The NBA center is dead -- or at least that's what you'd think if you listen to talking heads or take the occasional cruise through Twitter. That's one reason why, in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft, there is a noticeable emphasis on wings and guards from most talent evaluators. In our CBS Sports prospect rankings, for example, only three of the top 20 prospects are centers.
This is in direct contrast to just nine years ago, when four of the top seven draft picks were centers -- Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo -- and they were all taken ahead of future All-NBA perimeter players Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard. As recently as 2015, six of the top 11 picks were centers.
You could argue that what really killed the center, at least when it comes to the NBA Draft, was the Phoenix Suns' choice to select Deandre Ayton ahead of Luka Doncic just two years ago. Ayton has put up great numbers so far in his career -- 17 points and 10.7 rebounds on 57 percent shooting -- but watching Doncic blossom into an MVP candidate in just his second year only cemented the preference of wings and ball-handlers over big men. In last summer's draft, only two centers (Jaxson Hayes and Goga Bitadze) were drafted in the entire first round.
So we shouldn't be surprised that James Wiseman, a 7-1, mobile center with a 7-6 wingspan, isn't considered to be the best player in the draft by most accounts -- that honor most often goes to either LaMelo Ball, a 6-7 point guard, or Anthony Edwards, an athletic, 6-5, scoring wing.
It all makes sense given the pace-and-space, 3-point-heavy nature of the modern NBA, but when you actually look at the league's most successful teams, there's a bit of a disconnect. The Los Angeles Lakers, who just won the NBA title, have Anthony Davis (who is a center despite his tiresome protestations). The Lakers' Finals opponent, the Miami Heat, have Bam Adebayo. Nikola Jokic led the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference finals. The 2019 champion Toronto Raptors played Marc Gasol for over 30 minutes per game in the playoffs.
When we say the center is dead, what we really mean is that the old-fashioned, back-to-the-basket, post-up center is dead. Out of the group just mentioned, Gasol is the only one who you could call a traditional center, though his passing and defense are elite for the position. All of the others possess a unique ability -- Davis' guard skills, Adebayo's switchability, Jokic's otherworldly passing.
So when we evaluate Wiseman, we can't dismiss him just because of the position he plays. We have to look closely to see if he has any of those skills that could make him a generational talent. It doesn't help that Wiseman played only three games at Memphis before an NCAA suspension led to his leaving school to concentrate on prepping for his pro career. If he had finished the season with what he averaged in that brief stretch -- 19.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and three blocks per game -- would he be the consensus best player in the draft?
"People say the traditional big man is dead -- he's not a traditional big man," University of Memphis assistant coach Cody Toppert told CBS Sports. "I think that's what they misinterpret. Even in the limited time he played with us in the games, you see him run like a gazelle, you see him seal deep in a physical nature, right under the basket. It's not a post-up, it's a layup."
Toppert spent years as a player development coach with the Phoenix Suns organization before joining the Memphis staff last season, so he has a good idea how Wiseman will translate to the NBA. Plays like this certainly explain the "gazelle" metaphor.
And here is what Toppert was talking about with Wiseman sealing his man deep under the basket so when he receives the ball, all he has to do is go straight up.
But ultimately what will make us look back and say that Wiseman was the best player in the draft is how he excels beyond his physical tools, and to what extent he can fulfill his intriguing upside.
A fair criticism of Wiseman is that his destiny in the NBA is that of a rim-running big, which makes him unworthy of the top overall pick, or even a top-five pick. While that type of role is his floor, he's not DeAndre Jordan. There is more offensive potential there with his mobility, ball-handling and shooting ability than the usual athletic big man coming out of college. The problem is, we just didn't get to see much of it in three games at Memphis.
Toppert, who saw much more from Wiseman than we did during workouts and practices, thinks he can be a special offensive player due to his soft touch, ball-handling and shot mechanics. He said they were working with Wiseman on spacing to the 3-point line -- he didn't attempt a 3-pointer in his three games with Memphis, but made 8-of-16 in 10 games during the 2018-19 EYBL season. The shot looks structurally sound, and the soft touch to which Toppert refers is evident.
