2020 NBA Draft: Getting to Know James Wiseman
Prospect research associate for Babcock Hoops, Grant Aqui, took a deep dive into learning about prospect James Wiseman from the Memphis Tigers. He shared what he learned about Wiseman’s story of transferring schools in high school, moving from Nashville to Memphis, his suspension early in the season, and subsequent departure from the Memphis team, plus more.
In recent weeks, I have taken a look at Saddiq Bey and Elijah Hughes, unheralded prospects, and late bloomers. The story of James Wiseman is perhaps the polar opposite in the form of recognition, but yet still equally as misunderstood. Standing 7’1” with a 7’6” wingspan and the agility of a wing player, it’s extremely easy to immediately understand the appeal of Wiseman on a basketball court; but with over a 4.0 GPA, fluency in Mandarin, and infectious charisma, it’s easy to understand the appeal of Wiseman off the basketball court, too. James Wiseman has been perhaps the most scrutinized player in this draft class. Often referred to as “Big Ticket JW,” the center of the Memphis Tigers and center of an NCAA investigation, Wiseman left scouts with only three college games to evaluate. The resulting landscape: one of the more misconstrued prospects in the 2020 NBA draft. Prior to taking a deep dive into Wiseman, I hoped to be able to remove some of the mystery surrounding the talented big man. I’d like to share with you what I have learned.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee on March 31st, 2001, Wiseman was raised by his mother Donzaleigh Artis. Standing as a skinny 6’9”, 200lbs power forward in the 2015-2016 season, James’ high school career began at the Ensworth School (a prestigious K-12 private school with rigorous academics and an endowment the size of a small university) in Nashville, playing alongside future Tennessee Volunteer guard Jordan Bone, where the team went 21-12. At the end of his freshman season, Wiseman was part of the initial ESPN Freshman 25 for the 2019 high school class. For the 2016 summer grassroots circuit, Wiseman played with the St. Louis Eagles on the Nike EYBL, rising to further prominence. James returned for his sophomore year to an Ensworth team with a sudden dearth of talent with the graduation of Jordan Bone. Despite Bone’s departure, Wiseman would lead the Ensworth School to a deep run in the TSSAA (Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association) playoffs, while averaging over 19 points and 6 rebounds per game.
The summer between his sophomore and junior year is where things became extremely interesting and tumultuous for the soon-to-be lottery big man. Midway through the 2017 Nike EYBL season, Wiseman decided to make a switch mid-season from the St. Louis Eagles to Penny Hardaway’s Team Penny. At the end of the first cycle, Wiseman and Team Penny would match up against his former team on May 28th, 2017, where the St. Louis Eagles would come out victorious 71-60. At the first grassroots intermission, Wiseman would accept an invitation to represent USA Basketball at the 2017 U-16 FIBA Americas championship. James played a key role on the gold medal-winning team, averaging over 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 block in just under 18 minutes per game, starring alongside future 5-star talents Jalen Green, Vernon Carey, Jalen Suggs, Scottie Barnes, and RJ Hampton. Wiseman returned for the July recruiting period with Team Penny after his successful run with Team USA. Team Penny would go 3-2 in the July period, with Wiseman dropping a season-high 20 points in a 12 point victory against the NJ Playaz. Leading into his junior year of high school following a successful stint under the tutelage of coach Coach Todd Day and Penny Hardaway, Wiseman opted to transfer to Memphis East High School, which boasted future Tigers Alex Lomax, Malcolm Dandridge, and most importantly, the team was coached by Penny himself. With regard to his decision, Wiseman said “It was a hard decision because I wanted to stay at Ensworth because of academics. It’s way better than East. But the basketball part of it, it was better competition, so I just came here. The environment is different. At private school, it’s like way more constructive and disciplined compared to East. I just got to adjust to it. It’s kind of hard, but I’m getting better day by day.” It was there in which Wiseman became embroiled in his first eligibility controversy, this time going against the TSSAA. His eligibility fell into question under the “Coaching Link” rule, which stipulates, “If a student with an athletic record transfers to a new school where an ‘athletic coaching link’ existed in the past 12 months, that student is ineligible for 12 months at all levels in the specific sports where linkage was present...which includes playing on non-school (independent) teams (and then transferring to that coach’s school).” October 3rd, 2017, Chancellor Jim Kyle ruled in favor of Shelby Schools’ motion for an injunction challenging the TSSAA’s ineligibility ruling that would allow James (as well as teammate Ryan Boyce who transferred to East alongside Wiseman) to play in the interim. In that interim, Wiseman would average 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game, while leading Memphis East to an 8-0 record. Standing before the TSSAA alongside fellow future Tiger Ryan Boyce, Wiseman would be ruled eligible on December 13th, 2017 due to the “Coaching Link” rule between Penny and his players “not being clear in its application.” The eligibility ruling came in time for Wiseman to play in the City of Palms, where he would lead the Mustangs to a 3-1 record. East High School would end up being the 2017 class AAA champions in the TSSAA, due in no small part to Wiseman’s contributions.
