James Wiseman is on the periphery of the conversation, distracted by the rapid-fire click of a camera shutter; it’s not his first photo shoot, and it definitely won’t be the last. Anyway, it’s not his conversation, not directly anyway. Someone is asking his coach to talk about Wiseman’s game, about his development thus far and his future on the court. As is often the case these days when people are talking about the future of basketball, James Wiseman is the subject.
And then, without warning, Wiseman is abruptly invited to join the convo. Jevonte Holmes, his coach at Memphis East (TN) High, is sharing an anecdote that needs the player’s confirmation. It’s a short anecdote with a happy ending, but the beginning is a different story; the beginning is harsh, the sort of memory a kid doesn’t want to be reminded of, let alone asked to re-live. But Holmes tells it anyway, because he knows it’s worth telling, and he knows how it ends. Holmes invites Wiseman to play his part, and he does, without hesitation.
“There was a point in time last year,” Holmes begins, “in a game we lost, I think he missed…” and here the coach alters his audience. “How many free throws did you miss down the stretch?”
Wiseman’s reply is immediate: “About 6 or 7.”
“He missed like 6, 7 free throws,” Holmes says, rejoining the conversation. “And you know what he did every day this year after practice? He made 50, in a row, before he’d leave the gym.”
Oh, and the kicker: “This year, he shot 81 percent from the line.”
This year refers to Wiseman’s recently completed senior season, which ended in a loss in the Tennessee class AAA state championship game. East played the final without 6-8 forward and top-150 recruit Malcolm Dandridge, but there were no excuses for Wiseman and Co. afterward, only frustration—and motivation. “We fought hard, but we just came up short. It drives me a lot,” Wiseman says, the pain of the loss days earlier still sharp. “I think about it every night, and it just makes me want to work hard every day. Work hard, and just play harder.”
Another setback endured, and another bounce back is in the works. If this is James Wiseman’s M.O., it bodes very well for his future. The 7-1, 230-pounder ended his senior season as the consensus No. 1 player in the 2019 class, a spot he began creeping up on in the summer of 2017 and solidified over the past 18 months. Too big, too athletic, too versatile, too talented, too much: Wiseman has all the traits of the game’s new breed of unicorn, a fact he emphasized last November at the press conference where he announced his college choice—by reaching into a bag and pulling out a stuffed unicorn with a Memphis Tigers logo on it.
He’s a Nashville native, but Wiseman’s decision to sign with the University of Memphis has something of a hometown feel to it. He spent his first two years of high school at Nashville’s private Ensworth School, but he suited up in the summer for Penny Hardaway’s Team Penny on the Nike AAU circuit. Given that connection, it made sense that Wiseman would head a few hours southwest in search of better coaching and tougher competition to finish his high school career at Memphis East—where Penny was then the school’s head coach. The inevitable eligibility questions followed, but Wiseman ultimately suited up for East and helped lead the school to its third straight state title in the spring of 2018.
And that’s when Penny made the jump to the college ranks, taking the job at his alma mater and giving his now-former star player a fairly easy choice about his own college decision. Last November, with some help from that stuffed unicorn, Wiseman made it official: He’ll be joined on campus next fall by his teammate Dandridge, and by top-25 wing DJ Jeffries. For the first time in a decade, the Tigers should have the look of a title contender. “Memphis is gonna be tough next year,” Wiseman promises. “We’ve got a lot of top players coming in, and even though I’ll be a freshman, I’m trying to just be a leader, learn as much as possible and elevate my game to the next level.”
You’d be a fool to bet against his continued elevation. Holmes, a fixture on the Memphis hoop scene who took over for Hardaway prior to last season, has known Wiseman for three years. “Y’all don’t understand how hard this kid works,” Holmes says. “Just look at this year, look at his numbers: Shot like 42 percent from the three-point line this year, averaged a double-double, and in the playoffs he averaged a triple-double. Double-teamed, tripled-teamed all year, fouled, just playing through it. He averaged like 10 blocked shots through the regional tournament—he dominated games this year by rebounding and blocking shots. His whole mental approach to the game. His progression has been amazing.”
His coach expects the nation to see plenty of the same next year—“I expect a dynamic player, and I think his numbers are going to be amazing,” Holmes says—but he still sees ample room for more improvement. Understand, that’s not because there are gaping holes in Wiseman’s game, but simply because of how driven the player is to get better at the things he’s already great at. “It’s just him wanting to be great,” the coach says. “He doesn’t just want to be an NBA guy—he wants to be a great. We talk about it all the time, what his end goal is, and how hard he’s gotta work to get there.” Back on that unicorn tip, Holmes cites Wiseman’s rare combination of size, agility, on-court IQ and guard-like body control in comparing him to three guys in particular: Kevin Garnett, Marvin Bagley and Chris Bosh.
It’s almost impossible, when discussing the generational talent and potential of a guy who’s still in high school (Wiseman turned 18 in March), to forget that he’s still technically a high school kid. Wiseman himself will remind you, without really trying. He comes off as a fairly low-key guy, describing his off-court demeanor as “funny, careful, very humble. I just love to have fun.” You saw it in the unicorn bit at his college announcement, and you see it in his easy smile. You see it when he talks about school in a way that would seem corny if it wasn’t so clearly sincere—“I really love school. I take my education seriously, and I always stay engaged in class,” he says—and when he talks about “just being a regular kid—reading books, playing video games, just having fun hanging out with my family.”
“Alright, I’m just gonna break it all the way down,” Wiseman says a day later. “We were in the locker room, and Coach told my teammates to get out. He said, ‘Let’s go to the office.’ I’m like, Why am I going outside? As I peeked my head out the door, I saw a lot of people, my teammates, and then as I opened the door, I saw Jaren Jackson with the award.”
That’s the Gatorade National Player of the Year award, in case you missed it.
“I was like, this is crazy. It was a random moment, a surreal moment. I didn’t even know I was going to win. But I’m truly blessed.”
A FIBA U16 Americas gold medal, a McDonald’s invite, that Gatorade trophy hand-delivered by a burgeoning NBA star—indeed, the blessings have already piled up, and they don’t seem likely to stop anytime soon. At this point, the script seems already written: A year in college, a top-3 draft spot, and then wait and watch as he figures out just how high his ceiling really is. But it’s not written, of course, not yet. Wiseman will have to keep working to turn those blessings into future greatness. He can’t—and won’t—take the elevation for granted.
Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.
Portraits by Jonathan Izquierdo