Explaining the Warriors’ decision to send James Wiseman to the G League

SAN FRANCISCO —Steve Kerr delivered the news of the night toward the end of his postgame press conference on Monday. James Wiseman, who’d just played nine mop-up minutes to finish off the Warriors’ 132-95 get-right blowout of the Spurs, was heading to the G League in an attempt to get his early career on track.

Wiseman will go to Santa Cruz on Tuesday. He will practice there this week and is expected to be available for their home game on Saturday night against the South Bay Lakers. They play again next Monday and Tuesday. It’ll be an indefinite stint for the third-year center.

“We will keep him there for an extended period to get really good practice time and some games,” Kerr said. “It’s not going to be one game and come back. We want to give him 10 straight days, something like that.”

Absent of draft context, this shouldn’t land as a stunner. Wiseman is 21, coming off an elongated rehab for a tricky meniscus injury and finds himself buried on the bench after 10 ineffective games to open the season. He needs live reps and can’t get them for a win-now Warriors team attempting to right itself following a wobbly 6-8 start. The G League is designed for this exact situation. The Warriors once sent Jordan Poole there under similar circumstances and he blossomed.

But Poole was drafted 28th overall. Wiseman was drafted second in 2020, between Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball. That carries with it an added weight and level of scrutiny that may leave many in the basketball community shocked that Wiseman, early in his third season, is heading to the NBA’s minor leagues.

This was a center who started and scored 18 and 19 points in his first two career games, the prospect who Joe Lacob called a “once-in-a-decade” talent, the player who will make $12.1 million next season, multiplied by eight on the Warriors’ rocketing tax bill.

“This is part of his journey,” Kerr said. “Everybody has a different one. Part of him is that he barely played any basketball before he got to the NBA. Then he had a major injury.”

Wiseman opened this season in the rotation, but he was dragging down every lineup combination. It’s difficult for young big men to hide defensively if they’re unable to execute schemes and protect the paint without fouling. Opponents targeted Wiseman. The Warriors have a 124.1 defensive rating in his 147 minutes this season. It became unsustainable for a contender to keep him in the rotation.

So Kerr plucked him. The reworked second unit without Wiseman had its best game of the season in Monday’s blowout of the Spurs. Kerr had Wiseman playing next to JaMychal Green in the opening weeks, but has since decided that JaMychal is better utilized as a center who can stretch the floor in combinations that should help Jordan Poole, who busted out for 36 points in a spot start for Klay Thompson.

Wiseman’s absence also cleared the way for Jonathan Kuminga to reappear. Kuminga is slowly edging his way more into the current plans. He had 15 points in 24 minutes on Monday night, hitting a couple of 3s, leaking out for a transition dunk from Steph Curry and playing with more defensive focus. The Warriors were a plus-24 with him on the floor.

Anthony Lamb will also remain a part of the frontcourt picture. He made five 3s against the Spurs and called himself a “connector” within Kerr’s motion system, a style that fits his game.

It’s a concerning long-term development for the Warriors that Lamb, discarded by the Rockets and added late in camp on a two-way contract, has so clearly leaped Wiseman in the current win-now pecking order. But they can’t ignore reality, force Wiseman into a failing rotation or glue him to the bench. The best option is the obvious option — an extended G League stint similar to the one Poole took in the middle of his second season, emerging as a far more polished product after a month in the bubble.

But the better comparison may be an early career Kevon Looney. I caught Looney outside his locker postgame on Monday night and he reminded me that he was sent to the G League for three separate stints in his first three NBA seasons.

“I played probably 10 games my first year,” Looney said. “Six or seven my second year. Then probably two my third year.”

Looney understood the assignment his rookie season. He was coming back from major hip surgery, had rehabbed a ton down in Santa Cruz and wanted to ease back into game action. The G League was the perfect place, away from the spectacle of the Warriors, on their way to an NBA record 73 wins.

The G League assignment his second season landed harsher. He’d been in the rotation and then pulled from it. It was the first Kevin Durant season. He thought he was ready for more extended opportunity, but the Warriors opted for Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and the more veteran options.

“I was more frustrated,” Looney said. “I started up here. I was playing. Then I was out of the rotation. I’m down there. I’m thinking, ‘You know, I feel like I’m doing good enough to still be with the team, still in the game.’ So I was frustrated. My pride was a little hurt. I worked so hard to get back. I’d had a good summer.”

Looney has become one of the wise voices in the Warriors’ current locker room. He understands the coldest truths about the business more than most. The Warriors didn’t even pick up his fourth year option and have tried to replace him several times over the years, including, most obviously, with the drafting of Wiseman, gifting him Looney’s starting spot without even a training camp practice or preseason game played .

Looney mentors Wiseman. Like Poole — who spent several minutes postgame in an animated discussion with Wiseman in the locker room — Looney can tell his NBA story and the bumps overcome along the way. But even Looney, considered among the league’s most professional players, admits he was ticked off when he was given that early career G League assignment. So he can imagine how it might land with Wiseman.

“It’s really difficult,” Looney said. “Especially when you’re a high pick. You got all these expectations. You’re coming off injury. You want to prove yourself to all the doubters. You see all your peers doing well, everyone talking about how good they are and you feel like you’re just as good and things aren’t coming as fast. It makes it frustrating.”

Wiseman spoke with reporters briefly on Monday night. He kept his answers short and formulaic, saying it was a chance for him to go down and “just hoop” and repeating the Poole line that it wasn’t “a demotion.” This is clearly a difficult situation for him to absorb, but he accepted the assignment.

“The outside noise is what will make it tough,” Poole said. “It’s everybody’s opinion. Everybody has something to say. Honestly no one cares what they think. James is going to have to be laser focused. We know that he is. He’s a special talent. He’s gifted. He’s humble. He has all the right tools to be successful. I’m going to tell him to go down there and shoot 50 shots, be aggressive, get techs, hang on the rim, do it all. Just so he can understand what he wants to be at the highest level.”

Wiseman’s future with the Warriors has been thrown into increasing question. It’s clear that their current rotation is lacking stable veterans. Wiseman’s long-term upside and rookie contract control could still be appealing on the open market for a rebuilding team to take a swing. That chatter is sure to bubble in the coming months.

But situations change. When Looney spent time in the G League, his days with the Warriors seemed numbered, his replacements already on the roster. Looney is currently in his eighth season with the franchise, outlasting all the bigs who had bigger priorities. When Poole was sent to the G League, his future in the league appeared in question. He just signed a four-year, $123 million extension.

It’s unclear where the Wiseman story goes, but both sides have agreed that a stop in Santa Cruz is the logical next step in his growth curve.

(Photo: Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)


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