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Sleeper Deep Dives: Isaiah Wong
After another strong season for Miami, Isaiah Wong still has more basketball to play in his senior year. His improved decision-making and shooting could make him a second round sleeper prospect.
Isaiah Wong entered his senior season for the Miami Hurricanes on a bit of a high note. In his junior campaign, Wong led the 10th-seeded Hurricanes all the way to the Elite Eight before they fell to the eventual champion Kansas Jayhawks. While Wong might have turned enough heads to earn himself a place in the 2022 NBA Draft, he decided to return to Miami for his senior season.
With this season’s Final Four rapidly approaching, that choice seems to have been a wise one for Wong. The 6’3”, 185-pound guard from New Jersey averaged 16.2 PPG this season on impressive 45/38/84 shooting splits, along with 4.4 RPG, 3.2 APG, and 1.4 SPG in his 33.4 minutes per game. His performance this season earned him the nod as the 2022-23 ACC Player of the Year.
Wong improved his game in some very important areas this season, most notably as a shooter and decision-maker, and he helped the #5 seed Hurricanes to reach the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons after never before making the Elite Eight in program history. This time around, Wong has helped pilot the squad all the way to the Final Four.
While the game against UConn on Saturday will be a huge opportunity for him to prove himself, Isaiah Wong has already done quite a lot this season to cement his case as a prospect for the 2023 NBA Draft. However, despite his ACC Player of the Year win and the success of the Hurricanes in each of the past two seasons, Wong is currently on the outside looking in when it comes to being one of the 58 players selected in the draft this year. He ranked outside the Top 50 in the latest $DRFT rankings, so the consensus seems to be that he is likely to either be a late second round pick or go undrafted in June.
Isaiah Wong might not be all that likely to hear Adam Silver call his name in the first round of the draft, or even an odds-on favorite to hear Mark Tatum call his name in the second round, despite his incredible individual and team successes at the college level. However, his combination of athleticism, much-improved shooting stroke, and defensive playmaking potential gives him a good chance to stick on an NBA bench and become a second round or undrafted free agent steal for the team that picks him up. So…let’s dive deep!
Offense: Transition Brilliance and Offensive Improvements
The place to start with Isaiah Wong’s offensive game is with his ability to attack the basket. He gets downhill quickly with his great first step and excellent burst, and he is relentless when it comes to getting to the rim. Wong is a very effective scoring threat overall, as he’s able to use his exceptional athletic tools and solid handle to score at all three levels.
Wong puts pressure on defenses with his constant drives to the basket. However, his brilliant transition game is what makes him stand out among this year’s crop of talented upperclassmen point guards. He is a maestro on the fast break, never hesitating to fight his way to the rim whenever the opportunity presented itself while also diming up his teammates in the open court. He gets up the floor as quickly as almost anyone in college basketball, and he is also comfortable hitting trailer threes after passing the ball ahead to start the break. Any opponents who didn’t have their heads on a swivel were prone to being punished by Wong attacking the basket:
Wong ranks in the 90th percentile in transition this season, per Synergy, averaging a remarkable 1.340 points per possession on those plays. This transition brilliance is nothing new for Wong—he ranked in the 86th percentile in transition last season and in the 93rd percentile the year before. He doesn’t hesitate to push the pace, whether he’s starting the break himself with a steal or rebound or whether he’s getting a hit-ahead pass and continuing to attack the defense.
Wong is extremely difficult to handle on the break, but he is far from just a run-and-gun player. He is effective in nearly all areas offensively, ranking in the 81st percentile overall, per Synergy, and in the 68th percentile in halfcourt offense. He ranks in the 67th percentile or better on all play types offensively except for hand-offs, and in the 82nd percentile or higher on his two most common play types (in the 82nd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and in the 90th percentile in transition). He might do his best work on the fast break, but it is definitely not the only strength of his offensive game—as he has shown throughout Miami’s run to the Final Four:
While his transition prowess was always a huge part of his game, though, Isaiah Wong has also added to his game in critical ways this season. The easiest of those to notice is his improved touch on his jumpers. While his touch has always been there on his free throws, Wong has bolstered that evidence of his touch this season. He has averaged 4.9 FTA per game after averaging 3.8 attempts per game from the line last season, and he has also boosted his FT% up to 84.1% this season after knocking down 74.8% from the stripe last season.
The improved percentage for Wong is no small thing—especially given how much of his game is centered on attacking the basket. Although his attempts and percentage this season are closer to his marks from his sophomore season and his 80.5% mark from the free-throw line across his four years in college, his 84.1% shooting from the stripe this season is his highest yet in college and is nice supporting evidence for his overall feel.
The free-throw percentage is some nice supporting evidence, but the numbers that stand out the most are his numbers from distance. Wong boosted his three-point percentage from 30.2% last season to 38.1% from deep this season on nearly identical volume, averaging 4.3 3PA per game for the second straight season. The volume of shots from distance might be the same, but Wong looks far more comfortable with that element of his game this year:
While the three-point percentage alone could be seen as a mirage created by the relatively small sample size of three-pointers taken in a college season, those are far from the only positive indicators about Wong’s improved touch—especially off the catch. Although he has always been good at using his handle to get to his spots in the mid-range, his improvement at knocking down looks generated by others is a huge boost to his potential NBA hopes.
