James Wiseman's Rookie Defense, How Good Will it Be? Lessons from History

A look at the rookie years of David Robinson, Chris Bosh, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett and seven other rookie HS-to-Pros big men

Now the James Wiseman Era has begun. Given the role of bigs in the Kerr offense, we expect Wiseman to get most of his offense from a simple role as screener and a rim-runner on pick and rolls, fast breaks and fat putbacks, while working up to the occasional mid-post play for a change up.

So the really huge question is whether Wiseman can be a plus defender on a contending team. Everyone knows rookies take a while to learn NBA defense, and Wiseman doesn’t have any college experience to speak of.

If you don’t like details, if you don’t like learning about defensive measures and the stories of other similar rookies, then the Too Long Didn’t Read is: similar rookie bigs — even all-time greats — have been adequate and sometimes good, but not great, at defense. There, now the rest of the article is for people who like details.

So let’s look at history to try to set ourselves realistic expectations for how well he will play on defense, but looking at the rookie seasons of direct comparisons: high pick bigs who went from high school to the pros. We’ll also then look at the rookie seasons of the dream comparisons.

1. The Direct Comparisons

I invented a game called Beat The Draft which looked at historical comparisons to James Wiseman. I looked up every NBA draft pick that was:

  • an American high school student (thus with similar lack of college track record)

  • an NBA first round draft pick (since the Lottery was introduced in 1985) 

  • 6’ 11” or taller

The players’ pre-draft scouting reports and other stats and honors are provided in each Game. You can still play the game! But you should do it now before we reveal all the answers.

And here’s the final write-up about cautiously optimistic expectations for James Wiseman.

Okay, the historical comparisons to Wiseman (high draft pick, HS-to-Pros bigs) are Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, Jermaine O’Neal, Andrew Bynum, Eddy Curry, Kwame Brown. This also happens to be the order of their career Win Shares.

It’s famously hard to measure defense, as blocks and steals don’t tell you much. So I looked at three prominent defensive measures: Defensive Historical RAPTOR, Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Box Plus Minus. I’ll briefly introduce these as we go.

1.1. Direct Comparisons: RAPTOR and Defensive Box Plus Minus

Let’s start with RAPTOR and its defensive component which I’m naming RAP-D. This is a measure of individual player impact on team Defensive Rating (team points allowed per 100 possessions), so Kevin Garnett’s rookie RAP-D of +1.64 would mean they reduced their team’s Defensive Rating by 1.64 points. A rating of 0.0 means league average defense. A player’s total RAPTOR is roughly equivalent to:

  • +10.0 is an all-time season (think peak Jordan or LeBron)

  • +8.0 is an MVP season (think peak Dirk or peak Shaq)

  • +6.0 is an all-NBA season. (The highest RAP-D was 2004 Ben Wallace at +7.26. 2017 Draymond Green’s RAP-D was +6.17. There are 10 such seasons on record.)

  • +4.0 is in all-star consideration. (The highest DBPM was 1994 Nate McMillan at +5.5. 2017 Draymond’s DBPM was +3.9.)

  • +2.0 is a good starter

  • +0.0 is a decent starter or solid 6th man

  • -2.0 is a bench player (this is also defined as "replacement level")

  • Below -2.0 are many end-of-bench players

If a player has league average offense (RAP-O = 0.0), then their RAP-D rating would give them the values above, so for the rest of this piece, I’ll assess player RAP-D using this scale with that big clear assumption.

Here is a graph of these seven players. The x-axis is the season number of their careers, the y-axis is the RAP-D. The graph is complex and tells a lot of stories, but the main part to look at is the very first value (i.e. the rookie year RAPTOR D).

In short, 5 of the 7 rookies started off below 0.00 and thus were rated as below average on defense. The only exceptions are Kevin Garnett, who started at +1.64 RAP-D (good starter) and Tyson Chandler (decent starter) at +0.38 RAP-D. However, only Eddy Curry rated below replacement level, with the others hovering a bit below decent starter level (0.0).

