SAN FRANCISCO — James Wiseman had the perfect playlist for the day that, depending on his mindset, was either going to be a frustrating new low point, or the beginning of the rebirth of his career.
One hour. All J Cole.
The hip hop beats thumped from his car on that day, as the 21-year-old former No. 2 overall pick cruised the scenic route from the Warriors’ shimmering San Francisco arena to the modest beachfront training ground that would be his home for the next three weeks.
Healthy at last, Wiseman had been humbled against NBA competition, and was reassigned to the Warriors’ G League affiliate in Santa Cruz. He had lost his spot in the rotation, and if he wanted to gain it back, coaches told him, he needed to learn how to contribute to winning basketball.
“I just told myself,” Wiseman said this week, “‘When I go down here, I’m gonna do all the right things and focus on the things that keep me on the floor.”
Wiseman was speaking from his locker Tuesday night after an efficient eight-point, nine-minute performance in the Warriors’ win over Charlotte. It was two days after Steve Kerr commended his best defensive effort of the season against Memphis, and less than a week since he dropped 30 against the Nets.
Something seemed to be clicking.
Wiseman interrupted a reporter’s question with a hardy laugh.
“It’s crazy,” he said, pausing to catch his breath. “People were calling it a demotion. That’s insane.
“I feel like that was a great experience. I didn’t look at it as a demotion. I looked at it as an opportunity to get better. I’m not getting much playing time up here so if I’m in the G, I can get like 27, 28 minutes and work on stuff and work through my mistakes. I feel like it was a great experience for me. I really needed it.”
The result of those three weeks in Santa Cruz has put the Warriors in a difficult, if enviable, position. With JaMychal Green’s return from health and safety protocols on the horizon, Wiseman’s play over the past week has been good enough to raise the question: should he continue to get those minutes?
In 11 games to start the season, the Warriors were outscored by 73 points with Wiseman on the court. Tuesday against Memphis was his second straight game with a positive plus-minus, matching his total from before his G League stint.
Wiseman said he “felt lost out there” earlier this season. “Now,” he said, “I’m starting to feel more comfortable.”
“That’s the beauty of his three weeks in Santa Cruz,” Kerr said. “You go to Santa Cruz, you get three or four great practices in a week. You play here, and we’ve got a game the next night. There’s a little bit of film and a walk through and you’re moving on to the next one. So, he needs the reps. … In seven or eight games, he’s made big strides.”
Wiseman arrived early to his first practice back in Santa Cruz.
He was on the court, shooting around, when coach Seth Cooper walked in.
Cooper, in his second season coaching the SeaDubs, uses the same terminology and runs the same playbook as their NBA affiliate. When he received word that Wiseman was on his way, he met with Kerr, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and other members of the front office, as well as assistants Jama Mahlalela, who runs their player development program, Dejan Milojević, who works most closely with Wiseman, and Kenny Atkinson, Kerr’s top lieutenant, to understand their plan for Wiseman. Then, he relayed it to the Santa Cruz coaching staff.
“I think for him, he just wanted to know a little bit more like, what’s the plan?” Cooper said. “He knew he wanted to go there and get better and play a bunch of minutes. To be able to give him some specific tangible things that, if he gets better at, will translate to him playing for the Warriors, helping the Warriors and helping himself in the process.”
Wiseman was frustrated.
The words from Jordan Poole, a fellow first-rounder who turned a G League stint into NBA stardom, rung in his head — it’s not a demotion; it’s an opportunity — but, he told Cooper, sitting on the baseline before his first practice, this was his first extended chance to play since high school, and it wasn’t going as he had intended.
Wiseman’s tenuous journey is well documented: a top high-school prospect, ruled ineligible, plays only three games in college, drafted second overall, a pandemic hits, he tears his meniscus and misses a year and a half. As Cooper, and many within Golden State, is quick to point out: “He’s really like a one and done rookie.”
Wiseman’s effortless scoring put him on the map. Thirty-point games were routine.
What the Warriors attempted to drive home is that what they need from him is not dominant scoring presence but a screener, a shot-blocker and a rim protector. In Santa Cruz, they dedicated entire half-hour portions of practice to defending pick-and rolls.
“The one thing I’ll say about James: he was unbelievable from that standpoint. Coachability, doing whatever we asked, buying into it,” Cooper said. “Yeah, we could probably put you out here and do some things that allow you to score more, but we’re gonna play in a way that relates to how you’re going to play for the Warriors. For him to buy in to that and do everything we asked for, his attitude was great.
“I think everyone can see that he got better in the last three weeks playing basketball. I think he’ll continue to get better. … I would be a buyer in the stock of James Wiseman long term.”
While Wiseman said his 30-point effort against the Nets “changed things for me in terms of my confidence … Memphis was my best game, even though I didn’t score at all.
“That’s crazy, right?”
Wiseman garnered laughs when he expressed his excitement to return to the NBA’s life of luxury, specifically its large hotel beds. More seriously, Wiseman said his time in Santa Cruz made him all the more appreciative of his opportunity with Golden State.
He lived out of his suitcase, coming and going from a hotel near the boardwalk, for most of his time there.
While college friend and Santa Cruz teammate Lester Quinones provided him company, Wiseman spent many nights self-reflecting, staring at the ceiling of his hotel bedroom.
“It’s super peaceful down there in Santa Cruz,” Wiseman said. “Super peaceful. Ain’t nothing to do. It’s like the boardwalk, the arcade and the beach. That’s really all you got down there.
“I was down there grinding,” he said, stroking his scruffier-than-usual facial hair. “I still haven’t gotten my hair cut yet.”