Wong ranked in the 71st percentile on jump shots this season, in the 74th percentile on catch-and-shoot looks, and in the 81st percentile on his off-the-dribble jumpers. He was actually slightly better at shooting off the dribble last season, finishing in the 83rd percentile, but his numbers on other shots were in a completely different world. Wong ranked in just the 22nd percentile on catch-and-shoot looks last year, which dragged him down to the 53rd percentile on all jump shots. He went from being a 31st-percentile scorer on spot-ups last season to a 74th-percentile spot-up player this season—and that alone makes his NBA fit much easier to project. His growth as an off-ball player makes him an easier fit as a combo guard, rather than someone who always has to have the ball in their hands.
Then again, it is also easier to see Wong having the ball in his hands more often at the NBA level next season because of his other notable developmental step forward offensively—namely, his decision-making. He has gotten much more comfortable with playing with pace instead of forcing the issue, and it has led to him improving as both a primary ball-handler and a secondary option. He has gotten better at being patient and seizing opportunities when they appear, rather than rushing into dicier looks.
The easiest way to see that in the numbers is through Wong’s passing numbers; he led the Hurricanes in assists this year with 3.2 per game, and he also boosted his AST:TO ratio to 1.57 despite being more heavily involved as a playmaker this season. His development on that front is not as pronounced as his catch-and-shoot progress, but it does bolster his case as a primary or secondary creator at the next level:
While the numbers do support the case for Wong’s improved decision-making, though, it’s easiest to see his growth in that regard in the film. Simply put, he looks far more comfortable with letting the game come to him, rather than forcing the issue. Instead of forcing up a tough contested look with 20 seconds on the shot clock like he might have last season, he has far more often pulled the ball back out to the perimeter and reset the offense.
Wong demonstrates a lot of that growth during this play, using his improved shot to get a defender to bite on the pump-fake, then draws the defense by attacking the rim before kicking out to an open three-point shooter. It’s the kind of sequence that isn’t exactly unheard of, but it’s also one that could break down at multiple points along the way; Wong nails each point in that sequence:
Ultimately, Isaiah Wong might have heard his name called on draft night last season if he had left Miami before his senior season. His transition prowess and self-creation abilities certainly generated some buzz around his draft stock last season as well. However, Wong has taken serious strides forward this season even if some of his scoring numbers look similar. His improved shooting, especially off the ball, and improved decision-making both make it easier for him to fit alongside other guards, and his improvement as a threat without the ball in his hands will make it easier for him to earn a spot in the NBA.
Defense: Point-of-Attack Prowess
While Isaiah Wong’s development offensively will make it easier for him to play multiple positions on that end of the floor, his defensive outlook is a bit more restricted. However, Wong’s quick feet, quick hands, and consistent effort make him a solid point-of-attack defender who can make up for his relative lack of size.
Although Wong will be strictly a guard defender at the NBA level due to his size, he has the tools and consistent effort needed to be a positive player on that end. He has a sturdy frame that makes it tough for players to push him around. He also fights through screens well and consistently, though he could still stand to improve on chasing shooters around—especially when defending off the ball. Still, he should be above-average at defending NBA guards sooner rather than later; he has the foot speed and footwork to keep up with quicker point guards, and he is already stout enough to handle all but the biggest shooting guards.
Wong, at 6’3”, is big enough that most guards will not simply be able to shoot over, especially given his huge wingspan. He also bolsters his transition prowess by jumping passing lanes and immediately turning that into rim pressure on the other end:
The turnover generation is a plus for Wong, certainly, and some of the defensive metrics back that up. Wong ranked in the 76th percentile defensively this season, per Synergy, allowing just 0.775 points per possession.
The film doesn’t always paint as rosy of a picture for Wong; he tends to get caught ball-watching on defense, and he is far less dynamic as a help defender than he is as an on-ball defender.
That being said, Wong is a dangerous defender on the ball, and he has shown strides as a defender in off-ball situations. His improved decision-making on offense does shine through on the defensive end as well; he has managed to pull off the difficult combination of gambling less aggressively while also boosting his steals totals. While he could stand to leverage his athleticism more often on defense, his exceptional hops and mobility do still shine through on occasion on that end of the floor:
Isaiah Wong might not have as strong of a defensive projection as his offensive projection. However, as with his offensive game, he has taken encouraging steps forward this season in terms of his versatility. He is still probably a two-position defender at most at the NBA level, but his combination of point-of-attack defense and improving off-ball play makes it easier to see him finding a role in a wider variety of NBA contexts.
After Isaiah Wong and the Miami Hurricanes beat Texas in the Elite Eight in the previous “biggest game in program history” last Sunday, they face the new “biggest game in program history” this Saturday against a well-rounded and dangerous UConn Huskies squad. Although the Huskies are the betting favorites, it would be foolish to count out the Hurricanes. After all, this is the second straight season when Wong and Miami have gotten much further in the tournament than anyone had anticipated.
Wong might solidify himself as a Miami hero with two strong performances to close out the season. After two straight seasons of the Hurricanes squad making it further than they ever had before in program history, the stage is set for Wong and the rest of the team to cement their place in Miami lore.
Even if Wong doesn’t carry the Hurricanes to the national championship, though, his scoring tools and significant developments this season should be enough to earn him some looks from NBA teams. If he finds the right team and continues to improve his game going forward, Isaiah Wong could easily be one of the biggest second round or undrafted free agent steals in the 2023 NBA Draft.