Top Prospects James Wiseman, R.J. Hampton Draw NBA Crowd in Memphis

The widespread feeling around the 2020 NBA draft is that it might be the weakest one in years. Will anyone separate from the pack? The Crossover went down to Memphis to evaluate projected top picks James Wiseman and R.J. Hampton.
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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Pro tip: just because a scouting trip is travel-friendly doesn’t always mean it’s time-efficient. A horde of 80-some NBA general managers, executives and scouts were reminded as such over the past two days. October marks the unofficial start of the NBA draft calendar, with exhibition games and college practices drawing traveling decision-makers back out on the road. A 30-minute drive between the FedEx Forum and the University of Memphis’s Laurie Walton center served as a runway to lay eyes on a pair of top draft prospects, with the New Zealand Breakers bringing prodigious American guard R.J. Hampton to town for an exhibition with the Grizzlies, and Memphis placing 7-footer James Wiseman on display to scouts for the first time as part of their program. Convenient, certainly, but as many around the league suspected, the 48-hour pit stop offered little recompense in the way of useful answers.

This is life on the trail, where the quality and quantity of player evaluation opportunities don’t always align. While the setup in Memphis was certainly cushy and necessitated a trip, the results were mixed. An optimist might argue any visual data point on a prospect is useful, while the more jaded take would be that inputs, particularly first impressions, from non-game settings serve to distract on a subconscious level. After a brief hiccup obtaining clearance from the league office, NBA teams were permitted to attend the Breakers’ Monday afternoon practice and Tuesday shootaround, saving many a trip around the globe to catch a glimpse of Hampton, a Dallas native who made waves with his much-publicized decision to spend this season in Australia’s NBL. It was no coincidence that Penny Hardaway’s Memphis program—which has begun to successfully recruit top talent with an NBA development-focused pitch, opened their facility for a Monday afternoon Pro Day and Tuesday practice centered around Wiseman and their much-hyped freshman class.

By the end of the Breakers’ game Tuesday night—a 108–94 closer-than-it-looked loss—the overall vibe was underwhelming, echoing (or perhaps simply a byproduct of) a widespread feeling that the 2020 draft might be the weakest one in years. It’s certainly nothing new to have a lack of clarity at this point in the calendar, and every year, like clockwork, cynical scouts lambast the quality of the draft. Right now, the general lack of excitement over the talent pool feels more palpable than usual. Discussions among teams regarding which lucky player might be the No. 1 pick will always spark debate, but right now, there’s simply little in the way of confidence.

In the minds of most scouts I spoke with, Wiseman and Hampton do belong to a smorgasbord of top players that also includes LaMelo Ball, who will play in the NBL with Illawarra this season, Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, and North Carolina’s Cole Anthony. The only discernible consensus from conversations with teams at the moment seems to be that the race for No. 1 is messy. The past couple years, at least you could find strong early inklings. Whether he was the right choice or not (the jury’s out), Deandre Ayton’s rare physical tools helped set him apart. Not all were clued in early on Zion Williamson; most seemed to get on board rather fast. As players settle in to their environments, it seems best to brace for several shifts in opinion, for whatever the focal point of the groupthink may be worth. After spending both days following most of the industry from stop to stop, it’s hard not to feel the same way. It goes without saying that there’s an entire season left to figure things out.

There are a few different ways to look at Wiseman’s case, although the book on him has been the same for the past couple years, most of which he’s spent with a target on his back as the preordained top prospect in his high school class. That designation can wear on players, particularly given the modern terrors of social media, but Wiseman managed to hold onto his spot in the eyes of major pundits, thanks to his possession of just about every physical capability you could ask for in a center. Memphis’s measurements have him at 6’11” with a 7’4.5” wingspan, 9’6” standing reach and 34” max vertical and his overall conditioning and frame has filled out nicely over the past year. He was listed at a lean 247 pounds, and there are zero questions he belongs in the NBA physically. Per usual, Wiseman offered flashes of his massive potential in practice. He flies out of nowhere to contest shots and can do things in the air that most are incapable of trying. But an apparently minor injury caused him to sit out five-on-five scrimmaging on Tuesday, which led to some groans from everyone watching on the sidelines.

Over the course of the past couple days, scouts drew comparisons to a bigger Jaren Jackson Jr. or a more athletic Myles Turner, pointing to the sort of impact Wiseman could eventually make with his shooting touch, huge catch radius as a rebounder, and ability to move his feet and block shots. A frequent analog this season will be 2017 No. 1 pick Ayton, and while Wiseman isn’t likely to approach that level of offensive dominance while in college, his defensive instincts are already much more natural, something that bodes well for his ability to survive long-term. How high you’re willing to consider any center in the draft discussion these days is sort of a referendum on how you choose to value that position from a team-building standpoint, financially and with regard to personnel. Memphis’s staff should put Wiseman in positions to be successful scoring the ball, but the entire team is still jelling, and the short-term results could be mixed, at least for the time being.

