Ex-Warriors Big Man Must Bounce Back After ‘Disaster’ Pistons Summer Showing

James Wiseman (right) of the Pistons, former Warriors No. 2 pick

Getty James Wiseman (right) of the Pistons, former Warriors No. 2 pick

If there was an apt postscript to the short-lived and controversial James Wiseman era in Golden State, it might have come during the 2023 Las Vegas Summer league this month. Wiseman was not suiting up for the Warriors, of course, having been traded to the Pistons at the deadline. But he was there for Detroit, guarding fellow former No. 2 pick Jabari Smith Jr. on the perimeter. When Smith made a 3 in Wiseman’s face, he turned to the front row and said of Wiseman, “He can’t f**k with me at all.”

Smith was not wrong. He scored 38 points on the night on 13-for-25 shooting, making nine of 10 free-throw attempts, to boot.

Detroit experimented with playing a double-big lineup in the first two games of its summer entry, Wiseman at center and spry 19-year-old Jalen Duren at power forward. Duren was impressive as a rookie big man last season, and the Pistons had obvious reason to see whether he could be a fit in the frontcourt with Wiseman.

He was not. In fact, it is getting harder to see how Detroit will find any room for Wiseman in its rotation with Duren and tough-nosed big man Isaiah Stewart on board. Wiseman posted solid enough numbers in his two summer showings—16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds—but even against summer competition, showed the same difficulty on defense that marked his brief Golden State career.

“I don’t know what they do with him, it was a little bit of a disaster, like it was in Golden State, defensively,” one Eastern Conference coach told Heavy Sports. “Duren and Stewart, there is a lot to like there, and I understood taking a chance on him if you’re the Pistons. Why not? But it is just hard to see where he fits, with that team and then in the long-term, he needs to figure out where he fits in the league.”

Injuries, NCAA Have Hindered Wiseman’s Growth

Wiseman is only 22, and not entirely a lost cause. He played 84 games in his first three NBA seasons, mostly because of a wrist injury and knee surgery to fix a torn meniscus. He played only three games in college at Memphis because of an NCAA investigation into his prior relationship with Tigers coach Penny Hardaway.

That’s an average of 21.75 games over four seasons, and it’s tough to gain any real development at the key ages of 18-21 if you’re not playing. But what’s troubling folks around the NBA is that Wiseman has seemed to be stuck on the same problems he has had since his rookie year, that being in and around the NBA has not given him any lessons, even by osmosis.

“If you watched him as a rookie then you watched him at summer league, you would think you were watching the exact same guy,” one league executive said. “Especially on the defensive end. He has such great tools—he is an athlete, he has the wingspan (7-foot-6), he is fluid in how he moves. But he has not found one thing where it is like, ‘OK, here is my comfort zone.’

“That’s what you want to see. Find a spot or a go-to move that you are comfortable with on offense. He has gotten a little bit of a hook shot and maybe that is something he can push forward with. But a guy like him, he needs to find an approach that he can lean on when he’s playing D. Put that all together so you can at least give 18 or 20 minutes a night of doing his thing.”

Defensive Development Could Determine Wiseman’s Future

Physically, Wiseman seems too blessed to be a player who comes in as the third center on a likely lottery team like the Pistons. But that is his lot as thing stand, and it will be up to the developmental program of new coach Monty Williams to push Wiseman forward.

Or not. The Pistons have an enviable young center duo in Duren and Stewart, and simply might not need Wiseman, who is eligible for a contract extension this offseason but hasn’t done much to warrant one. The Pistons had plenty of interest in Wiseman at last year’s trade deadline (and before that, even) and that likely has not waned in the course of five months. But fit is a problem.

Wiseman has shown himself to be a dunker who can’t shoot and is a liability at the free-throw line. He’s solid enough around the restricted area, and there is a place for that kind of center in the NBA—Mitchell Robinson and Nic Claxton are starters on playoff teams, for example—but only if they’re really good rim protectors.

Wiseman was expected to develop into a top-shelf shot-blocker, but it has not happened.

“I do not know if he is ever going to get there,” the coach said. “He just looks like he gets lost pretty easy out there. That was what it was with him in Golden State, they felt like they could not play him because of that. It doesn’t seem like it has changed for him yet. He’s just not good defensively right now.”

Neither is the other candidate to be the No. 3 center for the Pistons, Marvin Bagley, but Bagley has more versatility and confidence offensively, and can play power forward. So it is fair to wonder where Wiseman can find his niche, exactly. He will get some level of a chance with Detroit, but the options are limited if he can’t get on the floor.

The Pistons traded away Saddiq Bey to get Wiseman. They did not have a long list of takers for Bey, but he was still an asset they lost in the Wiseman trade. Presumably, Detroit sees some future for Wiseman the rest of the league is struggling to find—and if the Pistons were to put Wiseman on the trade market, it’d be a chilly reception.

“He is young and still has the upside,” the executive said. “But that does not last forever. (You) feel terrible for the guy because he has been through so much. He just does not have value right now, the Warriors got the last little bit they could, and probably did well to get (Gary Payton II). James is going to be a free agent next summer, unless they surprise everyone and give him a deal. So he has a year to show the Pistons he belongs. It was only two summer league games but he did not show anyone he is ready to be a rotation guy, not yet.”

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