J-Dub, or Big Jim? Mixed early returns on James Wiseman, but the dream is alive!
Golden State has a special player in Wiseman, but can they cook the rawness out of his game in time to matter?
In a way, it’s not fair. At just 19 years old, James Wiseman finds his early career development bearing the weight of the heavy pendulum of the entire Golden State Warriors franchise.
Swing one way, and he could be at the epicenter of an explosive rebirth of a dynasty still waiting on the return of Klay Thompson. Swing the other, and Wiseman’s career could be an important final stanza in the longform poem of how a team could squander some of the primest years of Stephen Curry.
In either case, it’s clear that Wiseman’s career development is hugely important here. This season, the Warriors are chasing a top-6 finish in the West. Next year the bar is significantly higher - but in both instances, the correlation between Wiseman’s success and that of the team is strong. As Golden State weighs the immediate returns against long-term growth, they’ve found that Wiseman is part of the problem, and part of the eventual solution.
The big picture
The dream is still very much alive. Though it’s becoming clear that not taking LaMelo Ball was probably a miss, Wiseman is no different from other slower developing big men, which means the end of this story is far from written. Wiseman can still become one of the league’s best bigs in coming years.
With a decent handle, a pretty spin move, and a zone of influence around the rim on both ends, Wiseman’s potential has shone through. Averaging 11.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in around 21 minutes per game, the rookie’s stats are held down by playing time and role in a way that Ball’s aren’t in Charlotte.
But if you normalize the two rookies side by side, per possession, all of the sudden Wiseman looks to be on much more equal footing (stats via: bball reference):
Still though, Wiseman’s season highs of 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots all point towards a nice high ceiling.
That 25-point game in particular is a whole lot nicer than it looks. Playing against a bad, and short-handed Timberwolves team featuring #1 pick, Anthony Edwards, Wiseman put up 25 point on 9-of-14 shooting, pulled down 6 rebounds, and blocked 2 shots; all in 24 minutes and 18 seconds on the court.
It’s no surprise that Wiseman is immediately finding himself in trade rumors - and equally unsurprising to hear about the Warriors high asking price for him.
Now, let’s be sure to put a caveat on messaging from a Warriors front office that was telling everyone that they weren’t trading Monta Ellis up to the very day they traded him; and the very same front office that stood up and repeatedly told the media that D’Angelo Russell was part of the team’s long term plans.
If the right offer came along for Wiseman, the picks, or any combination thereof, Golden State will take it. The timing isn’t perfect here. Curry, and the Warriors core are in their primes, and with Wiseman at least a year or two away (or more), pretending like the Warriors aren’t looking for immediate help is disingenuous, at best.
Coach Steve Kerr has indicated that Wiseman’s role may increase a bit in the back half of the season, but as always, with the assumption that Wiseman is not a plus/minus disaster on the court. In the first half of his first season, the Warriors were -10.4 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court in non-garbage time, via Cleaning the Glass - a mark that places the rookie in the bottom 4% of the NBA.
Interestingly, Wiseman isn’t alone, there are plenty of fingers to point when it comes to negative point per possession differential (and yes, Curry and Green lead the team with marks of +20.3, and +14, respectively):
“For us to win, he's gotta be a force in the paint on the glass," coach Steve Kerr said, so let’s take a deep dive into his stats to see what Wiseman has, and hasn’t done well so far.
J-Dub: the strengths of James Wiseman
In looking at what Wiseman does well, we quickly see a fairly traditional big man profile. Though he is shooting well from deep, his 38% mark from three is based off 8 makes on 21 attempts - so an extremely small sample size.
No, most of Wiseman’s attempts - and successes - have come at the rim. Shooting 79 of 103, his 77% mark at the rim places the rookie in the 86th percentile for players at his position. Considering Wiseman plays a post-heavy role with the Warriors, this is an ideal aspect to be strong in.
Now, switching over to Synergy for play type data, we can see that Wiseman’s scoring is best in transition (63rd percentile) and off screens, where his 1.4 points per possession is one of the best in the NBA, putting him up at the 94th percentile of all centers.
I took some time to convert this all into a graphic. It’s a bit busy, but the larger the circle, the more efficient the scoring, with the vertical axis showing frequency. In other words, higher on the graph means that play type is used more frequently, and the further to the right, the better the scoring efficiency associated with that play type.