Perhaps you don’t like RAPTOR, so I also re-did this analysis using Defensive Box Plus Minus.

The results are qualitatively similar, which is not completely surprising since the formulas are different, but they use generally similar strategies (RAPTOR incorporates tracking data but only after 2014). Garnett with above average defense and everyone else hovering between average and below.

1.2. Direct Comparisons: Defensive Win Shares

For a different take, let’s look at Defensive Win Shares. Win Shares are measured in wins created, so all the Win Shares of a team should sum to the number of actual team wins. This is not a rate stat like RAPTOR and BPM, so you usually rack up more WS with more playing time.

In theory we could divide Win Shares by 2.7 to translate into change to Net Rating, which would put it in the same units as RAPTOR and BPM. But those results look funny to me, so I’ll take a different approach. Here is a histogram of the DWS ratings for every C or PF who played more than 1000 minutes in a season, from 2014-2019.

Using this, I’d eyeball these defensive tiers:

  • 5.0+. Defensive Player of the Year consideration. 2004 Ben Wallace +9.1 is the best DWS in three-point era. Draymond: 2015 +5.2, 2016 +5.1, 2017 + 5.4.

  • 4.0+. Elite. (2014 Andrew Bogut +4.0)

  • 3.0+. Very Good. (Bogut 2015: +3.4, 2016 +2.9)

  • 2.0+. Above average. (Zaza Pachulia, 2017 +2.5, 2018 +1.4)

  • 1.0+. Below average. (JaVale McGee, 2017 +1.5, 2018 +1.1)

  • 0.0+. Far below average.

Here are the seven direct comparisons:

This stat rates Dwight Howard quite a bit higher than the others, saying that Dwight Howard (+3.5) had a great rookie season hovering between elite defense and very good. Rookie Kevin Garnett (+2.6) also had above average defense. But like the other comps, DWS rates every other rookie as below average defending.

1.3. Direct Comparisons, Their Stories and Context

A common story emerges, despite the different stats used, for these High-School-to-Pros high pick bigs. Unless you are a Hall-of-Fame level defensive talent, you are going to be below average as a rookie big.

Let’s dig into the context for these numbers.

1.3.1 Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry

Rookies Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry joined the post-Jordan apocalypse 2001-02 Bulls with new coach Tim Floyd organizing a brand new team. It’s already a bad sign that the team drafted both of these centers while they already had a starting center, Brad Miller!! They awkwardly started Brad Miller and tried to mix and match the three players until finally trading Miller after 48 games. That left 1391 minutes for Miller, 1389 for Chandler, 1150 for Curry. No time to develop on a badly run team on a train to nowhere for the next decade. GSW is better run than this, so you might dismiss this comparison for Wiseman.

1.3.2. Kwame Brown

Kwame Brown was drafted into a toxic situation with new WAS president Michael Jordan drafting him #1 (passing over Chandler and Curry! ah this was the peak of the high-school-to-pros era) and you can search the web for Kwame and Jordan and instantly get multiple reports of Jordan’s tough tough tough love. There are some disputes over whether old school coach Doug Collins was the direct hand on the whip, but in the end, Kwame never recovered his confidence. So again, you might dismiss this case as a victim of a horribly run organization.

1.3.3. Jermaine O’Neal

Jermaine O’Neal came in young — at 18 years, one month and 22 days, he became the youngest player to play in an NBA game — and unlike the other six comps, he was not a lottery pick. POR had plenty of veterans including an aging great Arvydas Sabonis and backup Chris Dudley, so 17th pick O’Neal only played 45 games and 458 minutes. To be honest, POR didn’t play him much for his whole rookie contract, giving him 458, 808, 311, and 859 minutes. If you look at his DWS graph, you can see it rocket up to 4.7 once he got sent to IND, who actually played him. It’s safe to say that GSW will pay much more attention to nurturing Wiseman.

