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A non-league matchup between Oregon and Memphis last month in Portland likely drew more interest from NBA executives than it did from college basketball diehards.
Over 50 NBA scouts and personnel descended upon the Moda Center because they feared it would be their last chance to evaluate potential No. 1 overall pick James Wiseman for awhile.
Wiseman at the time was playing his second game in defiance of an NCAA ruling that rendered him ineligible to play college basketball. The Memphis freshman dropped his pending litigation two days later and began serving a 12-game suspension stemming from moving expenses his family improperly accepted while he was still in high school.
“The word was out that this was his last game and everyone flocked to Oregon,” an NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “Most front offices probably had that game circled anyway, but because of his situation, a lot more people attended.”
Turns out it will be longer than NBA scouts feared before Wiseman plays meaningful basketball again. The 7-footer announced Thursday that he is withdrawing from Memphis with five games left in his suspension in order to prepare for next June’s NBA draft.
While Wiseman’s departure is a crushing blow for Memphis’ hopes of making the Final Four, it also further complicates the decision for NBA teams trying to figure out the pecking order at the top of the 2020 draft. Wiseman is one of a half dozen projected lottery picks who aren’t entering the NBA via college basketball, meaning that scouts will have fewer chances to evaluate them against high-level competition.
In addition to Wiseman, American-born guards LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton also bypassed college basketball to play a year of pro ball in the Australia-based National Basketball League. There are also at least three European-based prospects viewed as potential 2020 lottery picks: Israeli forward Deni Avdija, French guard Théo Maledon and guard Killian Hayes, who was born in Florida but raised in France.
Asked if comparing the players at the top of the 2020 draft class was unusually difficult, an NBA general manager speaking on the condition of anonymity said that was “fair to say.” The general manager lamented that NBA personnel aren’t allowed to scout American high school players in person except at a few all-star events each year.
"This year, it complicates things because you have a fairly strong international class on top of college guys being out,” the general manager said. “Smaller sample sizes for sure. That's why the high school events are so critical."
Before NCAA eligibility issues derailed his ballyhooed freshman season at Memphis, Wiseman was widely considered the best center prospect in the 2020 draft class. He validated his stock in three pre-suspension college appearances, averaging 19.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks despite only playing 23 minutes per game.
Scouts who spoke to Yahoo Sports don’t see Wiseman dropping out of the top five in the 2020 NBA draft despite the limited opportunities to evaluate him against high-level competition. Whether the 7-footer goes No. 1 or not will depend on the needs of the team drafting in that spot and how that team feels about Wiseman’s decision to abandon his teammates in the middle of a promising season in order to protect his own draft stock.
“What’s so surprising is that this kid would bail out now,” said an NBA scout whose team is expected to pick in the lottery next June. “Most kids are more competitive than that. That’s scary. Everyone’s not Kobe or MJ, but he’s already got a rep of being soft sometimes. I’m not trying to lose my job over this decision.”
Wiseman could seize the chance to prove himself against other elite big men at the NBA draft combine or during pre-draft workouts with individual teams, but scouts don’t expect him to risk damaging his stock against other prospects in those settings. They’ll instead try to interview people surrounding Wiseman to figure out if he has the work ethic and passion for basketball to get the most out of his immense natural ability.
“Mental and physical intel, which is always important, goes to another level,” another NBA scout said. “Intel will have to replace the lack of on court game evaluations.”
Something that could boost Wiseman’s chances of still being the first player taken next June is that the race to go No. 1 overall has slowed to a crawl.
Ball showcased newfound discipline and maturity during his first two months with the NBL’s Illawarra Hawks, but an early December foot injury sidelined him before many NBA decision-makers had a chance to fly out and see him.
Anthony Edwards earned praise from the likes of Dwyane Wade and Donovan Mitchell after his 33-point half against Michigan State in Maui last month, but the high-scoring Georgia freshman has yet to lead his team to a meaningful victory this season.
Cole Anthony has put up big numbers on a North Carolina team lacking supporting playmakers, but so far the freshman guard has not scored efficiently, nor has he been able to elevate the Tar Heels to their customary place among the nation’s elite. They’ve dropped four straight games, the first two of which came before the meniscus injury that is expected to sideline Anthony for 4 to 6 weeks.
The roster situations around Edwards and Anthony only add to the challenge for NBA teams facing franchise-altering draft decisions next June.
Said the scout whose team is likely to pick in the lottery, “This year is absolutely harder than most. Anyone who would tell you otherwise is lying.”
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