They need to be screening more for Wiseman: 14 points on 10 possessions so far this season. On the inverse side, the post-ups really are not working out. Despite being one of the most frequently attempted play types, Wiseman is scoring well below average, converting just 0.77 points per possession - a mark in the bottom quarter of all centers.
On the defensive end of the court, the data is a little more opaque. It’s something of a pet peeve of mine, because as much as I’d love to separate out the impact of a single individual, that’s just not how a flowing 5-man defensive unit operates.
The eyeball test says that Wiseman is going through some rookie struggles, but we’ll save that for the next section. For now, I am happy to note that Wiseman’s block percentage (the percentage of opponent shot attempts that he blocks) is elite - Cleaning the Glass has him in the 73rd percentile for all centers. If Wiseman can work out some of his bad defensive tendencies (an area that’s certainly high on the priority list), then he figures to become one of the elite rim deterrents, if he can improve on an already impressive rookie showing.
Big Jim: the struggles of James Wiseman
Wiseman is a raw rookie. With extremely limited college experience, and at just 19-years old, Wiseman, as a prospect, holds most of his value in what he can become - not what he currently is.
Cleaning the Glass lists most of his defensive impacts accordingly, but chief among the concerns are how often he fouls, and how little he rebounds. If, as Kerr says, the Warriors’ success depends on Wiseman becoming a force on the glass, it will take a near Pokemon-type evolution. Remember, the base number is shown in plain text, with percentile rank highlighted in color. Blue is bad.
Can the Warriors play a center that fouls like crazy, and is at best an average rebounder? One of the more concerning problems for me are Wiseman’s hands. He turns it over more than 60% of centers, and has bobbled a number of very visible passes. There are all sorts of drills and practice routines that can help alleviate these problems, but will Wiseman be able to improve enough this season to matter?
Probably not, but like many of the criticisms of Wiseman’s shortcomings, the best fix is more playing time, and a whole lot of patience.
The Warriors blinked and moved him to the bench after his early season struggles, but all signals indicate that the team is ready to slide Wiseman back into a bigger role in the second half of the season.
Offensively, Wiseman isn’t incredibly efficient. His effective field goal percentage (eFG%) is in the bottom third for centers. There are two salient images here. First: these are Wiseman’s shooting percentages:
Now, take a look at the shooting frequency. The table below shows us that the Warriors new project’s shooting profile has an inverse relationship to his shooting accuracy.
Most efficient at the rim, Wiseman barely takes half of his shots at that range, relying instead on inefficient mid-range shots instead.
It’s impossible to say how much of this is coaching, player preference, or “taking what the defense gives you,” but one of the weaknesses that I think Wiseman and the Warriors should prioritize is more closely aligning his shot profile with his ability.
As we saw in the bubble chart earlier, it looks like the first attempt at a solution has been to feed Wiseman in the post - nearly a fifth of his total plays were post-ups, but I expect the team to work in a greater variety of different looks for him in the second half of the season.
“Duby, so what?”
My eyeballs tell me that Wiseman, due to some combination of age and physical build, the 19-year is easily pushed out of position, and his moves are perfect on paper, but easily gummed up by savvy defenders. Put him into screening actions - where he can swim between the layers of a defense that is probably more worried about what Stephen Curry is doing - for maximum impact.
Checking in with Synergy again, it’s hard not to notice that the Warriors most consistently effective play types tend to be the least utilized. In order to convey this, I’ve got two data presentations below.
The table on the left is play type, sorted by points per possession (PPP), and the graphic on the right shows the spread and distribution. This is what a lot of people online complain about in regards to coach Steve Kerr’s philosophy, and on the surface, it does seem like the numbers support a call for more frequent pick-and-rolls, with an emphasis on dive cuts and hand offs, rather than getting open spot up jumpers.
Wiseman is already showing a few flashes of elite performance. His shot blocking, and ability to convert shots at the rim are worth building around. That said, there are more than a few wrinkles to iron out. Notably, Wiseman needs to learn to defend better and foul less. Offensively, his game is still raw, and the Warriors would do well to keep encouraging him to get to the rim off cuts and screens, rather than isolation, or post-ups.
The inherent problem with this solution is that in the near term, Wiseman (a guy drafted for his ability to do non-traditional center things) will be reduced to a basic screen setting rim runner.
I don’t know how many years away Wiseman is from becoming an elite center, but the tools and size are there, and he’s already showing that there’s hope. Unfortunately, patience is hard to come by for a team and fan base that is watching the peak of Curry’s generational talent on display nightly.