Penny Hardaway would accept the Memphis job in March of 2018, and as a result, Wiseman’s Team Penny would revert back to the Bluff City Legends (the name they played under prior to Penny coming in). The 2018 Bluff City Legends were loaded with talent around the now consensus #1 recruit in the form of future Memphis Tigers D.J Jefferies and Malcolm Dandridge, as well as Oregon Duck Chandler Lawson and 2021 4-star prospect Zion Harmon. Wiseman’s AAU squad would finish one game back from being in the EYBL finals at the Peach Jam. Wiseman would also participate in the 2018 NBPA 100 camp and the Adidas uprising camp leading into his senior year. His final year with Memphis East would be quiet off the court relative to the rest of his career. The largest storyline that would loom would be his recruiting process, which came down to two schools once coached by John Calipari in Memphis and Kentucky. Wiseman ultimately decided to keep his talents in-state and play for his former coach, Penny Hardaway, committing in November of 2018. On the court, Wiseman was nothing short of sensational, leading East to a runner-up place in the state championship. James secured the title of Tennessee Mr. Basketball, Gatorade National Player of the Year, and Morgan Wootten Player of the Year while posting averages of over 25ppg, 11.5rpg, and 5bpg. Wiseman would be invited to the big-three of high school All-American games: the 2019 Jordan Brand Classic, Nike Hoop Summit, and McDonald’s All-American game. Wiseman would secure co-MVP honors of the Jordan Brand Classic alongside Cole Anthony.
Wiseman arrived at Memphis with much fanfare and hype surrounding both him and the team, as Wiseman helped bring in fellow 5 stars Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries, as well as former Duke commit ReJean “Boogie” Ellis. “When I committed to the University of Memphis, there was an old lady that started crying. I didn’t know it was that serious. She told me that she was truly blessed to see me play next season and that I brought a lot of hope back to Memphis,” Wiseman said in an interview with The Undefeated. As it is well known, on November 8th, 2019, the NCAA announced that Wiseman would be ruled ineligible to play after allegedly accepting $11,500 from Penny Hardaway to move to Memphis. Despite not being the Tigers’ coach yet, Penny qualified as a booster for Memphis after donating over $1 million to the school in 2008, thus the $11,500 financial assistance from Penny qualified as impermissible benefits. Now in a similar situation to the eligibility issues that Wiseman came across as a junior in high school, Wiseman filed for an emergency injunction that would allow him to continue playing for the Tigers in the interim. Wiseman would stay on the court while the ruling on his eligibility was deliberated, averaging nearly 20 points and 11 rebounds per game over his 3-game career as a Tiger, leading the team to a 2-1 record. His only game against notable competition, Oregon, was largely a struggle, as he endured foul trouble throughout the game and settled for contested mid-range shots instead of asserting his physical dominance. A ruling would eventually come down from the NCAA on November 20th, 2019 suspending him for 12 games, but allowing him to be reinstated if he donated the $11,500 to charity. Wiseman would remain at Memphis, but as the road schedule began to pick up, he was unable to travel with the team, which took a toll on him. At this point, he decided to leave the program to hire an agent and focus on his professional future in December of 2019. “I was really in the middle of a hurricane. That's like the worst place you could possibly be. Just having the mental agony and the suffering, crying every night because I just wanted to get on the court so much,” Wiseman told ESPN with regards to his experience during the suspension
Speaking with those around the program, Wiseman still remained close with Penny during his suspension. Wiseman did right by him and the program, calling Penny during practice one day to let him know ahead of time that he did not intend to return to the team at the end of his suspension in January. Despite being in such turmoil, James was still an extremely positive presence to the program, with one person with knowledge of the situation saying of his demeanor, “He (James) is a gentle giant and an absolute sweetheart. He’s one of those guys you really enjoy being around. You walk into the gym and he’s someone you look forward to seeing. He treats everyone with respect and he’s a really humble guy.” He is also described as an extremely bright individual, as evidenced by the fact that he maintained a 3.86 GPA at Memphis. Perhaps one of the most positive indicators of James with regards to his intangibles is that he is “a very coachable guy and has really bought into it. He’s not the type of kid who will exhibit any push back against the coaching staff. He gives himself to coaching.” Moving forward, it seems to be all but assured that James will be a top 5 pick in this draft, corroborated by his number 2 ranking in the latest Babcock Hoops’ mock draft. While he ran into eligibility issues at both the high school and collegiate levels, it should be noted that Wiseman is unequivocally not a bad kid. He has been a loyal, smart, hard-working kid, that by all accounts people enjoy being around. It is apparent that his inscrutable intangibles and personality, coupled with his other-worldly tools, should make James Wiseman one of the safest prospects in the 2020 NBA Draft.