Toppert added that Wiseman also has tremendous playmaking potential in pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off sets, which are now ubiquitous in NBA offenses.
"He's really, really good any time he's got to take the ball and initiate that action with his left hand going to the left side of the floor," Toppert told CBS Sports. "I think there's upside for him in this five-out NBA world because he can pass, he can get long, he can handle, and he's got a good feel in those dribble hand-off situations."
With so little college video to evaluate, scouts and pundits have been forced to delve into his prep footage, which is difficult to assess properly. The result has been many suggesting that Wiseman's shot selection, including far too many midrange fadeaways, is suspect and doesn't jibe with the modern NBA.
"His shot profile in EYBL was not a byproduct of him," Toppert said. "It was just a byproduct of him not understanding what analytically-forward, progressive shot profiles should look like."
It's reasonable to think that NBA coaching will put Wiseman in the right positions to succeed offensively, and that those inefficient post-ups and midrange shots will all but disappear from his game.
Wiseman's size, length and athleticism alone make him a shot-blocking threat, but shot-blocking and rim-protection aren't the same things -- particularly in the NBA. The real question, what takes him from Hassan Whiteside to Bam Adebayo defensively, is how he can defend in pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off situations. Wiseman is no doubt working on his lateral quickness with the hope that he'll eventually be able to switch those actions, but Toppert says the big man's instincts are already impressive.
"He has a great ability to get low, which is the key to being a skilled basketball player," Toppert told CBS Sports. "He's got, obviously, the physical profile to have a big-time impact on the defensive side of the ball. He can switch and contain smaller players, but he's also really good at using that ability to get low to play the cat-and-mouse game in the pick-and-roll. He does a good job not letting the roll guy get behind him, baiting midrange, getting back, defensive rebounding. This is a guy that can clean up the glass big-time."
Davis put on an absolute clinic in that "cat-and-mouse game" during the Lakers' run to the title in the bubble, and it's a huge component of what makes him such a special defender. He can essentially guard both the ball-handler and the roller at once, allowing his teammates to stick within striking distance of perimeter shooters and cutters instead of selling out to help.
Wiseman has the potential to do the same thing, partly because of that ability to stay low that Toppert mentions. Watch how Wiseman contains penetration from Oregon All-American Payton Pritchard, but quickly gets back to the roller once his teammate has recovered.
Though he got burned occasionally, Wiseman definitely shows the lateral quickness to be able to cover guards in space. It's obviously something he'll need to work on, both physically with his quickness and mentally with his technique and angles, but the potential is there.
When you combine his size, athleticism and instincts, Wiseman has all the makings of an elite NBA defender, particularly if he continues to get stronger and hone his technique.
Coach and trainer Joe Abunassar, who has been prepping players for the NBA Draft for over 20 years through his company, Impact Basketball, recently told CBS Sports that most of the questions he gets aren't about his players' skills -- they can see those for themselves. What he gets asked about is the player's work ethic: how strong his drive is, whether he shows up on time, things like that.
"Every NBA team has guys making those [draft] decisions that have been burned. You see a talented guy and it just doesn't pan out," Abunassar told CBS Sports. "So that's something that we're really focused on here and getting through to these guys how important those intangibles are to being great in the league."
There have been some questions about Wiseman's demeanor and whether he loves the game, but Toppert was absolutely adamant that the big man has, and will continue to, put in the work. Both Ball and Edwards have serious question marks about their selective motors and ability to fit into a team concept, which could allow Wiseman to develop at a faster rate and eventually fulfill his potential.
"He's already surrendered to coaching," Toppert said. "He understands that he doesn't know everything, and he's a guy that when you tell him once, he actually does a really good job of being like, 'OK I got that.' ... He's a guy who's willing to be led. He's willing to be coached. He wants to get better."