Warriors

Wiseman can look to Ayton for successful growth in the NBA

Warriors
James Wiseman DeAndre Ayton

He looked like a unicorn on some nights, lost on others. His season ended early to injury, and the Warriors were much better without him down the stretch. James Wiseman's rookie year wasn't what he expected, not even close.

All hope shouldn't be lost on the extremely young 7-footer, though. 

There should be one player he's paying close attention to in the NBA playoffs right now, too. Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton could be the blueprint of growth Wiseman can turn to, as he looks to maximize both his ability and the Warriors' needs. 

Ayton has been in Wiseman's shoes before, just in different circumstances. He entered the NBA as the No. 1 pick in the draft with expectations to be the league's next great young center. Ayton joined a lowly Suns team that won only 19 games his rookie year. While he averaged 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds as a rookie, Ayton wasn't short on critics. 

Competing with fellow rookies like Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Jaren Jackson Jr., many questioned if Ayton was the right choice for the Suns. It looked like he was just another wrong decision by a front office full of them.

But in his playoff debut Sunday night, he continued to quiet all the negative noise. 

As the Suns beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 99-90, in Game 1 of their first-round matchup, Ayton completely outplayed Lakers superstar Anthony Davis. Ayton, now 22 years old, scored 21 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and was a game-high plus-16 in plus-minus. Davis finished with only 13 points and seven rebounds, and was a game-worst minus-18. 

 

Ayton had more offensive rebounds than Davis had total rebounds. He set a new Suns playoff debut record for rebounds, and became the first player since Bill Russell in Game 2 of the 1965 NBA Finals to shoot 90 percent or better in a 20-point, 15-rebound performance in a playoff game against the Lakers, according to ESPN Stats & Info. 

It all starts with his mindset

"I’m sticking to what I do best, affecting the game on both ends of the floor and mainly being a presence," Ayton to The Athletic's Shams Charania. "Being the size I am, embracing the length and size I am. Communicating with my voice, my ability to move and rebound and strength-wise. Being physical, being a defensive anchor, trying my best to protect the defensive end of the floor.

"Being the hustle man, to be honest." 

Ayton's stats improved to 18.2 points and 11.5 rebounds per game in his second season. Those are numbers close to the 20 and 10 people envisioned from him coming out of college. Still, the Suns failed to make the playoffs despite going undefeated in the restart from the bubble in Orlando. 

His numbers dropped to 14.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game this season, but with two All-Stars in Chris Paul and Devin Booker around him, along with an improved Mikal Bridges and a veteran in Jae Crowder, Ayton is a much better player now, one that vastly adds to winning. The Suns are the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, and Ayton deserves more credit for that. 

"Defense is so important to my play style and that’s what creates my offense and that’s what helps my team score," Ayton said to Charania. "Defense wins games -- and that’s what I want to be known for when I’m done with this thing."

In his third season in the league, Ayton's Offensive Rating has jumped to 127 and he guards high-scoring players with success on a nightly basis. Ayton knows defense and rebounding has to be his foundation. His points will come, too. With experience under his belt, Ayton has turned into an elite defender and rim-runner, along with being one of the best at setting screens in the NBA. 

These are all traits Wiseman can learn and bring to a winning Warriors team. 

Before his season ended abruptly to a torn right meniscus, Wiseman averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. But he did average 19.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. Ayton averaged 19.1 points but 12.0 rebounds per 36 minutes as a rookie, for comparison's sake.

Wiseman grabbed double-digit rebounds only three times in his 39 games played. He fouled out four times. This is a player who didn't turn 20 years old until March 31, and played 69 total minutes in college. He's a pup in a league full of dogs out to pounce at any sign of weakness.

 

"We don't want to trade James Wiseman," Warriors general manager Bob Myers said Monday to reporters. "I think he's a tremendous talent. ... I think he can be very helpful for us in the future and in the present." 

Coach Steve Kerr echoed that statement, saying "He's going to be a really good player in this league."

RELATED: Why Kerr's assessment of Warriors' season divided First Take

Wiseman was the No. 1 high school player in the Class of 2019. Ayton was the No. 3 high school recruit in the Class of 2017, behind only Marvin Bagley III and Michael Porter Jr. Wiseman has the size, he has the athleticism and he now has skeptics, just like Ayton has in the past. 

Playing in draft class that featured Rookie of the Year candidates LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton, many have questioned if the Warriors made the right pick with Wiseman on a win-now roster that features Steph Curry and Draymond Green. That can't be answered at this exact moment -- only time will tell. 

The fact is Wiseman has the talent. That isn't up for debate. It's up to him, along with Kerr and the rest of the Warriors' staff, to unleash it. If his focus is the same as what Ayton's has become, the Warriors very well could get out of Wiseman what they always hoped for. 

There's no joy in watching the playoffs from home. The Warriors know they should be there, and their young prized pick should have his eyes glued to what's going on in Phoenix to get Golden State back to the promised land.

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