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Picked and Rolled: A closer look at James Wiseman playing defense

Drop vs. blitz? Man vs. help? Wiseman’s defense is always an adventure

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

At the trade deadline, the Detroit Pistons made the curious move to go out and take James Wiseman off the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman, a 7-footer with bounce, has always been more of a mirage, a flicker of unrealized potential more likely to lure franchises parched for difference-makers rather than anyone resembling a player who can make tangible contributions on the basketball court.

Wiseman has found success in a limited role on offense, but he’s seemed absolutely lost on defense so far as a pro. While the fan base ponders just what Troy Weaver was thinking when swapping out the high ceiling and low floor of Wiseman for the more productive, but ultimately low ceiling of Saddiq Bey, I think it all comes down to what Wiseman can develop into on defense. That’s why I watched every easily identifiable defensive possession Wiseman took part in as a member of the Warriors.

Win Now and Win Later in GSW

First, though, let’s remember how we arrived here. Wiseman was the second overall pick in a pretty good 2020 draft class, went to a champion team coming off an injury-ravaged lost season (a bit like Tim Duncan landing in San Antonio all those years ago).

Golden State have famously espoused a “two timelines” strategy over the last few years. The plan being to contend with a stable of stars while also quietly developing a bridge into the future through developmental drafting and chasing unpolished gemstones.

That secondary notion led them to picking Wiseman over the surer thing in LaMelo Ball, as well as picking up other pieces along the way in Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Well, at the deadline, the Warriors jettisoned their first foray into their dual reality approach, plonking Wiseman in relative obscurity in Detroit, the hope being that with a fresh start, away from the bright lights of a championship contender, Wiseman will be able to get the precious repetitions his stifled game so desperately needs.

Wiseman is a tantalizing offensive prospect in theory. He has bounce to act as a lob threat, as well as promises of soft touch on the inside. He hasn’t exhibited much of a jump shot, shooting under 40% on limited attempts in the midrange, and 32.5% from three on 40 career attempts.

A Defensive Dud or an Untapped Resource?

But I’m more interested in him defensively. The Pistons have struggled on that end of the court for years, to put it mildly, and Wiseman’s athleticism, in theory, allows him to be a shot-blocking presence if nothing else. Based on my interactions with regular Warriors watchers though, that isn’t exactly the case, and his defensive reputation is downright nonexistent.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Detroit Pistons David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, Wiseman has had limited burn this season, especially in minutes that actually matter, so the dataset isn’t exactly mammoth here, so please do not worry about my mental state, it wasn’t that much to sift through.

Long-winded intro aside, I went and watched every defensive possession which resulted in a made two-point basket, missed two-point basket, blocked shot and forced turnover with Wiseman as the closest defender so you don’t have to, and here’s what I found.

A note before we start, all film is courtesy of The High-Low. These numbers are the result of manual logging and some discretion and judgement on my part. Also a note that these numbers are based on Wiseman as a primary defender as logged by the system, so some instances of secondary defense and block-chasing will be missed.

By my research, we have 99 defensive possessions to go off for Wiseman. Of those 99 possessions, 55 resulted in a made basket for the opposition. Of those 55 makes, 44 were in a half-court setting, which is what I’m most interested in. The other 11 buckets were in various states of transition, which is highly variable.

The main point of this was to see how Wiseman deals with different defensive coverages, namely when faced with a pick and roll where he is guarding the screener, or other screen situations (namely off ball). Based on my strenuous number crunching, Wiseman dealt with screen situations on 47 half court possessions, of which 31 resulted in a made basket.

That’s obviously a high percentage of makes, so how does Wiseman defend screen situations? Of these 47 possessions, 39 were defended in drop coverage. The purpose of drop coverage is obviously to allow big men to be able to hedge by half covering the roll man while still slowing down the ball handler coming off the screen. This allows the on-ball defender to either recover to their man, or switch.

The drop coverage has its benefits, but it’s at its core a very passive style of defense. A good pick-and-roll operator will be able to create enough time and space to work a very make-able mid-range shot or floater, or create enough hesitation to force an angle for a drop pass.

There’s a bit going on here. First it’s a pretty pathetic effort from Anthony Lamb to fight through a limp Ben Simmons screen. That being said, Wiseman has to recognize the shooter that Curry is, and he simply can’t allow that space in the mid range. Tough shot aside, Wiseman needs to step up here to force Curry into a drive situation.

