Isaiah Wong doesn’t want to belabor the point, but his reality is that the mind-boggling poster dunk over Auburn forward Jabari Smith in No. 10 Miami’s 79–61 win over the No. 2 Tigers last Sunday wasn’t about Smith at all.
Granted, Wong “completely” understands the extra hype that accompanies throwing down a disrespectfully beautiful one hander in the second round of the NCAA tournament over the potential No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick, but the truth is Wong saw it more as a full circle moment.
Less about who it was against and more about the unnerving adrenaline rush that came with living it.
“My eyes got wide,” Wong said. “I said, ‘let me get my little two steps in’ because I knew I was gonna dunk it; I was just hoping he would jump with me. When I did it, I was thinking that’s definitely a top 10 play right there. It felt familiar.”
It’s relative. Wong had lived this moment hundreds of times before as an energetic preteen on the blacktop at the park adjacent to his house.
There he’d whip wicked crossovers and drain threes, effectively torching the competition, which oftentimes was invisible, laying the foundation for the highlight of the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.
The irony being, Smith had the top highlight two days before on a poster dunk against No. 15 Jacksonville State on the same goal from the same angle.
“We all saw it,” Wong said of Smith’s dunk. “Man, his was crazy too!”
Wong would always end his one-man hoop sessions with imaginary last second shot scenarios where he’d count down the seconds as he masterfully created space before launching a dazzling shot just before he said, “One …”
“I was definitely that kid,” Wong said. “Even till this day, when I’m done working out, I’ll always try and make a last second shot and count down. I was always out there by myself making big plays as a kid.”
In basketball, there are big games and there are moments, and Wong splitting Smith and KD Johnson at the top of the key, darting down the center of the lane and obliterating Smith on the dunk was him seizing the latter.
“Zay is probably one of the better guards when it comes to scoring on his man, scoring one-on-one, the best shot maker in the country, in my opinion,” Miami guard Kameron McGusty said. “He's a great player and he's done a lot of good stuff for us this year.”
Still, that praise didn’t come without sacrifice.
After a breakout sophomore season, in which his points per game average skyrocketed by 10, Wong knew his numbers would take a hit with the logical progression of McGusty and the influx of talent coming from the transfer portal in Charlie Moore and Jordan Miller.
Wong didn’t need to be coaxed to buy in. He simply looked at the Canes’ record last season (10–17) and welcomed the help.
“My points went down a little this season (15.5 ppg.) and we’re in the Sweet 16,” Wong said. “It’s definitely a lot better than last year when I’d have 28 points and lose by 20. I love it this way.”
This year, it’s McGusty who leads four double-digit scorers with 17.5 points per game; he said Wong’s mindless transition led to an organic chemistry that serves as the foundation for their success this season.
“Zay may not be putting up the numbers he was last year, but he's still the same player we all know as a team and the coaches,” McGusty said. “He's just done a good job of playing well together with me, Charlie, Jordan and Sam (Waardenburg), just our togetherness is really what's been the biggest difference, making each other better. If we really need a bucket, just give Zay the ball, clear out the side, and let him go to work.”
The issue for teams this season, and the one that No. 11 Iowa State will have to contend with on Friday, is that Miami can legitimately implore the “just let him work” strategy with four different guards.
Perhaps even more devastating for the Cyclones is that Wong & Co. don’t beat themselves.
In their last two games, the Canes have just seven total turnovers.
“It’s tough to stop us,” Wong said. “You have to play guards on us because we flood the floor with playmakers. It’s hard for teams to adapt to our style because we put the pressure on the bigs and we have tough shot makers.”
That said, Wong lives by the creed that you’re only as good as your next game.
For that reason, he doesn’t like to reflect on past games with his teammates; yes, even if he did throw down one hell of a highlight.
“I’m not trying to think about what I did in the past,” Wong said. “My mentality is that I’ve gotta have another good game and then after that one I’ve gotta have another one. You lose one game and people stop talking about you. I want to stay relevant in March. I want to keep playing. I want the next moment.”
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