In a deep and talented NBA Draft class at the center position, James Wiseman, the Memphis one-and-done, and Onyeka Okongwu, himself a one-and-done out of USC, stand out as the bright and shiny gems. And both are beaming for different reasons.

Wiseman is a physically gifted specimen with a blue-chip pedigree as a former No. 1 overall recruit. At 7-foot-1 with a 7-6 wingspan, he has long tantalized teams with his combination of size, skill and agility. Franchise-caliber goods, Wiseman has, if things break right for him. 

“I think Wiseman is the guy that can be the No. 1 player from this class if all goes well for him,” one scout told me recently. “There’s one player right now that I see as a true, solidified NBA talent that can be a legitimate top guy and starter in the league, and it’s him.”

Okongwu, on the other hand, is perhaps the “less sexy” prospect of the two — but equally as promising as a pro. (They are Nos. 4 and 6, respectively, in the CBS Sports Top 100.) His 6-9 frame comes with a reported 7-1 wingspan, so his measurables don’t pop the same way Wiseman’s do. But his defensive versatility, high-level handle and underrated passing have garnered comparisons to another former 6-9 one-and-done big man now starring on a team competing in the NBA Finals: the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo. 

Because of the physical attributes, the projectability and the ceiling of Wiseman, he’s seen not just as the better of the two by many in the NBA; he’s seen by many as the No. 1 prospect in the 2020 draft class. There are similarities and differences between the two that make them special in their own rights, however. I’ll break them down below and make the case for why each should (and could) be selected over the other. 

Tale of the tape

James
Wiseman
Onyeka
Okongwu
Age: 19 19
School: Memphis USC
Height: 7-1 6-9
Weight: 237 245
Wingspan: 7-6 7-1
PPG: 19.7 16.2
RPG: 10.7 8.6
Big Board rank: No. 4 No. 6

Wiseman: Star potential

This is the argument for James Wiseman: the upside argument. In the NBA, the value of big men has been marginalized in recent years. But, Wiseman might just be the rare case where he proves valuable enough to buck that trend because of his superstar potential.

It starts with his freakish measurables: 7-1, 7-6 wingspan, long, wiry arms and explosiveness to boot. Then it dovetails with his mobility. He glides up and down the floor effortlessly and produces in every way you want from a center by affecting shots at the rim, rebounding at a high rate and finishing around the cup. He’s a center through-and-through. There are no questions about how he’ll fit in the NBA.

Podcast: Wiseman draft breakdown

“He’s rare,” another scout told me recently of Wiseman. “I think highly of him because of his skill and size and what he’ll be positionally in the NBA. Hopefully as he gets older, he’ll understand how to immerse himself in an NBA game with an NBA roster around him.”

Wiseman played in just three college games at Memphis, so beware the small sample size, but his block rate, rebounding rate and per-40 production all compare favorably to one of the most talented bigs to come out of college the last decade: Anthony Davis.

  • Anthony Davis stats at Kentucky: 17.7 PPG (per 40), 13.7% block rate, 19.0% rebounding rate
  • James Wiseman stats at Memphis: 34.2 PPG (per 40), 13.6% block rate, 24.4% rebounding rate

There nonetheless remain questions about Wiseman’s game. Concerns about his motor were decidedly not answered by playing in three college games. His shot, mechanically, looks sound; his shot selection is a different story. And will it ever extend to the 3-point line consistently?

These questions could have been answered in college, and perhaps doing so would have painted two different pictures: a surefire No. 1 pick, or a fringe top-10 pick whose talent anchors his lottery stock. Nonetheless, teams will gladly bet on the talent despite those questions going largely unanswered. For the deficiencies he has, he very well could wind up as the guy in this class not just at his position, but overall.

Okongwu: High floor

No big man has the ceiling James Wiseman’s game can reach. Not from this class. But no big man, I’d argue, has a safer floor than Onyeka Okongwu. He’s a versatile defender, reliable big with great feet, good passer, hard screen-setter, rim-runner, shot-alterer …. The list goes on.

The age-old question lingers: Does size matter? Yes. As an NBA center, it does. But Okongwu, at 6-9, still posted a block rate of 9.8% last season for USC, ranking top-30 nationally among all college players. He more than held his own as a teenager in the Pac-12 as a tenacious rebounder, and is stunningly strong for his youth.

Podcast: Okongwu breakdown 

His efficiency is equally jarring. He rated first in Pac-12 play among all players in his conference in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. He also rated second in 2-point percentage and seventh in KenPom’s offensive rating metric.

Can he be a true center in the NBA? Is it time wasted trying to define his role now? (The answers are both yes, and yes.) He’s a great rim-runner, smooth passer and craftier than he’s given credit for as a creator. Maybe his game feels outdated for the modern NBA to you, and that’s fine. 6-9 interior scorers aren’t exactly an archetype in high demand. But if what he did in college translates against NBA-level defenders, he’ll be an All-Star caliber player. So define him as a power forward or as a center or as a guard. I’ll define him as a difference-maker who will compete hard on both ends of the floor.

Final verdict: Best fits and draft ranges

For Wiseman, the Warriors or the Hornets — who hold the Nos. 2 and 3 picks in this year’s draft, respectively — are my favorite fits. He could be a cheat code for Golden State as a rim-runner and lob threat, though many around the league believe they eventually liquidate this pick for an asset. A team that doesn’t necessarily need him to come in and be the No. 1 right away is ideal for him as he grows into his frame and matures. Wiseman could go as high as No. 1 in this draft and no lower than No. 5.

Okongwu’s range is a bit wider and more unpredictable, and exacerbating the uncertainty is the fact that there’s not a ton of NBA teams picking in the lottery in need of help at center. But he could go as high as No. 3, and perhaps as low as No. 10. (Though I suspect his range is between No. 4 and No. 8.) His best fit in the lottery is probably Washington, where with the Wizards he’d be a dynamic defensive presence who could finish lobs from John Wall and Bradley Beal. I also like the potential of him landing in San Antonio, though I think the Spurs, who pick at No. 11, are probably just out of his draft range.

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