LAS VEGAS — An alley-oop dunk. A blocked shot. A 3-point field goal. All in the first 69 seconds of James Wiseman’s long-awaited, much-anticipated return to NBA competition.
Had Wiseman’s night ended right there, it would have been a resounding success, given the circumstances. He and the Golden State Warriors had waited 456 days for those 69 seconds, after all.
But Wiseman played nearly 20 minutes Sunday (19:34, officially) in his team’s game against San Antonio in the NBA 2K23 Summer League, a significant step back from a layoff too long, for a player too young to be sidelined so severely at this point in his career.
Playing in his first game for Golden State since April 10, 2021, Wiseman scored 11 points, hit five of his seven shots, made his 7-foot presence felt defensively and had a hand down the stretch in beating the Spurs, 86-85. Appropriately, it was a comeback victory.
Wiseman, 21, grabbed only two rebounds and was tagged with seven fouls (no disqualifications in the LVSL). But he, the Warriors, their medical staff and the reigning NBA champs’ fans were all thrilled with his performance. The mere sight of the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft stepping on the floor for the opening tip was breakthrough enough.
Steve Kerr, Golden State’s coach who watched from the front row, texted Wiseman immediately after the game. “Great job out there today,” it read. “You looked good.”
“He got a great ovation going back to the locker room,” said Warriors assistant Jama Mahlalela, handling the coaching in Vegas. “The players, they know the journey he’s been on. For him to be able to come out and play a Summer League game like today — with big composure and playing at the rim, blocking some shots, just to look like a real good basketball player. That first run was all we wanted.”
I’ve been through a lot of hard times as a person, just as a human being. But to see everybody rooting for me and uplifting me, that’s a great feeling.”
— Warriors center James Wiseman
Small sample sizes and long gaps between games may be the most distinct parts of Wiseman’s portfolio so far. Remember, he was the guy who played only three games at Memphis in his brief college experience, running afoul of NCAA rules.
He was drafted during the pandemic shutdown, wiping out what would have been his first taste of Summer League and the rest of a rookie’s traditional timetable. He tested positive for COVID-19 when training camp opened, further setting him back.
That was followed by a sprained wrist, a benching from missing another COVID test, a week in quarantine in a Houston hotel due to contact tracing and finally a torn meniscus in his right knee. His log at the end of his debut season: 39 appearances.
Then the knee kept nagging at him, keeping him shelved longer than anyone in the organization envisioned. His log for 2021-22: Zero appearances. Even as Golden State found lost glory, reaching the NBA Finals and beating Boston for its fourth championship in eight postseasons.
Missing out on that, Wiseman said, “was very difficult. I just kept telling myself that my time was coming. And I was in the gym, working on my game.”
The big man got support from Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and former Warriors guard Shaun Livingston, each of whom dealt with serious injuries and seemingly endless layoffs. Thompson, in fact, became Wiseman’s rehab buddy as he worked his way back from knee ligament surgery and a torn Achilles.
“Just to be patient,” Wiseman said, summarizing their advice. “I got a lot of information from Klay and [Shaun], but really, to keep my head up and keep working. It’s going to be hard, especially coming back from a year and a half of not playing.”
Wiseman’s performance against San Antonio’s summer crew was all forward, no limp. He jostled and occasionally traded basketball blows with Dominick Barlow and Josh Carlton, two Spurs big men, at a level of physicality Wiseman couldn’t replicate in his workouts.
He shrugged off his meager rebounding total as the ball not bouncing his way, focusing on running the floor, setting screens (even a few legal ones) and making the opposing shooters aware of his length and rim protection. It was no coincidence that, right before Mahlalela sent Wiseman back in with just 3:52 left, Carlton and Darius Days had blistered the Warriors inside on consecutive possessions.
In moments, Wiseman teamed up with Jonathan Kuminga for a pick-and-roll slam.
“He makes all of our jobs easy,” said Kuminga, Golden State’s No. 7 pick before last season. “A lot easier.”
Despite Wiseman’s absence, he still was exposed to the Warriors’ ways. He got older and more mature, too, according to one team insider.
Added Mahlalela: “I think he learned a lot in the game situations. His coverages and pick and rolls, he was dropping. Great learning curve. It was important he could play those key minutes and learn what to do in those situations.”
Fifteen challenging months gave way Sunday to about 20 minutes and, really, if it’s all he could have mustered, those first 69 seconds.
“It’s a great moment,” Wiseman said. “I’ve been through a lot of hard times as a person, just as a human being. But to see everybody rooting for me and uplifting me, that’s a great feeling.”
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