September 27, 2023

After making his 2022 Summer League debut, James Wiseman got a delectable taste of the Golden State Warriors’ unique version of the old “good cop-bad cop” routine. Wiseman, who hasn’t played in an NBA game in over 15 months due, put up 11 points and two blocks in Las Vegas, his first action since a three-game G League stint in March that ended with knee swelling that shut him down for the rest of the season.

A pretty good return, except for one not-so-tiny problem.

Wiseman, who is listed at 7-foot, 240 pounds and looked to have added even more lean muscle since the last time we saw him, pulled down just two rebounds in the game. Afterward, he heard from two of the most prominent voices in the Warriors locker room, but he received two very different messages.

In typical nice-guy fashion, Steph Curry texted Wiseman with words of encouragement: “He just told me, ‘It feels good just to see you back out there playing,'” Wiseman told reporters.

Draymond Green, in his typical tell-it-like-it-is fashion, took to his now-infamous podcast for a proverbial airing of Summer League grievances: “Wise, you can’t have two rebounds. … I would never excuse James Wiseman having two rebounds, nor do I think James Wiseman would excuse it.”

And there, in a nutshell, you have the Curry-Green leadership dynamic (I’m purposely avoiding Green-Curry here to prevent a subconscious craving for Thai food) that has produced four championships and six NBA Finals appearances in eight seasons. Wiseman received both messages loud and clear, and set out to get himself back into Green’s good graces in his ensuing games.

“I was listening to [Green’s podcast] while I was eating. I was like, aw, f—, I gotta get seven to 10 rebounds,” Wiseman said. “I can’t settle for two because I’m 7-1, I’m tall, so I gotta make sure I be aggressive down there. I can’t just get pushed around and stuff, so I gotta make sure I take that personal. … [Green’s] the OG, so I gotta most definitely take that personal, for sure.”

Sure enough, Wiseman pulled down seven rebounds in his next game, followed by seven and six, respectively, in his final two Summer League outings. The numbers are pretty impressive considering he was capped at around 20 minutes per game, not to mention the fact that he hadn’t played in over five months.

Overall, Wiseman averaged 10.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in four Summer League games. Most importantly, he said that his troublesome knee feels so good that he’s “not even worried” about it anymore.  

It’s one thing for Wiseman to snag rebounds with nobody around him, but he also showed a tenacity to fight for offensive boards in traffic to get his team extra possessions. He came away with these two rebounds thanks to multiple efforts that the Warriors brass and his teammates surely noticed. 

Both Green and Warriors Summer League coach Jama Mahlalela, who was recently promoted to a comfy padded folding chair at the front of the bench to fill the vacancy left by new Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown, talked about the importance of timing and rhythm when it comes to rebounding — areas in which Wiseman would suffer after his lengthy absence from competitive basketball.

Mahlalela also didn’t mince words when it came to the focus for Wiseman this summer and into training camp.

“Without question, James Wiseman’s number one attribute for us next season will be his defense. He’s going to rebound the ball, firstly, and his ability to sort of alter shots at the rim and be a good rim protector. Those are the two areas we’re really focusing in on, and that’s what’s gonna get him on the floor for the Warriors. His offense will come, it’s sort of a work in progress, young player, as it is for many of our young guys. But the defensive side is where we’re gonna put more time.”

Play defense and rebound. Don’t worry about scoring. Must be strange to hear for a player who was selected second overall just two years ago, particularly one whose offensive skill set was arguably his most tantalizing feature. Wiseman was billed as a potential unicorn — as trite as that term has become — a big man who could put the ball on the floor, stretch to the 3-point line and initiate offense in the half-court. We didn’t see much of that in the 39 games he played his rookie year, and it sounds like the defending champs aren’t interested in putting it on display next season either.

Instead, they’ve opted to simplify things for Wiseman, who is still just barely past the legal drinking age. As great as the Warriors were defensively last season — second fewest points allowed per 100 possessions in the NBA — they lacked a traditional big man and rim protector. They were able to piece together solid defense around the rim (11th in the league, per Synergy Sports) thanks to otherworldly effort and intelligence from the 6-6 Green and 6-9 Kevon Looney. Mixing in a true 7-footer who can play drop coverage to prevent shots around the rim would give the Warriors yet another impressive defensive look.

This offseason Golden State acquired potentially crucial pieces in Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green, but their most important “addition” — the one many seem to be forgetting about or ignoring — is Wiseman, whose mission this summer and throughout next season is to become an elite rim protector and a rebounding machine.

So far so good, as Wiseman blocked eight shots in four games in Las Vegas, showing good instincts and verticality as a weak side defender.

For what it’s worth, Wiseman is saying all the right things about buying into his new role. That’s a lot easier to do when your team just won a championship without you and still has the two best shooting tandem in NBA history combined with a one-of-a-kind, hyper-intelligent point forward to carry the offense. 

“I’m really just working on just my verticality, my rim protection and, really, just my rebounding,” Wiseman said during Summer League. “I’m not worried about scoring like that, because that’s gonna come with time. I’m really just worried about stuff that’s actually gonna get me on the floor when I play in the NBA. Just focusing on the little things.”

Wiseman seemed enthusiastic and engaged while speaking to the media in Vegas, particularly notable since he’s in a situation where some former No. 2 picks would be moping because they even had to return to run. It was important for him to play his fourth game on the team’s final day of Summer League, to get past a specific mental hurdle.

Wiseman played only three games in college before withdrawing from Memphis. He played only three games with the Santa Cruz Warriors this past spring before being shut down due to a knee setback. And while some were ready to leave, or had already left, Wiseman was eager to get on the court for that fourth game.

“It’s a huge milestone because I haven’t played in like a whole year and a half. Being a hooper, that’s kind of hard mentally,” Wiseman said of playing in four games this summer. “Just to be out there and just to be playing again, I’m super blessed just to have the opportunity.”

Wiseman is a crucial part of the youth regime in Golden State that has been enlisted to bridge the gap from the Big Three to the potential key-holders of the next Warriors dynasty. We’ve already seen Jordan Poole impact winning on the biggest stage, and team brass expect Wiseman to one day follow his lead — along with Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, who also participated in Summer League. While Poole, Kuminga and Moody will likely get a shot at heavy rotation minutes this season, Wiseman’s role is less predictable.

Looney will likely be the starting center and Warriors coach Steve Kerr might lean toward veteran JaMychal Green as the main backup big, while Draymond Green will, of course, see a handful of minutes at the five every game. Wiseman could be relegated to situational minutes based on matchups to start the season, and he has to be satisfied with that as he develops and gets his conditioning back.

Given everything he’s said and the way that he’s played so far, Wiseman will be happy with any role the Warriors want to give him, as long as it means getting back on the court. Now that he’s healthy, both Wiseman and the Warriors are giddy to see exactly what the fruits of his labor will be.

“He can now actually do development work and not do rehab work. That’s a fundamentally different thing for him,” Mahlalela said of Wiseman. “We’re just, as a coaching staff and organizationally, excited for that process — for him to learn and grow, and come into training camp a different player because he’s actually had a summer where he can work.”

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