After a series of games against veteran big men with diverse offensive skills, James Wiseman was quick to identify the lessons absorbed in the process.
“Not being smart on defense, fouling too much and I’ve got to be way more self-disciplined,” he said late Tuesday night, after fighting a losing battle against big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who combined for 40 points in leading the Pacers to a 104-95 win over the Warriors.
This is easy for anyone to say, of course, but actually doing so is exceedingly difficult for a gifted 19-year-old trying to make his way in the NBA.
If Wiseman is unable to do it Thursday night, he might get embarrassed. When the Warriors face the Nuggets in the high altitude of Denver, he will see plenty of Nikola Jokic, the most comprehensively skilled center in the league.
For Wiseman, this amounts to being a freshman attending a grad school class.
Jokic leads Denver in scoring (24.3 points per game), rebounding (10.9) and assists (10.5). Yes, even as the Nuggets got off to a poor start, the 7-footer from Serbia has found a way to average a triple-double.
“We’re going to throw (Wiseman) in the fire,” veteran wing Kent Bazemore said after the team’s Thursday shootaround. “One way to get better is to go through it and push through. We’re going to help him along the way. I tell him all the time, ‘Just keep doing what you're doing. You’re learning more than you know.’”
Wiseman has his share of teachable moments against the likes of Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam before confronting Turner and Sabonis. Jokic, however, plays the game at an altogether different level.
At age 25, he’s Denver’s franchise leader in triple-doubles with 45. He’s one of the craftiest passers in the league, flipping the kind of dimes that drop jaws. He specializes in making opposing big men look mediocre, if not inept.
And here comes Wiseman, playing only his 15th game since his last at East High School in Memphis. For Jokic, this is an opportunity to abuse a teenager – even one who has shown he is not a typical teen.
Wiseman spent the past eight days battling bigs that can shoot the 3-ball and rebound in traffic. Though none can pass with the skill of Jokic, much of this can be considered prep work. The rookie knows what he has to do.
“Just making sure that I stay down, stay on my feet, keep my hands up, use my length and my athleticism, and don’t do dumb stuff,” he said the other night. “I do have to make smart decisions, play defense with precision and just make sure I stay on my feet.”
For the Warriors to best offset the full set of skills Jokic brings, it’s imperative that Wiseman avoid the foul trouble that plagued him against Indiana. It’s also crucial to force the lumbering Denver center to expend energy on the defensive end.
“A lot of rookies come in and don't get to play right away,” Bazemore said. “But he's going to start (against) some of the best players in the game. He’s doing well. He’s handling it well. He actually gets a little frustrated with himself, but that's good for a young player.
“The sky’s the limit for him. But tonight, he’ll have his work cut out.”
Regardless of the outcome, Wiseman should emerge from this game a better player. There’s only one “Joker,” and the rook couldn’t be blamed if he’s happy about that.