Even in what appears to be a thin draft, not everyone is sold. The book on Wiseman has been largely the same over the past couple of years. To this point, he’s a prospect who’s left a lot of evaluators wanting more. This is obviously a byproduct of the fact there’s not much to nitpick from a physical standpoint, other than a slow load time off the floor, a jump shot he’s still nailing down mechanically in his lower half, and some recurring minor struggles with ball security on the interior. One common critique is that Wiseman shares a frustrating tendency with many young bigs: it’s a blessing that he has ball skills and a jump shot, but he is not a guard. “Until he figures out what he is, I just don’t know if it all clicks,” offered one executive. “He might want to be Giannis.” Self-perception is a pivotal element of any big’s continued development — being forced to sit on the block and earn his keep was a huge reason Karl-Anthony Towns blossomed at Kentucky—and if Wiseman can turn that corner, he may convince some of his skeptics. Others privately wonder how passionate he really is. These are all stigmas he has the ability to shift quickly with a strong season. As things stand, it’s no guarantee he’s the first player off the board.

Hampton’s performance over the past two days was similarly difficult to parse, as many executives found the Breakers’ practices just marginally useful when it came to evaluating just how good he is. Because he reclassified and turned pro ahead of schedule, NBA teams have had relatively limited exposure to him in recent years, so this week was the first visual opportunity for many in attendance. Hampton was generally considered a Top 10-caliber pick coming into the week, his basic selling point being his impressive level of comfort handling the ball, staying under control, and being able to improvise with a live dribble. He appears close to 6’5”, and there aren’t many guards that size who share his innate strengths. Multiple scouts I spoke with compared him to Jazz guard Dante Exum (though most admitted, sheepishly, that it could stem from their uncannily similar looks, and the fact Exum is Australian and Hampton is playing in the NBL).

Predictably, Tuesday night’s game was often unforgiving, and Hampton often looked like a player not far removed from high school, which, well, is what he is. To his credit, he played with a level of poise, didn’t back down, and turned the ball over just once in 19 minutes. But he shot 1-of-8 from the field, found it difficult to create easy shots for himself, and finished a team-worst minus-17. None of this is damning, and Hampton seemed mostly nonplussed after the game. Build-wise, he belonged on the floor, and his handle should eventually play to this level. It wasn’t all for nothing, nor was it a complete bust. Expectations were generally tempered, as they should have been, given he’s 18 years old and has a lot of filling out to do. No. 2 pick Ja Morant was the most exciting guard on the floor, and worth the price of admission. The challenge for Hampton will be setting himself apart from a swath of guards projected atop the draft. While Tuesday’s struggles won’t be a killer for his perception, he certainly didn’t stake a better claim than players like LaMelo Ball and Cole Anthony have in recent viewings. Other guards like Anthony Edwards, Arizona’s Nico Mannion, Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey and promising Frenchmen Theo Maledon and Killian Hayes will all be pushing for position.

Some scouts wonder whether Hampton a true point guard or a bigger combo (Spencer Dinwiddie is another name that comes to mind). Hampton can consistently make simple reads and did well to play through his mistakes, but he offers next to nothing defensively on or off the ball at this level, having some notable issues keeping up with Grizzlies backup Tyus Jones, who isn’t exactly a burner with the ball. If his height and length can’t become an asset for him, particularly on that side of the ball, they may not set him apart from the pack functionally at all. Hampton’s jump shot was fine when he shot solo, but in-game attempts requiring a quicker gather and release consistently trouble him. These are questions he’ll have better opportunities to answer over the course of the season than in the Memphis fishbowl, but things teams will nitpick nonetheless. If he can fashion himself into a two-position defender on the perimeter with some ability to play on and off the ball, Hampton should have a place in the NBA, but as usual, the likely outcome tends to fall somewhere in the middle, and it’s clear which areas are most glaring as the NBL season gets underway.

The Breakers head to Oklahoma City from here, where they’ll face the Thunder in another exhibition Thursday night. A large chunk of the league will follow to see how Hampton responds. (“Chris [Paul] might murder him,” one exec offered.) Another big wave of executives will tour Australia over the next several weeks, given a persistent fear that Hampton and Ball may end up shutting their seasons down early. They’re scheduled to play head to head for the first time on Oct. 24, and every opportunity may count (the NBL plays a 28-game regular season, with playoffs ending in March). It would be hard to critique them for protecting their stock, although sticking out the entire campaign would be a nice accomplishment for a teenage guard. With the draft hierarchy wide open, there should be plenty to play for, well into the new year. For now, that’s about all anyone can say with certainty.