James Wiseman details long, ‘emotional’ injury rehab journey — and where he goes from here with Warriors

Sixteen months after tearing the meniscus in his right knee, the prized draft pick is back and perhaps more determined than ever to make a positive impact in his return season.|

LAS VEGAS — James Wiseman, after just two NBA seasons, is in several exclusive basketball clubs. He’s one of only five players the Warriors have ever drafted with a top-two overall pick, and he’s now an NBA champion at just 21 years old.

But he’s also part of another group: Players who have missed an entire season due to injury, an undesirable distinction he earned last year due to lingering problems with his troublesome right knee.

“It’s kind of like a members club — not one that you’re necessarily dying to be in,” said Shaun Livingston, the Warriors’ director of player affairs and engagement. “But it’s part of the game. Injuries are part of the game, setbacks are part of life.”

Steph Curry dealt with lingering ankle issues throughout his early career. Klay Thompson returned in January from a two-and-a-half-year absence due to two major leg injuries. But few players miss as much time as Wiseman has so early in his career.

Sixteen months after tearing the meniscus in his right knee, Wiseman is back and perhaps more determined than ever to make a positive impact in his return season with the Warriors.

“It actually lit some more fire inside of me,” Wiseman said of missing last season. “It actually made (my love for the game) better in a good way because I missed the game so much so it just made my ambition grow, or get stronger.”

The Warriors still see Wiseman as a key piece of their young core, which they hope will one day take the proverbial championship baton from the superstar trio of Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green. But in the present, he’s a major question mark as the team seeks to defend the title it earned without him on the court.

Wiseman showcased some of his potential with the Warriors in four Summer League games last month and 39 games as a rookie before the knee injury shelved him for more than a season. He describes the long, lonely and sometimes maddening rehabilitation process that included a second procedure late last year as “very emotional.”

There were days when Wiseman wanted to throw in the towel. He found himself getting upset as he watched his teammates — including youthful contemporaries Jordan Poole, Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga — play in meaningful games while he sat on the bench in street clothes.

“I’ve been through a lot of low moments,” he said. “Some days, I wasn’t feeling it, some days I couldn’t work out because mentally I wasn’t there, but I just found ways to push through it every day … even when I was going through my emotional breakdowns and stuff.

“It was hard for me and for my family as well, for my mom to see me down and stuff, to see me in tears,” Wiseman continued. “But I just stayed strong … I just kept going.”

Making music and journaling were two personal outlets for Wiseman during his rehabilitation process. He uploaded a handful of hip-hop songs to SoundCloud for public consumption around the beginning of the year, but says the journaling is just for himself. He also relied on the support of Livingston and Klay Thompson, both of whom know firsthand what Wiseman was going through.

Livingston suffered one of the most infamous sports injuries of the 21st century early in his career, tearing multiple knee ligaments landing after a layup attempt. He rebuilt his game and was a major bench contributor to the Warriors’ three championships last decade. Thompson endured a second consecutive season-ending injury the day Wiseman was drafted in November 2020 and wasn’t yet cleared for basketball activities when Wiseman went down five months later.

Both understood the emotional and mental fortitude it took to overcome an injury. But this was all new territory for Wiseman, who’d never before experienced a major injury that kept him from playing basketball for a significant time.

Wiseman’s resiliency was tested. But now, a year and a half later, he said he feels as good as ever as he starts the next step in his process: His pursuit of what Livingston called the “flow state.”

On the court, that means learning to fully trust his body again and find the rhythm of his game. Off it, Wiseman will have to navigate the battlefield of criticism that comes with being the highest draft pick in decades for a franchise that’s made championship parades a routine affair.

Unlike other points of Wiseman’s route back to health, there is no timeline with this phase. His patience and perseverance will again be challenged. He’ll have to lean on his teammates for support at times but only he has control of how much that outside noise will affect him.

“On one hand, it is a lot of pressure — there are a lot of expectations from himself and others,” Livingston said, “but on another hand, what a position to be in. This is what he signed up for. Very capable, very talented, the potential is there.”

If there’s anyone who can handle the pressure, two-way guard Lester Quiñones believes it’s Wiseman, who was his roommate during their freshman season together at the University of Memphis.

“He’s very strong-minded,” Quiñones said. “He’s been through so much adversity as far as the media to where so many people doubted him … I honestly feel like he’s one of the more talented guys in his draft class, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to show it.”

Concerns about Wiseman’s right knee appear to be behind him after Summer League. He threw down a monstrous dunk in the opening possession of his summer debut and felt like he was back.

“It just bodes well for the rest of summer,” assistant coach Jama Mahlalela said. “He can now actually do development work and not do rehab work, and that’s a fundamentally different thing for him.”

Wiseman’s outlook for the rest of the summer and next season is pretty simple: “Have fun, play my role to the best of my ability, learn, grow, develop, that’s really it. No pressure.”

Though Wiseman boasts a unique offensive skill set that has yet to be fully tapped, Mahlalela said his biggest contributions for the Warriors next season will come on the other end of the floor.

“Without a question, James Wiseman’s No. 1 (contribution) for us next season will be his defense,” Mahlalela said. “To rebound the ball firstly and his ability to alter shots at the rim and be a good rim protector, those are the two areas we’re really focusing in on and that’s what’s going to get him on the floor for the Warriors.”

While other young players such as Poole, Moody and Kuminga seem ready for bigger roles next season, how much Wiseman will play remains up in the air. The Warriors re-signed iron man Kevon Looney to a three-year, $25.5 million deal this month. His return will take some pressure off Wiseman as he continues to adjust to the speed and physicality of the NBA, though it complicates his path to a starting spot, which is surely expected of players taken at No. 2 in the draft.

But at least he’s expected to be available to play, a step up from last year. Mahlalela said he could see on Wiseman’s face the anguish caused by having to miss games.

“What that means is that if he actually is able to play,” Mahlalela said, “… next season, he’s going to be really good because he wants it so bad.”

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