Story by Connor Letourneau | April 3, 2021 (SFChronicle.com)
At least once a day, Warriors center James Wiseman sits in his room as he stares at a notebook with words and images that represent his goals: All-Star. Defensive Player of the Year. NBA champion. MVP. Hall of Famer.
For about 10 minutes, Wiseman imagines his fully realized self, a process of visualization he started a couple of months ago. He’d read that Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan considered it a driving force behind their greatness. Wiseman, who was struggling with the speed and physicality of NBA games, wanted to be an all-time great. He was 19. He had a plan.
This is the second installment of “Wiseman’s Way,” a series chronicling James Wiseman’s rookie season with the Warriors.
“If you look at something every day, you can actually manifest it,” Wiseman said. “You just look at it every day, and that gives you motivation to keep moving toward that certain objective.”
Wiseman, who turned 20 on Wednesday, often gets frustrated by how far he is from some of his goals. His obsession with film study hasn’t kept him from botching box-outs or defensive rotations 35 games into his rookie season. For all his immense physical tools, Wiseman has yet to prove he can be a key part of a winning NBA team.
The narratives have been critical, with fans and analysts bemoaning the Warriors’ decision to draft him over LaMelo Ball, a national sensation and Rookie of the Year front-runner for Charlotte before he suffered a potentially season-ending wrist injury two weeks ago. But they also tend to overlook Wiseman’s unenviable acclimation to the NBA. The preseason lost to a positive coronavirus test. The 11 games sidelined by a sprained left wrist. The additional three games spent in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
James Wiseman warms up before the Warriors’ game against the the Philadelphia 76ers at Chase Center in San Francisco, on March 23. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle
Wiseman has tried to stay off social media, but he’s well aware that many believe he won’t make good on his predraft hype. A recent ESPN report suggested that his role had become a “source of organizational tension.” While some think trial-by-fire situations would only help Wiseman’s development, others are adamant that he should be eased into a heavy workload.
Such scrutiny can’t compare, however, to the pressure he puts on himself. A self-described perfectionist, Wiseman has become so consumed with chasing greatness that his closest confidants worry he is losing perspective. His mother, Donzaleigh Artis, and sister, Jaquarius Greer, remind him daily that he is in a league of grown men. Struggles were inevitable.
What comforts Steve Kerr is that Wiseman has all the hallmarks of a perennial All-Star: the talent, the work ethic, the drive. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, the Warriors head coach believes Wiseman will get the breakthrough he is seeking.
“He’s going to be amazing,” Kerr said. “We all just have to be patient.”
James Wiseman (33) attempts to block the Lakers’ Montrezl Harrell at Chase Center on March 15. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle
Last month, after watching Wiseman foul out in a blowout loss to the Lakers, Artis awoke at 9 a.m. to meet him in the parking lot before his coronavirus test. Sitting in the passenger seat of Wiseman’s black Ford F-150, Artis blared a hip-hop song as she sang along. Wiseman chuckled.
Artis, a retired school bus driver and gas station attendant who now lives five floors below her son at a luxury apartment complex in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, considers it her job to keep Wiseman positive. But in a season rife with setbacks, his good times have seldom lasted long.
The following night, Artis could hear the melancholy in his voice as he explained over the phone that he wouldn’t be traveling with the team for his homecoming games in Memphis. Wiseman had entered the league’s health and safety protocols because a team staffer with whom he shared a table had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“He’s going to be amazing. We all just have to be patient.”
After quarantining in his Houston hotel room for two nights, Wiseman would fly back to San Francisco, where he’d continue to self-isolate for five days. This devastated Wiseman, whose mom had spent weeks arranging Warriors-Grizzlies tickets for more than 40 friends and relatives. Her hotel and flights already booked, Artis flew to Memphis anyway, spending much of her two-day trip commiserating with Greer about how much they wished Wiseman were there.
“This season is beginning to be just so disappointing,” Artis said. “Every time he takes two steps forward, they push him back nine steps.”
