James Wiseman is the new blueprint for evaluating bluechip prospects

JAMES WISEMAN 2020 NBA DRAFT
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The closest thing one will find to a consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2020 NBA Draft is James Wiseman.

In a year where every top prospect has warts, Wiseman’s athleticism given his size and his measureables makes it easy to not only envision his role early on in his NBA career but also a path to being a perennial All-Star. This is a draft class where the trendy No. 1 pick in mock drafts can’t shoot or play defense. Risk averse GMs will love a 7-footer with a 7-foot-5 wingspan that can move his feet.

But what makes me so interested in Wiseman has less to do with who he is as a player than what he signifies as a prospect.

James Wiseman is the blueprint for what evaluating blue-chip prospects will look like if the G League’s Pathway Program manages to attract a significant number of elite players in the coming seasons.

For those unaware of Wiseman’s path to this point, in the hours leading up to the start of Memphis’ first game of the season, news broke that Wiseman was not only considered ineligible by the NCAA, but he had gone to a courthouse to file an emergency injunction to maintain his eligibility and get on the court. The program kept up this charade for three games before finally realizing that playing chicken with the NCAA over amateurism bylaws was not in their best interest. Wiseman sat out, applied for reinstatement and was given a 12-game suspension. Midway through that suspension, he quit the team.

After playing just those three games.

All told, Wiseman logged 69 minutes of college basketball, with just one of the three games that he played coming against competition worth evaluating him against. The last time we saw him on a basketball court was on November 12th of 2019. By the time the 2020 NBA Draft actually happens, James Wiseman will be more than 11 months removed from playing in a competitive basketball environment and nearly 18 months removed from the last real opportunity NBA front office types had to evaluate him in extended, competitive settings.

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He’s hardly an unknown, mind you. He played in the McDonald’s All-American game, the Jordan Brand Classic and Nike Hoop Summit. More importantly, at least for evaluation purposes, he participated in the typically-intense practices for those events. All of his games from the Nike EYBL heading into his senior season in high school can be found on Synergy. He’s been involved with USA Basketball dating as far back as the U-16s.

But part of the reason that the NBA instituted the one-and-done rule in the first place was because you can only get so much out of evaluating elite prospects against high school competition. While college basketball and the NBA are very different, there is value in seeing how these players pick up concepts, how they work within a structured offense and defense, how they adjust to the way defenses play them as their strengths and weaknesses show up on film, whether or not they can accept the role they are being asked to play, how they handle the pressure of competition that comes with high major college basketball.

That’s not the only reason — letting schools pick up the tab for a year of development is certainly a major part of it, as is having control over a player’s age 28 season instead of their age 18 season — but if NBA teams didn’t find value in scouting players in these settings they wouldn’t shuttle scouts and front office types all across the country to see them play live.

They didn’t get any of that with Wiseman, just like they likely won’t get any of that with Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd, Daishen Nix or anyone else that plans on taking that route. And that’s significant. Wiseman turned 19 years old on March 31st. This year of development that NBA teams are in the dark about is one of the most important periods of development for any prospect. The COVID-19 era has created a lot of unknown and uncertainty when it comes to the 2020 NBA Draft, and for my money no one will have been as impacted as James Wiseman.

As far as the actual basketball is concerned, what makes Wiseman so intriguing is his agility, mobility and athleticism given his 7-foot, 250 pound frame and 7-foot-5 wingspan. He is an elite lob target and rim runner that consistently beats defenders down the floor in transition. There aren’t many people on the planet that will be able to contest him at the rim, and when Wiseman opts to go full bully-ball, he’s dominant.

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The problem, however, is that Wiseman does not always go full bully-ball. One of the knocks on him is that he has a tendency to drift in and out of games, that he doesn’t always utilize the physical gifts he has. Despite the very limited minutes that he played this past season for Memphis, it is still pretty easy to find clips of Wiseman opting for fadeaway jumpers instead of powering through opponents that are half-a-foot shorter than him. One of the prevailing thoughts on Wiseman is that he envisions himself as someone in the mold of Giannis, or Pascal Siakim, or even a Bam Adebayo; that he wants to be a perimeter-oriented, ball-handling big.

And to be frank, there is some skill there. He can make shots out to about 15 feet, and that was before the 11 month layoff he’s had to improve his game. He’s a good post scorer with the ability to play facing-up. He can handle the ball a little bit and create for himself. But there is a significant difference between being capable of something and being good enough that an NBA organization is going to build a game-plan, let alone a franchise, around it.

I think the key to Wiseman’s career is going to depend on what he envisions himself to be and the way that he carries himself as a professional. I’ll start with the latter. Scouts have had questions about his competitive drive and how much he loves the game for years. He has a tendency to coast through games, playing like he’s in cruise control for stretches. The fact that he left Memphis midway through the season helped reinforce this belief to doubters.

But leaving was also completely understandable given the context of his suspension and the way the school handled it. And if you remember, Deandre Ayton had some of these same concerns coming out of high school. No one is asking those questions after he became the first player in NBA history under 22 years old not named Shaq to average 19 points, 12 boards and 1.5 blocks.

Sometimes, big men aren’t entirely motivated to play when the competition physically cannot compare.

The other part of it is something that I already mentioned. Wiseman, for years, has been intent on showcasing what he can do playing on the perimeter, and while he is certainly skilled for a 19-year old 7-footer, he is not what you would consider skilled for a basketball player. He doesn’t have a great feel away from the basket, his shooting stroke is a little wonky and he’s not a great passer.

Where he should thrive is as a defender. All the physical tools are there for Wiseman to develop into one of the best defensive centers in the NBA, and while he found himself out of position at times as a freshman, that is hardly uncommon for freshmen big men early in the season. He’ll get better on that end as he gets coached up, and his ability as a lob target means that there already is a role he can play in an NBA offense.

Put another way, if he decides that he is going to follow in the mold of Myles Turner, I think he’ll be a very, very good pro. Turner is in his fifth season in the league, has been a starter on playoff teams since midway through his rookie season, is one of the best defensive players in the league and is averaging 12.7 points, 6.7 boards and 2.1 blocks for his career.

If he embraces the defensive side of the ball and buys into being a rim runner, a lob target and a guy that punishes switches while occasionally taking opposing bigs away from the basket, I think Myles Turner is his floor. In that scenario, in the 2020 NBA Draft James Wiseman has the highest floor and ceiling combination.

But that’s a big ‘if,’ and a question only James Wiseman can give us an answer to.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.