clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Learning to Love Tony Wroten

New, comments

Last season, I was pretty down in the dumps over my favorite basketball team. This was dumb, because my favorite basketball team employed Tony Wroten.

All 5,000 people at game got their money's worth!
All 5,000 people at game got their money's worth!
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

"I love the guy's effort and think he should play a ton for the rest of the season, but his play hasn't really warranted a roster spot on next year's team."

Everybody says things they regret, often about subjects far more important than sports. Sometimes our emotions simply get the better of us. In my case, the hysteria surrounding "The Streak" had taken its toll by mid-March. The Sixers were only five games away from tying a record for futility, and it was all that people talked about. Not even Marc Zumoff's enthusiasm or Malik Rose's wit could remedy my frustration.

Escaping the noise became impossible: All of the jokes, especially the bad ones. All of the think pieces about tanking's effect on competitive balance. All of the handwringing over Sam Hinkie's moral compass. Sixers fans were being bombarded with negativity from all angles, which made the season much more trying than the product on the floor. Unlike in 72-73, a terrible basketball team can't just lose in peace anymore.

The quote at the top is from a game recap earlier in the year, and it refers to Tony Wroten. In taking out some of my frustration on the second-year (now third) guard, I was so stupendously wrong. Almost eight months later, it's abundantly clear that Wroten is not only a perfect fit alongside this motley collection of basketball players but also an absolute pleasure to root for.

***

To describe him succinctly, Wroten is both wildly talented and extremely erratic. For both of those reasons, he makes his presence known immediately when he steps onto the floor. Unlike in baseball, where individuals are placed under the microscope every time they step to the plate, it's very possible to be a quietly ineffective basketball player. In fact, quiet ineffectiveness is the goal of every out-of-shape person returning to pickup hoops after a long layoff: I'm going to suck, but I'm going to do my darndest to hide the fact that I suck.

Wroten certainly doesn't suck, but there are a couple of huge holes in his game that prevent him from playing consistently effective basketball: He's a terrible shooter (career averages of 23% from three and 64% at the line) and turns the ball over as frequently as the 2014 Eagles. And unlike the weekend warriors mentioned above, Wroten's mistakes are loud. He's capable of both knocking the beer out of someone's hand in the 10th row with an errant pass and prompting the rim microphone to be turned down after a line-drive brick.

The Sixers are willing to live with Wroten's mistakes because they're rebuilding. Inconsistent play is fine on a team that doesn't care about wins and losses (which is a nice way of framing that they're built to lose). A playoff team, though? They can't use Wroten because when placed in a supporting role, his shortcomings are the type of things that lose games.

Take the Memphis Grizzlies. Two summers ago, fresh off a trip to the conference finals, they decided to basically give Wroten to Hinkie for free. Memphis' revamped and analytics-friendly front office could already pencil in the perpetually underrated Mike Conley for 34 minutes a night at the point. What they needed was someone who didn't take anything off the table, which is why they eventually settled on Nick Calathes to spell Conley. Wroten's ceiling is higher, but Memphis decided his growing pains didn't mesh with their timeline.

In retrospect, it's pretty surprising that Memphis spent a first-round pick on Wroten in the first place. After all, these are the "Grit n' Grind" Grizzlies we're talking about. This is the team that played the slowest pace in the league under Lionel Hollins. This is the team that operates by turning every possession into a battle and game into a war. And, for some reason, they drafted a one-and-done guard who was reckless with the ball and took bad shots in college.

Now playing in his second season under Brett Brown, Wroten finds himself on the complete opposite end of the spectrum in almost every respect. It's a good spot for him, and while we still don't know whether he'll eventually become good enough to contribute for a playoff team, he's definitely showing promise.

***

As Zach Lowe mentioned on Twitter, Wroten is on pace to commit 442 turnovers this season. Even Eli Manning thinks that's too many. Such an insane number would completely smash Artis Gilmore's NBA record of 366. Yet despite Wroten's unparalleled inability to take care of the ball, he's still doing plenty of good through five games. It's weird to say, but a guy who is committing 5.4 turnovers per game also happens to be playing well.

Tasked with keeping the Sixers offense afloat until Michael Carter-Williams returns, Wroten has been dealt an impossible hand. Consider the list of players he most frequently shares the court with: Hollis Thompson, Chris Johnson (whose continued playing time is driving me insane), Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Brandon Davies, Nerlens Noel, and Henry Sims. The group's spacing will always be a disaster, as Thompson is the only player even considered an average outside shooter. To make matters more difficult, Wroten is the only player who can create shots for either himself or others with any consistency.

Read the names in the previous paragraph again. Their effort level has been excellent, but it's not a talented bunch at all by NBA standards. Although the Sixers' 92.3 offensive rating is currently the lowest in the league by a decent bit, it's largely a credit to Wroten that it isn't worse. Let's say Chris Paul magically became the Sixers' starting point guard overnight. The offense would definitely improve, but I don't think it would be anywhere close to average. Paul's turnovers would also likely skyrocket. It's been very impressive to watch Wroten, whose realistic career aspirations are much different than the Point God's, keep such a limited group on track. He deserves a lot of credit.

Down the stretch of the Orlando game on Wednesday night, rookie point guard and former Sixer for five seconds Elfrid Payton was the Magic's best defender by a mile. Regardless, Brown correctly continued to run his crunch-time offense through Wroten, who Payton was guarding. The reasoning was simple: he was the only player that could be trusted to create a shot.

