The hype started early. As a sophomore at Seattle's Garfield High School, Tony Wroten was ranked the No. 1 player in his class. I saw Wroten play twice that season, first against rival Franklin and Louisville-bound senior Peyton Siva as the marquee game of the annual King Holiday Hoopfest at Hec Edmundson Pavilion and later in a league game. University of Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar was also there, and it wasn't to scout anyone on the Roosevelt High School roster.
The grumbling started early. A Husky season that opened with high expectations started slowly due to a series of losses away from Hec Ed. The nadir came just before Christmas, when Washington was blown out on its home court by South Dakota State. Both future Husky first-round picks, Wroten and Terrence Ross, were outplayed by Jackrabbits star Nate Wolters. When Wroten turned the ball over, or missed a free throw, the murmuring in the crowd was audible.
Those extremes summarize Wroten's single year at the University of Washington. I've never followed a player who polarized his own fan base like Wroten did. He was one of the Huskies' biggest recruits ever, and nominally lived up to the expectations by winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and averaging 16.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game. Yet Washington failed to reach the NCAA tournament, and the Huskies' fate was sealed when Wroten missed four free throws in the closing stages of a loss to Oregon State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. That Wroten played one of his best games against the Beavers only adds to the series of contradictions that meant some fans cheered when Wroten left for the NBA.
Wroten's game is confounding in large part because his strengths and weaknesses are so well defined at this point of his career. He is the quintessential example of Bill Simmons' table test--a player who brings positives and negatives in nearly equal number.
The strengths start with Wroten's athleticism and frame. He measured in at 6-4 3/4 without shoes before the draft, which makes Wroten the same size as Jae Crowder and means he'll have a huge size advantage over many point guards at a listed 6-6. Wroten sacrifices no athleticism. He's quick with the basketball from end to end and can typically get where he wants on the floor despite relying on his left hand. Those skills could be even more useful in the NBA, with its well-spaced floors and rules limiting contact on the perimeter.
Still, Wroten's tools don't quite fit together. Like a young Russell Westbrook, Wroten relies on volume rather than efficiency in his forays to the basket. Despite his physical gifts, Wroten struggles to finish at the rim, a trend that was evident all the way back in his days at Garfield. At Washington, Wroten was often most effective pulling a variation of the old Moses Malone play and rising above defenders to collect his own missed shot and lay it back up and in. Add that to the list of Wroten's strengths: He grabbed offensive rebounds at nearly the same rate as Draymond Green last season.
Before anything else, observers usually take note of Wroten's court vision. He sees passes that other players, even point guards, don't. Sometimes he sees passes that he shouldn't throw and throws them anyway, sailing them into the third row or off a post player's hands. Wroten will throw fastballs when a change-up is more appropriate, which explains a gaudy turnover rate.
At the same time, Wroten's assist numbers were decidedly unimpressive in college. That's explained in part by the fact that he mostly played away from the ball at shooting guard next to Abdul Gaddy, but the Huskies struggled when Wroten moved to point guard. Wroten often seemed to make up his mind on whether to pass or shoot before driving to the basket, neutralizing his court vision and leading to contested shot attempts at the rim. It's not that Wroten is selfish per se; he apparently enjoys a flashy pass at least as much as a bucket. It's that he still hasn't figured out how to balance the two.
Make no mistake, Wroten will have to play point guard in the NBA, at least on offense. (Pairing him with an undersized scoring guard, like Josh Selby, and cross-matching defensively would make a lot of sense.) He simply isn't enough of a threat without the ball in his hands. Wroten improved as a cutter over the course of the season, but playing away from the ball emphasizes his greatest weakness, outside shooting. Wroten shot just 16.1 percent from three-point range at Washington and struggled at the free throw line too, making 58.3 percent. I think Wroten has the ability to improve his shooting, especially at the charity stripe, where early misses seemed to get in his head. However, it's unlikely he will ever be a natural outside shooter.
Wroten's defense, too, is all or nothing. In addition to his size, he boasts excellent anticipation that helped him post a strong steal rate. Too often, though, Wroten's gambles broke down the Husky defense. He also had a tough time containing dribble penetration, which will be an issue against smaller point guards in the NBA.
Now, after Wroten declared for the NBA Draft and was selected 25th overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, a new team and league are getting a taste of the Tony Wroten Show. Wroten's first two games in the NBA Summer League, with three more to come over the next three days, have established a floor and a ceiling for his performance as a professional.
In his debut on Saturday, Wroten unexpectedly had the range from the perimeter and knocked down seven of his eight free throw attempts as part of an efficient 19-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist performance. Fans in Memphis hoped they had the steal of the draft. Three days later against Washington, Wroten was equally as bad. He missed seven of his nine shot attempts, turned the ball over three times and did not record an assist in 15 minutes. Expect plenty more highs and lows from Wroten as a rookie, if he finds rotation minutes in a backcourt that will give Lionel Hollins plenty of options. After all, he won't be 20 until the final week of the regular season.
Surely, the discussion about Wroten's value will continue. I spent much of the past year talking Wroten with friends, writers who covered the Huskies, scouts and really pretty much anyone who was interested. I'm still not sure what I think of his game, but I have discovered that Wroten's style makes him a basketball Rorschach test. What people think about Wroten generally tells me a lot more about them than it does about him. And typically, the opinions come early.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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