As the losing streak verges upon historical significance, the Philadelphia 76ers can be forgiven for scrambling towards any possible positive. As a result, the mini-ascension of combo guard Tony Wroten has become a possible silver lining in a season littered with losses. After brave performances this week against the Utah Jazz and the New York Knicks he has shown enough ability to warrant further investigation. Can he be a playmaking third guard on a good team or is he merely benefiting from the limelight after entering Philadelphia’s talent vacuum?
Wroten is not a player lacking pedigree. As a highly recruited prospect, he committed to Washington, where he played alongside Toronto Raptors swingman Terrence Ross. Wroten earned impressive accolades in his one year at Washington (All-First Team Pac-12, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year) and consequently was drafted 25th overall by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Wroten was by no means a simple prospect, he was a large point guard who could not shoot, a slasher with passing ability that didn’t manifest positively onto the court. In many ways he continues to be the same player, a talented but strange fit for any NBA offense. After a year at Memphis, the chasm between what he could produce and what he was actually producing was deemed too large and he was jettisoned for a second-round pick so heavily protected that it will likely never arrive in Memphis.
Finding a niche is necessary for existence within any environment; this holds true for every industry, especially the hyper-competitive NBA. The best aspect of moving to a talent-deprived team is the freedom to play, make mistakes and develop; carving out a niche is much easier when there is no competition.
Since joining the 76ers, Wroten has put up a line of 13-3-3 while averaging just less than 25 minutes a game. His simple numbers suggest a turnover prone guard that cannot shoot from the outside but can rack up enough free throws to make his court presence worthwhile for the anemic Philadelphia second unit. This backs up what you see in the games, Wroten seems comfortable letting it fly from deep but really has no business doing so. There are 163 players who have taken more than 100 3-pointers this season and only Tobias Harris has shot a worse percentage than Tony Wroten’s 22 percent. The great 2014 76er experiment is nothing if it is not daring.
Paradoxically, in addition to the inaccuracy, Wroten’s usage rate is astronomical. He has the second-highest usage rate of all guards in the league playing 20 minutes or more, only Russell Westbrook calls his own number more often. As egregious as that sounds, it probably is heavily affected by the lack of alternatives in the second unit he is charged with running. At this point, trying to run an offense containing Elliot Williams and Jarvis Varnado seems more of a punishment than an occupation.
His defense is tough to judge given the widespread disorganization among the 76ers defense. Individually, he has the skills to become a fine NBA defender, especially in relation to the point guard position. He can acquire steals reasonably well but gambles too often (like the majority of young defenders). His length and athleticism suggest potential but in reality it will not be realized until a greater sense of defensive effort is found within the gung-ho Sixers.
His youth at this point is a huge bonus. Wroten is still only 20 years old, younger than rookies like Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo and Michael Carter-Williams. He is one of only nine players who average more than 20 minutes despite not having turned 21, the rest are high lottery picks and future stars. This is no indicator of success but it is evident of how much time for development he still has.
Wroten’s short term future is secure in Philadelphia. As a role player he is capable of getting to the rim (two-thirds of his shots are taken there) with regularity despite opponents knowing that it is the only thing he does well. His ability to draw fouls is well above-average though his finish at the rim itself is just OK. As a pick and roll handler he is a capable scorer and hopefully he’ll develop his passing out of the PNR, which should be a useful weapon for someone with his tools.
Needless to say the league’s most talentless roster will be subject to a great deal of change in the coming years. There few players with a genuine NBA future on the 76ers team, let alone legitimate assets. The list of players with assured NBA futures is short–veteran Thaddeus Young currently resembles the loneliest man in the NBA; Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel have been penciled in by optimists as cornerstones of the next great 76ers team, the rest of the roster is a wasteland. Saying this, Tony Wroten has a role to play in the future of the 76ers.
It’s rare for a player drafted at the end of the first round to have his level of offensive responsibility at the age of 20, the chance afforded to him in Philadelphia is undoubtedly unique. As long as his obvious positives can keep him on the court, he has a chance to mature into something greater than the default leader of the league’s worst second unit.