***

Discussing Wroten's under-the-radar heroics doesn't capture why he's so enthralling. We all watch for different reasons, but at its core, basketball should be entertaining. Tony Wroten is the type of player who can provide a team's worth of entertainment by himself. His mistakes are loud, but his triumphs are louder.

Holy hell, he does some ridiculous stuff. Wroten has the size and athleticism to pull off moves that 90 percent of the league wouldn't attempt, like the vicious dunk in traffic against Indiana that is comparable to Russell Westbrook's finest work. He also has the powerful Dwyane Wade euro step in his arsenal, which allows him to finish strong after slithering between defenders.

The entire play that Wroten made on K.J. McDaniels' ridiculous alley-oop gets overlooked because of McDaniels' bonkers finish. To catch the ball, accelerate from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye, unleash a lightning quick crossover without losing any steam to split two defenders, and then thrown a one-handed, no-look lob right on the money is freaking amazing. Many of Wroten's turnovers are the result of trying to make the very same spectacular pass*, but when he connects there's nothing better.

*These are the ones he ultimately needs to cut down on. He's going to turn the ball over trying to force the issue out of necessity for such a limited team other times.

No specific move can encapsulate Wroten's fearlessness. Watch a full game and you'll see that regardless of how many times he's met with resistance, he won't stop attacking the rim. In high school, Wroten missed his entire junior season because unlike most big-time basketball recruits, he wanted to play football. He tore his ACL in the season opener, so his courage wasn't rewarded in that instance.

In many ways, Wroten is a perfect FreeDarko player. On the off chance you haven't heard of FD, it was an influential blog that more or less viewed basketball as art rather than science. That's not a great description in the same way "talented but erratic" doesn't come close to capturing Wroten, but they're two complex subjects. The main point here is that FD didn't particularly care who won or lost the game as long as they did it with style, something Wroten has in spades.

On a hunch, I Googled "FreeDarko Tony Wroten" and was pleasantly surprised to find a post from 2008 in which site co-founder Bethlehem Shoals describes watching a 14-year-old Wroten, who at the time was the nation's top-rated freshman. Shoals decided that the indifferent atmosphere of the high school game (long-winded PA guy, bored cheerleaders, fans only there to watch their young kids in the halftime show) felt like a proper setting for a basketball player "working through who he is."

Fast forward six-and-a-half years and Wroten is still working through who he is. The major difference is that he's now doing so in what Shoals labels, "the finished product, bottom line setting of the pros." The current Sixers are probably the furthest an NBA team has ever strayed from that description, but Wroten will still find his name in the record books if he doesn't start being more careful with the ball. He'll also limit his earning potential.

Regardless, it's objectively thrilling to watch Tony Wroten play basketball. Even if his game plateaus from this moment onward, there's something to be said for that.

***

Part of the reasoning behind the misguided dismissal of Wroten probably boils down to my preference of the Spurs over the Thunder. As a basketball fan, it's impossible to not get swept up in the individual brilliance of Oklahoma City's stars. Whether Westbrook is going coast-to-coast and uncorking a hellacious dunk or Durant is calmly stroking step-back 30-footers, their talent is breathtaking. Having said that, I find Gregg Popovich's motion offense infinity times more appealing than Scott Brooks' tired late-game isolations*. Manu and Boris are pretty cool, too.

* I especially enjoyed the Big Three era in years 2-4 because the Heat best combined OKC's individual brilliance with San Antonio's free-flowing attack.

The Sixers hired Brett Brown in part because he learned under Popovich. The team runs many of the Spurs' basic sets, except they don't run them particularly well. More than anything, my hope is for the Sixers to execute offensively close to the level of the present-day Spurs at some point during Brown's tenure. Last year, I got really frustrated after repeatedly watching players like Wroten fail miserably trying to run the scheme. It couldn't have been further apart from what San Antonio was doing game-by-game all the way through June.  Of course, such futility was to be expected with the roster Hinkie slapped together. I knew that in both my head and heart, but the emotions of a fan of a 19-win can be pretty fragile.

Outside of the Nerlens-MCW-K.J. triumvirate, my other favorite current (and active, JoJo) Sixer is Hollis Thompson. It's funny, because when paired together with Wroten, they form the Odd Couple. Hollis is a good three-point shooter, but Tony isn't. Hollis can't really dribble or pass, but Tony can. Hollis can have quietly ineffective performances, but Tony can't. And so on. I imagine Hollis enjoys Jim, but Tony is partial to Dwight.

Both players arrived in Philadelphia with an uncertain NBA future and the goal of carving out a niche in the league. They've done a nice job, but if we're being totally honest, neither guy may be here if and when the Sixers ultimately become a contender. It's no coincidence that they were on a team that lost 26 straight games.

As the Sixers careen toward another 60-loss season, rooting for players like Thompson and Wroten to improve is basically all we have as fans. In Hollis' case, hopefully his efficiency stays steady with an increased workload. As far as Tony is concerned, it would huge if his three-point stroke is for real and the turnovers get cut down to a more manageable number.

Tony Wroten and the Sixers will continue to fail a lot this season. I'm finally OK with that. And when they do succeed, it will be great. Nobody will have earned it more.