1.3.4. Andrew Bynum

Andrew Bynum was even younger than O’Neal, breaking O’Neal’s record for youngest NBA player. He was the 10th pick of the 2005 draft, which was the last draft to allow drafting high school players. The Lakers had bottomed out with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson leaving the dynasty Lakers, and 2005-06 was the stunning return of Phil Jackson to coach the “uncoachable” Kobe Bryant. At center, Phil awkwardly platooned Kwame Brown (now with positive coaching!) and Chris Mihm, and Bynum only racked up 338 minutes across 46 games.

There were also King-Lear-ish politics happening with Phil dating Jeanie Buss and being a rival with Jimmy Buss who had made Bynum his pet draft pick. Oh, this was also the year that Kobe Bryant was famously videoed in a parking lot, demanding that Bynum get traded. Bynum did eventually work himself into being a very good center, but it wasn’t in his rookie year.

GSW doesn’t have the same politics and should be a healthier environment for Wiseman. (If anything, the King Lear politics center on Alen Smailagic.)

1.3.5. Kevin Garnett

Remember that in 1995-96, Kevin Garnett was played as a rookie at wing the majority of the time until they figured out in year 2 that he was better at power forward. So that might have dinged his stats. But in the conventional wisdom of the time, Garnett was still a raw promising player. He received one 3rd place vote for Rookie of the Year and zero for Defensive Player of the Year. In 1996, KG got a couple of votes for Most Improved Player, and in 1997, KG got one third place vote for Defensive Player of the Year. So even Kevin Garnett took three years before even one person would vote for him as DPOY. By the numbers, he played good defense, he just wasn’t elite yet.

1.3.6. Dwight Howard

In 2004-05, Dwight Howard had a so-so rookie year by RAP-D and DBPM but was loved by DWS. Unlike the other players on this list, he was given the starting center spot on Day 1. How was he regarded at the time? He actually got a third place DPOY vote in 2005, and he finished with a significant chunk of the Rookie of the Year vote, but a distant third to Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon. Okafor put up a traditional stat line nearly identical to Dwight’s, but he scored 15 PPG vs Dwight’s 12 PPG, so that was that. All the advanced stats we cited above preferred Dwight. In any case, Dwight had a respectable year, but was nowhere near the dominant form that would later rack up three DPOY awards.

2. The Dream Comparisons

Just for fun, let’s look at the rookie years of three Hall-of-Fame level players that Wiseman gets compared to: David Robinson, Chris Bosh, and Anthony Davis.

2.1. David Robinson

David Robinson is the dream scenario. Mild-mannered and smart (he majored in math at Navy!!), long and agile, he has many superficial resemblances to Wiseman. He won all the college basketball awards, got drafted #1 by SAS and then served two years in the Navy.

On finally coming to the NBA, technically he could have re-entered the draft instead of joining the crappiest team in the league, as the Spurs were coming off a 21-61 record. If Klutch had existed back then, he might have forced a trade to the Lakers, haha. (Heck, if Klutch had existed, they would have made Robinson ditch the Navy after his sophomore year to sit a year and go from his senior year straight to the pros.)

Instead, he honored the draft pick and led SAS to a stunning 56-26 record, an absurd franchise turnaround.

He was a unanimous Rookie of the Year and was #6 in the MVP voting. But even the Admiral couldn’t get any Defensive Player of the Year votes in his rookie year, having to wait a year to finish #2 in the DPOY vote in 1991 and #3 in the MVP vote.

How do those pesky, contrary, advanced stats rate The Admiral? His BPM was +4.0/+2.9, so he was rated All-NBA level and his +2.9 DBPM was a lot better than every one of the 7 direct comps above. His Win Shares were +7.9/+7.2, again much much higher than anyone above, and well above the DPOY level and in fact far above anyone in our 2014-2019 data set. His rookie RAPTOR was +5.25/+7.06, so his +7.06 RAP-D alone would put him in the MVP running. In total, it was one of the best seasons in NBA history.

This is just not a reasonable expectation for Wiseman or any other rookie. David Robinson had a full four-year college basketball career and then had the discipline to work out and stay in NBA shape while working two years as a naval engineer. So he was a little rusty when he entered the league, but he was also a very very mature 24 years old.

