No player has had an amateur career quite like Austin Wiley’s.
Ranked as one of top 20 recruits in his 2017 graduating class, Wiley chose to forgo his final semester of high school for early enrollment at Auburn. Then the youngest player in college basketball, he exhibited both great promise and great shortcomings, putting up impressive stats but only managing to stay on the court for 18 minutes a game. About a week too young to qualify for the 2017 NBA draft and playing for an underperforming Auburn squad, Wiley mostly flew under the radar.
No matter. Wiley continued to diligently stuff his resume by playing for the USA Men’s U-19 World Cup Team. Named the team captain, Wiley generally thrived, averaging a double-double throughout the tournament.
This is where the plot takes a turn.
Somehow, Wiley fractured his leg during a Quarter-Finals matchup against Germany. Justifying his reputation for toughness, he played in two more games, not getting the injury checked-out until the tournament was over. He has spent the last few months dragging around a walking boot, and seemingly is still recovering.
Wiley’s bad luck didn’t end there. In September, Auburn’s assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested by the FBI on six felony counts involving, among other things, bribery and conspiracy. Allegedly, he steered top recruits to certain managers and advisers in exchange for cash. Unlike in Louisville small forward Brian Bowen’s case, no paper trail has been revealed showing payments directed to Wiley and his family. However, according to the Montgomery Adviser, it’s likely that Wiley has been implicated by Person himself.
No suspension has been handed to Wiley in response to the scandal, and with Auburn’s season opener against Norfolk State only a couple weeks away, it seems vaguely possible that Wiley will emerge unscathed. Will his connection to an ongoing FBI investigation affect his draft stock in the eyes of NBA scouts? Of course not. The basketball underworld that the FBI has been recently exploring is likely one that scouts have known about for a long time. To only select prospects who are untainted by the perks their talent has made available would likely send any team straight to the depths of perennial lottery-pick hell.
Now coming into his sophomore season at the tender age of 18, Wiley is primed for a big year. Ultimately, one question will determine when and if Austin Wiley is selected in next year’s NBA Draft: How good is he?
This is the question I propose to answer.
Why is Wiley an intriguing prospect?
The key to Wiley’s draft stock has always been his imposing physical tools. Besides the gift of height—he stands at 6’11" in shoes with a Condor-like 7’5" wingspan—this manchild also possesses a powerful 255-pound frame. One can only imagine the sacrifices required of thin, undeveloped international centers tasked with keeping Wiley, the human equivalent of a Hummer, off the offensive glass.
As you’d expect, offensive rebounding is the skill at which Wiley excels most. Coming off a season averaging a very good 13.3% offensive rebounding percentage as a 17 year old, Wiley led the entire U-19 tournament in rebounds per 40 minutes, averaging a monstrous 4.7 offensive rebounds playing only 19.9 minutes a game.
More than just size explains Wiley’s aptitude on the boards. He has excellent timing and gets off the floor a lot faster than you’d expect for a dude with his heft.
Watching Wiley play, I’m reminded of the underrated value of suiting up a player who can cause havoc on the offensive glass. Wiley’s tipping the ball away from a defender or forcing multiple players to box him out pretty regularly creates additional possessions for his team. It doesn’t always show up in a box score.
Surprisingly, Wiley wasn’t great a defensive rebounder in his freshman season of college. I expect his numbers to rise however, after seeing his improved conditioning and more consistent effort to box out at the U-19’s.
His physical tools serve him in other areas as well. This is Wiley in his second game as a college player. At 17 he already had the strength and toughness to battle in the post. Here he does a great job getting a wide base and preventing his man from establishing position near the basket. With at least a 9’2" standing reach, he hardly has to jump to affect the shot.
While in the past Wiley’s been criticized for his lack of feel for the game, from what I’ve observed he generally seems to know where to be. He didn’t block many shots at the U-19 games, but he altered plenty, and he has averaged three blocks per 40 minutes in his lone college season. Most important, he displays that rare intangible known as "consistently giving a crap."
Though he’s not a particularly skilled big man, Wiley has a few means of scoring that don’t include grabbing offensive rebounds. It’s fun watching him bury a defender under the basket, whose only recourse is back away with his arms raised, patiently waiting to be scored on.
He’s also a solid lob threat, able to play above the rim if he has time to gather. Like other old-school big men, it’s important for him to have gravity rolling towards the basket, since this is one of few ways he can create space for his teammates.
Owing to his offensive limitations, Wiley is frequently used as a screener. I’ve seen better, but he seems to understand the importance of making contact and he certainly has the body to lay some guys out.
Lastly, obviously, Wiley’s age makes him intriguing. While technically a sophomore, he will be the same age as most of this year’s one-and-done prospects. He’s only two months older than phenom Marvin Bagley, who like Wiley reclassified to graduate high school early. It’s likely that NBA teams will see Wiley as a fresh glob of clay, ready to be molded into an elegant yet practical piece of pottery—one who can dunk the soul right out of your body.
Questions Wiley still needs to answer
Wiley is currently considered a potential first-round prospect, and it isn’t hard to see what scouts find attractive about the young big man. However, it’s likely he’ll fall in mock drafts unless he shows improvement in a few key areas. There’s one dark cloud hanging over Wiley’s head that must be discussed: His injury history.