Wiseman knew when he left the University of Memphis after only 69 minutes of playing time that he’d face a steep learning curve in the NBA. What he couldn’t have predicted, however, was that a global pandemic would present numerous more challenges.
The draft was pushed back five months, which forced the NBA to cancel summer leagues and condense training camps. After he missed the Warriors’ three preseason exhibitions because of a positive coronavirus test, Wiseman arrived early to practices and stayed late studying film, only to suffer a wrist injury in late January that sidelined him nearly a month.
By the time Wiseman entered the league’s health and safety protocols two weeks ago, he had made an agreement with his mom and sister that they’d all take a break from social media. Tweets and Instagram posts about Wiseman, decidedly complimentary at the start of the season, had turned negative. A rash of poor performances prompted calls for the Warriors to trade their “bust.”
“He’s always been so hard on himself. But when I talk to him, I just remind him, ‘You’re right on track. Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.’ ”
From time to time, Kerr invited Wiseman to his hotel room, where he reminded him that all the lessons learned this season would fuel long-term gains. Warriors teammates Stephen Curry and Draymond Green also tried to comfort Wiseman with stories about how they were benched as rookies.
Among rookies, Wiseman ranks tied for first in blocks (1 per game), second in rebounding (5.8 per game), fourth in shooting percentage (51.2) and fifth in scoring (11.5 points per game). But he is just 12th in minutes (21.8 per game), which is on pace to be the lowest for a No. 2 overall pick since Hasheem Thabeet in 2009-10. The reason isn’t complicated: The Warriors have played better without him. According to NBA.com, they have outscored opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions with Wiseman on the bench — a far cry from the 9.6 points per 100 possessions they’ve been outscored by when he’s on the floor.
Stephen Curry tries to fire up James Wiseman in fourth quarter of the Warriors’ 119-104 loss to the New York Knicks at Chase Center on Jan. 21. | Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle
Out of 250 qualifying players on FiveThirtyEight’s player-ranking system, Wiseman is 249th. Perhaps most concerning, though, is his inability to complement the face of the franchise. Wiseman has yet to figure out where and how to find Curry — a tricky proposition for any newcomer acclimating to his frenetic playing style. The Warriors average 103.2 points per 100 possessions when Curry shares the floor with Wiseman, but that number spikes to 117.3 points per 100 possessions when Curry is on the floor with any other center.
By announcing last week that Wiseman would start the rest of the season, Kerr showed that he’s prioritizing the center’s development over making the playoffs. Still, Wiseman said he feels like a failure sometimes.
Two months ago, when Ball’s highlight-worthy passes and gaudy stats were becoming a national story line, Wiseman found himself checking his fellow rookie’s box scores after games. Coaches and family members told him that centers take longer to acclimate to the NBA than guards, that his time was coming. It did little to lessen the sting: The player drafted one spot after him was outplaying him.
“Not going to lie, I was thinking about all of that at first,” Wiseman said. “But after a while, I got to the point where I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to worry about myself. God knows I already have enough to occupy my mind, anyway.’ ”
Warriors rookie James Wiseman stands by the window in his apartment in San Francisco on March 28. Photographer’s note: To adhere to the NBA’s coronavirus precautions, this photo was made from a remote camera held by Wiseman’s assistant inside the apartment while the photographer, looking at a computer outside, triggered the frame. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle
Each morning, before he brushes his teeth or changes his clothes, Wiseman opens the Calm app on his iPhone and lets his mind go blank as he listens to guided meditations.
For nearly two years, introspection has been a part of his daily routine. The summer before Wiseman’s freshman year at Memphis, he watched a YouTube video of his idol, Bryant, talking about the power of meditation. Wiseman started using the app and zoning out to low-frequency beats online, anything to help him stop overthinking.
Wiseman considers that just one of many ways the late Bryant has helped him. Though Wiseman never met Bryant, beyond a quick handshake at a Nike camp during Wiseman’s junior year of high school, he has tried to follow Bryant’s blueprint for greatness.
