but it also had the best player in the game today, Giannis Antetokounmpo, hidden at No. 15.

Because there isn’t a super prospect like Doncic or Zion Williamson available, it’s possible scouts will see Wiseman as a safe bet to be a productive center and will worry less about his ultimate upside. Teams like the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks who already have great offensive creators in the backcourt could take a look at him high in the lottery. Don’t discount the Cleveland Cavaliers or Washington Wizards, either.

Still, if guards in this class hit their upside, they will likely provide more NBA value than Wiseman even if Wiseman is a safer pick. Anthony Edwards has been my No. 1 prospect since the start of the process. North Carolina’s Cole Anthony has had a disappointing freshman year in many ways, but his game still translates well to the next level if he can regain his shot-making ability. Creators like Nico Mannion and LaMelo Ball will be intriguing for teams looking for playmakers. European prospects Theo Maledon, Killian Hayes, and Deni Avdija should also go in the lottery.

Wiseman didn’t move up or down the SB Nation board in his three games at Memphis — the back half of the top-10 still feels about right for a high floor player who doesn’t appear to have a ton of upside because of his positional archetype and limitations as a shooter and passer. For Wiseman to provide maximum value, he has to be elite on the defensive end. That’s a possibility, but the learning curve for young bigs in the NBA is so steep that it shouldn’t be counted on. There are also so many other ways to find a center that don’t involve using a top-three pick on one.

Wiseman is a talented prospect who deserves to go in the top-10. He will likely go in the top-five and might even go No. 1 in what isn’t considered a strong draft. But as he leaves Memphis, NBA scouts will wish they had more tape on him. As promising as his future is, he isn’t the no-brainer No. 1 pick that some project him to be.