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Writing off Warriors' James Wiseman after his torn meniscus? You're dead wrong — here's why

SF Gate logo SF Gate 4/16/2021 Rod Benson
a person on a court © Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

When I was James Wiseman's age, I was a sophomore basketball player at Cal. The season prior in 2002, I was on the “Gold Squad,” which consisted of the backups and the walk-ons who ran the scout offense and occasionally saw game time. I thought my sophomore year would be the moment I got to the “Blue Squad,” but instead I was demoted even further. We had just acquired one of Cal's greatest recruiting classes ever: Leon Powe, Ayinde Ubaka, Dominic McGuire and Marquise Kately. They were all immediately thrust into starring roles.

The telltale sign of the demotion was getting tossed the mesh jerseys for players who were only tasked with running the scout offense at practice. When the mesh jerseys came out, David Paris looked at me and said, “Man, these some grimy jerseys. I guess we on the grimy team now.” I took it as a sign that Cal wasn't going to be the program for me going forward. I called my mom to let her know that I was interested in transferring. My mom told me that wasn’t going to happen, and to “figure it out, ‘cause you're not leaving.”

I listened to her, but I also figured I had nothing left to lose and something had to change. The next day, I made an (irrational) decision: I was going to slap the first teammate I saw. This wasn’t smart thinking, but it was the best thing I could come up with to shake things up.

So that’s exactly what I did. I entered the code for the locker room, opened the door, tapped a player who was facing away from me on the shoulder (who shall remain nameless) and before he could fully turn around, I slapped the s—t out of him. Everyone went silent for at least a full bar of the 50 Cent song that was playing. Once the shock wore off, the nameless player proceeded to beat me up because I wasn't really prepared for a fight. But I gotta say, the slap made me a wild card, and nobody really got in my way again.

My wild card status paid dividends on the court, too. Here I was in this stupid mesh grimy jersey, but I was talking hella trash. I started hitting people. I was always matched up with Amit Tamir so he got the brunt of it. I’d steal the ball from him, dribble to the other end, dunk it, kick the ball into the stands and scream directly at the coaching staff to GIVE ME MY DAMN MINUTES. I was writing “grimy” on my shoes at the end of every game I didn’t play. My shoes were covered within weeks. Soon enough, I was showing pro-level flashes that I carried for the rest of my career. It was an abrupt transition, and an overcorrection for sure, but it led me to a style of game that was entirely my own. I was eventually able to take that game and fit in with every team I played for in the NBA D-League, Korean Basketball League and other stops. It’s not like these were skills that were taught to me. They were almost acquired like I was in a video game, unburdening myself from teachings that held me back.

I tell the slap story to highlight that in basketball, every player has to find their own game, and it ain’t a pretty process. In fact, it’s often a rejection of someone else's idea for how your game is supposed to look. And I believe that as James Wiseman rehabs and recovers from his torn meniscus, he has an opportunity to unlock his own "grimy" potential and come back as a star next season.


Video: Report: Warriors rookie James Wiseman to get surgery on torn meniscus later this week (SMG)

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Wiseman was averaging 11.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 21.4 minutes before his season-ending injury against the Houston Rockets. His numbers, on a per minute basis, met or exceeded many of Dwight Howard’s rookie numbers. Wiseman’s 0.7 assists per game are a bit worrisome, since the Warriors have an offense predicated on ball movement, but what’s wild is he's spent his rookie campaign showcasing a dumbed-down, undefined version of his skill set. He essentially played like he was Festus Ezeli and a lot less like he was Kevin Garnett.

During the Warriors-Bucks broadcast a few weeks ago, TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal was applauding Wiseman, highlighting plays where he looked like Andrew Bogut. Andrew. Bogut. It’s not that Bogut wasn't a good NBA player with a long career, it’s that Wiseman has the potential to be so much more. Thing is, Shaq wasn’t totally off-base: In his current head space, in the current iteration of this Dubs’ offense, Wiseman can really only be a Bogut. Such a sharp difference in expectations versus reality would leave anyone feeling less confident.

Even before his injury, Wiseman's transition to the pros was unusually fraught. It’s incredibly rare in modern pro sports for a high draft pick to end up on an established team. What’s even rarer is for that team to have a system as heady as the Warriors’ scheme. While there may not be a ton of plays, the intuitive nature of it all makes it one of the toughest schemes to comprehend, and that’s doubly true for a rookie. When I was at training camp with the New Jersey Nets, I legitimately never understood what the hell we were doing. It didn’t matter because I was the last guy on the roster, but it was an offense designed solely for Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter. Even that system had less movement than the Warriors. They don’t have a plug-and-play offense. It requires incredibly basketball-savvy players to work. Not only that, but most of the desired outcomes of their offense are quick-trigger threes and layups via backdoor cuts. It’s not exactly the kind of halfcourt offense that allows a player with a true inside-out game to thrive.

To his credit, coach Steve Kerr has commented on what's become an obvious issue, and before Wiseman went down, Kerr was making adjustments to the offense to incorporate more pick-and-roll action. The problem is that Kerr’s pick-and-roll development came late in the season, and after Wiseman rehabs and returns to action for 2021-22, the offense will mostly revert back to what it was previously. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Steph Curry know Kerr's offense and love it. It’s clear that the Warriors believe in Wiseman, but like all established systems, they are prisoners of their own success and don’t know how to completely reinvent themselves for a new talent.

I’ve seen Kerr and Green work with Wiseman during games, and the results have been well-meaning but so-so. One game, I heard a mic'd up Green tell Wiseman that he likes his mid-range shots but he likes his drives to the basket even more. Afterwards, when Wiseman took a mid-range shot, it looked awkward and missed by a mile. When a player begins to overprocess, the words they’re taking in end up jumbled. Anyone who has ever tried to fix their broken golf swing can attest that the other three guys in the foursome aren’t helping, no matter how good they are.

In lieu of significant, sustained changes to the Dubs’ offense, which seems unlikely, Wiseman’s best bet to achieving his potential as he prepares for next season is to unlock his version of grimy. I am not recommending he slap someone, although if he slapped Draymond Green and said, “Gimme the damn ball!” I could see Dray, sporting a bloody lip, responding, “What took you so long?!” I’m also not recommending Wiseman purposefully alter his personality and turn into a headache. But he does need to tune everything out and think about what kind of NBA player he wants to become.

It’s on Wiseman to determine which parcels of information he appreciates, and which he should ignore. That’s hard for a young player, but it’s imperative that he gets there. Kerr’s advice is solid and right. So is Green’s. So is Curry’s. But for Wiseman to reach stardom, he has to use this recovery time to redefine what’s “right” to him, and he'll have to keep in mind that this decision might rub some the wrong way. He must proceed as if the franchise is on his back — which it will be sooner than later — and he has the power to slap people into accepting the best, most confident version of his game. If Wiseman were in Minnesota, he’d be able to fumble his way to stardom with no consequences. In Golden State, he still needs to fumble to stardom despite the consequences.

To the Warriors fans who have been quick to label Wiseman as lacking confidence, or proclaiming that he doesn't fit with the team? You're wrong and you're short-sighted. I don't fault you for being short-sighted because you won championships recently and you're hoping that the window is still open for another Curry-Thompson-Green title. But I guarantee if you try to rush Wiseman into being Bogut, he won’t access his grimy side and he won't be good enough to take you where you want to go. He needs to find his own game on his own terms and not give a damn if you don’t like it.

You had Adonal Foyle for like, 15 years. You’ll be fine to wait this one out a little bit longer.

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