Back in 2015, he required multiple knee surgeries after damaging his patellar tendon then continuing to play despite the pain. Wiley took a similar approach to his leg injury over the summer, suggesting this is a pattern for him. His warrior mentality, while certainly admirable, could get him in trouble if he starts experiencing decreased explosiveness or chronic pain. Any NBA fan will tell you, especially if they’re a Trailblazers fan, injury-prone big men are scary in the worst possible way.
As for actual on-court skills, it’ll be most important for Wiley to exhibit improved quickness/mobility to guard NBA athletes in the pick and roll. This remains the biggest knock against him as a prospect. While it would be nice if he could develop a jump shot and boast an inside/outside game like similarly hulking big men Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol, it’s likely he’ll have to make his money as a tough-as-nails, old-school center who sets bone-disintegrating screens, fights for rebounds, and protects the rim. Lacking the elite athleticism of a young Ben Wallace or the outlier physical tools of his peer and inevitable lottery pick Mohamed Bamba (7’0", 7’9" wingspan), Wiley doesn’t project as a pure shot-blocker at the pro-level. In the U-19 game against Germany, fellow NBA prospect Isaac Bonga had some success taking it to Wiley at the rim, and Bonga isn’t known for being particularly athletic.
Thus, Wiley will need to prove he can’t be taken advantage of in space.
Wiley’s mobility isn’t a lost cause. He generally looks fluid running the floor and when sufficiently motivated can keep up with his more fleet-footed teammates. More important, though, is his agility in small spaces; this has proved a bigger challenge. There’s been speculation that he struggles to sit down in a stance due to his past knee surgeries, but I don’t know how real that is. From what I’ve seen, Wiley seems willing to get into a stance and can move his feet well enough to contain bigger forwards and centers.
And yet, I still very much see the limitations others have noted. Wiley never seems comfortable guarding out to the three-point line. Even when he closes out on shooters he seems reluctant. He guards the pick and roll in the Robin Lopez-style of sagging back to protect the rim, which of course is easily exploited if both the ball handler and screener are confident shooters. He was able to get away with it at the U-19 level, mostly guarding wannabe stretch-bigs that couldn’t actually shoot. It could be a real problem at the next level if he wants to stay on the floor during crunch time.
This could all be due to coaches with a conservative approach to defense, but I can’t say that Wiley is capable of something until I’ve seen him do it. Look at this old clip of Steven Adams in college, who actually would be a great model for Wiley to emulate in the pros.
Here’s a rare example of Wiley showing on a pick and roll the way Adams just did, but closer to the basket and not as quickly executed.
Wiley will need to show more defensive versatility if he wants to be more than an energy big off the bench. A major reason for this is that his offensive game is so limited.
With center prospects it’s usually taken for granted that they won’t help your offense, but Wiley is especially raw at the moment. Posting a 48% free throw percentage last year, he’s among the worst shooters in the draft. Due to his lack of a jumper, Wiley generally posts up near the basket on offense, clogging up lanes for his teammates. According to Offensive Box Plus/Minus numbers, Auburn actually scored more effectively with Wiley on the bench last season.
I’d like to believe that he’s not entirely hopeless. His catapult-like shooting mechanics aren’t textbook, but his release usually looks fairly smooth, and Carlos Boozer managed to make it work with a similar form. Either way, you can’t argue with results, and the results just haven’t been there for Wiley thus far in his career.
Unfortunately, Wiley hasn’t shown much skill down low either. Despite his impressive production, he struggled with efficiency throughout the U-19 tournament, managing only a 53% true shooting percentage. He posted a TS% of 56.4% in college, but this is still underwhelming for someone with such a narrow shot selection. His lack of advanced footwork is understandable given his age, but his shaky hands and below average touch around the rim are concerning. For example, all of these shots are from the same game:
If he’s failing to generate buckets while guarded by kids he has 50 pounds on, how is he going to look against men? The NBA has moved away from post-up scoring anyway, and Wiley doesn’t appear to be the one to reverse that trend.
It goes without saying that he doesn’t offer much as a playmaker either. Averaging a putrid .2/1.8 assist to turnover ratio in college, Wiley gets stripped pretty much whenever he brings the ball below his head. Though not a complete black hole, anything more complicated than passing it back out to the perimeter from a double team isn’t in Wiley’s skill set.
So where does that leave us? Is a player like Wiley, in his current form, particularly valuable in the modern NBA? To be honest, probably not. But at his age, Wiley will attract interest from GM’s willing to bet on his upside. Look at how just this year a similarly gifted yet limited Tony Bradley was a late first-round pick. Despite the nonstop talk about the modern game being all about skill and versatility, plenty of teams seek the comforting presence of a big body. Though Bradley was a bit more skilled, and Wiley’s draft placement will likely depend heavily on a last minute medical report, I personally would feel a lot more comfortable taking a risk on Wiley than Bradley. While he’ll never be the Internet’s favorite prospect, Wiley does the dirty work, and basketball lifers respect that. Not to mention, Bradley can’t jump over a phone book.