In addition to watching almost every Bryant interview he could find on YouTube, Wiseman has read Bryant’s “Wizenard Series” of children’s books. Whenever Wiseman needs inspiration, he revisits Bryant’s autobiography, “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play.”
One chapter, on Bryant’s struggles adjusting to life in the NBA as a 17-year-old straight out of high school, particularly resonated with Wiseman. Bryant averaged just 7.6 points per game on 41.7% shooting as a rookie, and he didn’t have to deal with the physicality of the league’s best centers. Another one of Wiseman’s idols, power forward Kevin Garnett, scored fewer points as a 19-year-old rookie than Wiseman is currently averaging — despite significantly more playing time.
“He’s always been so hard on himself,” said Thomas Coleman, Wiseman’s childhood coach. “But when I talk to him, I just remind him, ‘You’re right on track. Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.’”
While training for the draft in Miami, Wiseman started making hip-hop beats on his computer. In recent months, when the stress of basketball began to wear on him, he recorded a few raps over his instrumentals. The writing process served as a sort of therapy for Wiseman, whose lyrics deal with everything from fame to his Christian faith.
Warriors rookie James Wiseman reads from the “Wizenard Series Season One” book in his apartment in San Francisco on March 28. Photographer’s note: To adhere to the NBA’s coronavirus precautions, this photo was made from a remote camera held by Wiseman’s assistant inside the apartment while the photographer, looking at a computer outside, triggered the frame. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle
Warriors rookie James Wiseman plays some beats he created on his laptop in his apartment in San Francisco on March 28, 2021. Photographer’s note: To adhere to the NBA’s coronavirus precautions, this photo was made from a remote camera held by Wiseman’s assistant inside the apartment while the photographer, looking at a computer outside, triggered the frame. | Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle
With many churches closed because of the pandemic, he has taken to reading the Bible every night before bed. His favorite book is Philippians; those passages on overcoming personal challenges have helped him this season. Some nights, when scripture isn’t enough to ease his racing mind, Wiseman shoots Artis a text: “You up? Can I come down?”
At the start of the All-Star break last month, Wiseman was eager to relax with his mom. One night, while playing the tile game Rummikub with Artis, Wiseman realized he’d forgotten to take a league-mandated coronavirus test.
The oversight received national attention and raised questions about his professionalism. After Wiseman was forced to sit out a practice and three quarters of a game against the Clippers, he started arriving to the testing center more than an hour before his appointment, just to make sure he had no problems.
“I want to be one of the greatest to ever play. If you just visualize what you want to do, it comes to pass nine out of 10 times. Actually, scratch that — all of the time.”
This ability to learn from his mistakes is part of why those who know him best aren’t worried about his rookie struggles. As a sophomore at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Wiseman, already 6-foot-10, looked overwhelmed against his 6-3 defender from Brentwood Academy, finishing with as many turnovers (seven) as points (seven) in a blowout state semifinals loss.
The memory of that performance motivated Wiseman for the next two years. To improve his ball-handling, he dribbled a tennis ball while walking the halls between classes. Instead of chatting with friends at lunch, Wiseman retreated to the computer lab, where he studied highlights from the previous day’s NBA games. After practices, he lifted weights for over an hour.
Chronicle photographer Carlos Gonzalez had to find a creative way to photograph Warriors rookie center James Wiseman while respecting the NBA COVID-19 safety protocols. Media: Carlos Avila Gonzales / The Chronicle
By his senior season at East High in Memphis, Wiseman was bullying undersized defenders on his way to Gatorade National Player of the Year honors. Even though high school is nothing compared to the NBA, he is sure that, as long as he keeps imagining what he could become, he’ll dominate this level soon enough.
“I want to be one of the greatest to ever play,” Wiseman said. “If you just visualize what you want to do, it comes to pass nine out of 10 times.
“Actually, scratch that — all of the time.”