Believe it or not, James Wiseman played basketball on Tuesday, and while the game was not necessarily played well, that it took place with him in it was news unto itself. For the unindoctrinated, Memphis’s behemoth freshman center has been widely viewed as a candidate for the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft; he has also been ruled “likely ineligible” by the NCAA after it was found that Penny Hardaway helped pay for Wiseman’s family to move from Nashville to Memphis, and thus to play for the high school team he coached in 2017. Hardaway is now the head coach at Memphis, as well as the school’s most outward-facing alumnus and a prominent donor. But this is not to debate the merits of the NCAA’s ruling, and rather to assess what the whole situation means for Wiseman as it pertains to the draft, which is to say…perhaps not a ton.
While one game is just a small piece of any holistic evaluation of a prospect, every minute of live basketball does mean a little bit more from a scouting perspective when a player’s college career is dangling from a short leash. So, Tuesday night’s game between Memphis and Oregon may have been the best opportunity for NBA teams to watch Wiseman against a high-major college opponent. Memphis secured an injunction for him to keep playing, but his hearing with the NCAA is currently scheduled for Nov. 18. He’ll presumably play on Saturday when the Tigers face Alcorn State, and that could be that. Scouts would have flocked to Portland anyway for a doubleheader that also included Oklahoma and Oregon State, but the hope was that Tuesday would be especially instructive, one way or another.
Naturally, Wiseman picked up two early fouls, sat most of the first half, and took a long time to ingratiate himself in gameflow, with Memphis eventually falling 81–74 in a perfectly justifiable loss against a more experienced Oregon team. This, of course, was not the optimal situation from a scouting standpoint, but there were some positive signs from Wiseman in the second half, as he made an increased effort to crash the basket and showed an understanding of how to make his own, massive frame work in his favor. He is a naturally dominant rebounder, capable of hauling in anything in his area, and showing particularly strong pursuit on the defensive glass. Wiseman matched up well with an older, equally strong opponent in Francis Okoro and was generally active in the paint. It’s begun to grow clear that Memphis’s roster-wide lack of experience and dearth of above-average playmakers is going to be a hindrance to the quality of his touches.
Wiseman’s innate strengths should let him flourish anyway at this level, and even if we only get a four-game sample, at least it’s fairly clear what that looks like. In Memphis’s first game against South Carolina State (decidedly a non-NBA opponent), he did a great job of rim-running, staying in the paint and unleashing chaos. While he has not always been the most visibly passionate player, it’s beginning to feel like we can count on his nightly effort, which given his unusual physical tools, creates a reasonable baseline for double-double production at the college level, and probably in the pros. That alone is strong baseline value for Wiseman, and if he leans in to the fact that simply being a great interior player is an excellent start, the concerns about his shot selection and perimeter inclinations will take a backseat. The simple fact he can shoot in a projectable fashion is nice. Frankly, it’s possible but unlikely that Wiseman becomes a game-changing scorer at center in the NBA. But if he can simply be a consistently versatile one, and if teams can feel comfortable with the possibility he adjusts his tendencies to fall in line with how they want to win games, that’ll be more than enough for someone to invest a top-five selection, and yes, creates a ceiling for him at No. 1. We’ve already seen enough to understand that.
One area to note is that Wiseman predictably doesn’t look comfortable guarding on the perimeter in space. It would be a misnomer to classify him as a versatile, switchable defender, if that school of thought existed anywhere at any point. Memphis let him switch ball screens for a period of time in Tuesday’s game, perhaps just to showcase his athleticism, but clearly, that skill is a long-tail work in progress. Still, it shouldn’t matter all that much, given Wiseman has all-defensive team-type upside at the NBA level by simple way of his sheer size, vertical explosiveness, and demonstrable anticipation skills. It’s hard to underscore that he legitimately stands 6’11” barefoot with a 7’4.5” wingspan and 9’6” standing reach, and has begun adding what appears to be impactful, functional muscle. He should be able to play drop coverage just fine, and smart defensive coaches will find ways to park him around the basket and utilize his size to wall off space on the interior. Even in the NBA, there’s a visual element of intimidation that great defensive players often possess, where their size, length, and strength can do enough to intimidate and dissuade the opposition from going on the attack. Wiseman fits the criteria physically, and will have a chance to cultivate a reputation to match.
Noting all he brings to the table, whether or not Wiseman ends up being the first player off the board is more complicated still, and a question that can’t be completely answered in November, even if his career ostensibly ends next week with a single-digit sample of games. (For what it’s worth, our first mock draft of the season placed Wiseman at No. 3, with Georgia’s Anthony Edwards projecting in the top spot.) Before even considering his on-court quality, there are heavy financial implications that come with drafting a center early. To select Wiseman will mean committing a chunk of your salary cap to a position that has undeniably become more fungible, with teams across the NBA creatively utilizing smaller lineups in a wide variety of ways. It’s a high price to pay to develop a prospect with so much to learn before he can become a backbone of a team—a commitment to staying put, likely for the length of two significant contracts, at perhaps the league’s most flexible position. No matter how many games Wiseman plays for Memphis, the crux of the proposition won’t change.
Still, if Tuesday had been the final game of Wiseman’s college career, his standing in the minds of NBA cognoscenti would remain rather secure. Seven-footers gifted with his particular body type, coordination, run-jump skills and natural basketball ability emerge infrequently. Those that do are rarely finished products, and never last long on draft night. There is zero question Wiseman has the potential to dominate physically, and he’s the most attractive, projectable center in a draft lottery replete with guards. Not that many teams necessarily need a franchise center, but there is some security in that. Understanding the nature of the situation, it’s exceedingly tough to envision Wiseman falling very far. A team seeking to address the position for the next decade will grow comfortable with the likelihood that he converts his flashes of brilliance into habitual, impactful basketball. They will talk themselves into it. We’d all like to see him play an entire season. But as it pertains to his NBA future, it doesn’t take much to see Wiseman’s situation for what it is.