Against the Pistons here, we see a standard pick and roll between Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart. The scouting report here, I would imagine, would be to force Killian to go right and force him out of his comfort zone of those little mid-range pullups. It’s a pretty deep pick and roll, starting inside the arc, and yet Wiseman sags all the way back to the hoop, neither stopping Killian or cutting off a passing angle to Stewart, which remains available the entire time.

Slightly different wrinkle here as Wiseman guards the handoff, but it effectively turns into the standard pick and roll action. Again, in this drop-style coverage, Wiseman takes a weird angle, not putting any doubt in Herro ambling down the lane for an easy floater.

When a big man defends in a drop coverage in a pick and roll, the idea is generally to stop looks right at the basket. The primary responsibility is always the man with the ball, and there is usually a point at which the big man steps up and contests.

In the examples I’ve shown here, Wiseman is very passive in his angles, really unsure of his positioning and reads, resulting in him usually being a step late or out of position, allowing a high percentage of makes out of these looks.

Obviously, as has been discussed at length by Warriors coaches and players, Wiseman simply doesn’t have the reps under his belt that it takes to learn defense at the NBA level. Defense as much as anything is trial by fire, and no amount of film study and defensive principles compensate for actual in game mistakes.

That all being said, I didn’t want this to be a totally negative spin on Wiseman’s defense because there are things he does do well on that side of the ball.

Wiseman is a good athlete with quick feet. While playing in drop coverage is largely instinctive and based on discipline garnered through experience, his man-to-man defense has been a lot better. Of the 40 possessions, I counted where Wiseman was the primary defender in a half-court setting that resulted in a missed FG, steal or block, only 14 of those were playing drop coverage.

As a man defender in these scenarios, there were also 14 possessions, and the film is more promising. The Pistons do play a very switch-heavy defensive scheme (which I could write another 2000 words about, but another day maybe), and they rely on their big men being able to stay in front of, and contest, perimeter players. Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren have largely done ok in that regard, but how does Wiseman fare in man settings?

Let’s start with a rep against the reigning two-time (and possibly three-time) MVP Nikola Jokic. I know this goes against everything I said about switching and defending perimeter players because, as good as Jokic is, he is not a “perimeter player.”

Anyway, Jokic doesn’t use quickness to get to the rim, he uses craftiness and sheer bulk. Watch as Wiseman meets him out top to take away the three, and take a few beefy hits on the bull moose drive that knock him slightly off kilter. What impresses me about this rep is the strength to not be completely thrown off, and the impressive recovery, using all his length (and some well timed help from Draymond Green) to bother Jokic’s shot at the rim.

How about some good post defense against Anthony Davis? Again, Wiseman shows strength I didn’t know he had to not allow any ground against Davis, forcing him into a tricky turnaround fadeaway jumper. Again, the best thing I can highlight is the length of Wiseman, with his reported 7-foot-6 wingspan allowing him to significantly hamper Davis’ ability to get a clean look off.

Finally, let’s see Wiseman in some help situations, where it’s all about pure athleticism, timing and instinct. In this example, Wiseman does a good job of not overcommitting and chasing the block too early, allowing his man to roll unattended to the hoop. Wiseman works on a string with Lamb, who helps the helper by covering Mitchell Robinson as the roll man. Wiseman allows Jordan Poole to slow down RJ Barrett enough before timing his contest perfectly.

Finally, a strong vertical contest from Wiseman, absorbing contact against an athletic, if not out of control, Jaden Ivey drive. Wiseman is somewhat helped by terrible spacing here as Ivey drives right into Duren’s space before the big man has time to vacate, but it’s still good defensive discipline from Wiseman to use all of his length to make the shot borderline impossible, rather than chasing a block and risking an unnecessary foul.

In conclusion, it’s clear that in terms of a system, Wiseman is sorely lacking the repetitions needed to build a strong base of defensive discipline, as exemplified by the poor interior defense when playing in a drop coverage.

The NBA is a pick and roll league, and with the Pistons diet of heavy switching, teams will continue to abuse this action until the team shows they can stop it. The bad news is this will likely mean lots of ugly mistakes, fouls, and lapses in concentration.

The good news is it provides invaluable on the job training that cannot be replicated in an empty gym or on a whiteboard. Wiseman should absolutely be viewing these next 20 odd games as an opportunity to gain familiarity in a defensive system while knowing the situation allows him to play the minutes he needs.

It’s not all bad though as we saw, with Wiseman displaying some promising film both as a single man defender against drives and post ups, while displaying the elite athleticism and timing to excel as a help side defender.

There’s going to be more bad than good with Wiseman right now, especially defensively. I’ll be paying attention keenly.

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