2.2. Chris Bosh

Bosh was a #4 draft pick and debuted in the 2003-04 season. TOR eased him in to start the season, but by November, he was the full time starting center.

Bosh’s rookie Win Shares were +2.5/+3.8 (so his DWS was higher than everyone of the seven, except for Dwight Howard, an in the elite tier. His BPM was -1.2/+0.5, so this measure was less impressed with his defense, putting his D at decent starter level. His RAPTOR was -2.49/+0.75, again placing his D at decent starter level.

In a draft class with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade, Bosh had zero chance at Rookie of the Year, but did get a couple of vote points to finish #5, painfully behind Kirk Hinrich. Bosh would be #10 in Most Improved Player the following year.

2.3. Anthony Davis

And what of Anthony Davis? He is a perennial DPOY candidate and he came into the league touted as a defensive specialist. Interestingly, his 2012-13 rookie defensive stats are good but not stunning: Win Shares +3.7/+2.4 (defense above average, not elite), BPM +1.8/+0.7 (decent starter), RAPTOR +0.23/+0.92 (decent starter). He came in a distant second place in Rookie of the Year (to Damian Lillard), putting up a line of 13.5 / 8.2 / 1.0 / 1.2 / 1.8 and got no votes for DPOY. In his second year, he would finish #8 in the DPOY voting.

So even Anthony Davis had growing pains as a rookie. But in fairness, right from the start he was plagued with injury. An early concussion kept him out of a couple of games, and then he missed a month with an ankle injury, and then missed the end of the season with an MCL sprain.

3. What About Wiseman?

If I knew for sure the answer to this, I’d be paid a lot more money for my thoughts.

Looking at his historical comparisons, even restricting to the high end possibilities of Garnett, Howard, Robinson, Bosh and Davis, most of them were decent but not elite defenders in their rookie season. It was not until their second year or later that they started getting attention for DPOY and other such awards. The only exception is David Robinson who came out of the gate at an MVP level, but as we discussed above, he came into the league much more mature than Wiseman or any typical rookie.

Given the GSW situation where Wiseman can concentrate on defense and rebounding while playing a limited JaVale McGee type role in the offense, I am hopeful that he will be an above-average defender if he can stay healthy.

We’ll analyze detailed schemes in the future, but I also expect teams will early on try to test him with big men posting him up with power moves to get him in foul trouble, and also for smalls to isolate him on the wing and try to blow by him.

This will be a very interesting year. So, if Wiseman is good but not great on defense, don’t panic. The same was true for other young pros and many blossomed quickly in the following year or two.

Postscript on Wiseman’s Humility

I thought this exchange from the comments was worth highlighting:

belilaugh: One thing I wonder about with Wiseman though is whether he's interested in concentrating on defense and rebounding while playing a limited role in the offense. He's compared his game to guys like Giannis, Bosh, and Garnett. He's said he plays PF or C, which I interpret as him saying Cs aren't generally seen as primary ballhandlers/scoring options and he sees that in his future. He was the #1 recruit out of high school and the #2 pick in the draft and has never been "humbled" into accepting that there are certain things he wants to do that he shouldn't do…

I hope he is as coachable as the Warriors think he is, because they need to convince him to master the center position first and perhaps may eventually need to convince him that his destiny in the league is to be a three point shooting DeAndre Jordan. Theoretically a very good player, but that's also because Jordan understood his role didn't include taking his defender off the dribble or shooting a turnaround fadeaway midrange with 20 seconds left on the shot clock.

Eric Apricot: Yes, the mental aspect, the humility, will be an essential piece of Wiseman excelling in his role and growing as best he can. 

I found this long film session with Wiseman and Mike Schmitz to be very interesting. 

Wiseman was quick to identify what he did wrong on each play and pointing directions for himself to improve. He definitely came off as a student of the game, hungry to learn and not (emotionally) defensive.

Postscript 2.

For future use if you’re disappointed that Wiseman isn’t filling up the box score.