On Jan. 31, Blake Wesley played a college basketball game against Duke and its raft of future pros. He took 15 shots. He missed a dozen of them. He hit zero from long range. It was another couple hours of wrestling with barbed wire, another rough night in a brief mid-winter stretch when his shooting percentages started to look like lottery odds. So Wesley, the 6-foot-5 freshman who’d mostly been everything Notre Dame needed him to be to that point, did the logical thing the next day.
He shot some more.
Which, in fairness, he was doing anyway. Every day, usually around 9 pm local time, a basketball bouncing in a practice gym and Blake Wesley flinging 3s and floaters and free throws and transition jumpers at the rim. The sounds of stubbornness. “Eventually it was going to come,” Wesley said a couple weeks later, having successfully dragged himself back to normal, and then some. “Everybody goes through slumps. You just have to keep shooting. You can’t be worried about it.”
Fans of the San Antonio Spurs might disagree slightly, if only because Wesley is now aboard as the No. 25 pick in the NBA Draft, and surely the hope is that he’ll evolve into a very capable, prototypical combo guard soon enough. He has the tool kit for it. Wesley was the leading scorer and second-leading assist-giver for an Irish squad that won two NCAA Tournament games, a first-year lightning bolt who posted the highest usage rate among Notre Dame regulars but, notably, the second-lowest turnover percentage.
This is how someone goes from outside the consensus top 100 recruits to a millionaire in a matter of months. When Notre Dame coach Mike Brey walked into an early January staff meeting, and his assistants started talking about the benefits of Wesley’s sophomore year, he stopped them cold. He’s gone, Brey informed the group. “What he could do right away – and what endeared him to an older team, even though he was the best player – he is a great passer and a willing passer,” Brey said. “He got guys easier shots. That is a hell of a thing to push into the lineup with these old guys, and it happened very smoothly. What’s setting him apart – even though he’s 19, he plays with great pace as a guard. Some of these athletic guards play so fast. But he has great tempo and pace and turns it off and on. He plays like an older guard that sees the floor and understands the game. He’s a ballet dancer, man. He’s fun to watch.”
So the 2021-22 college basketball season is, in many ways, proof of concept for the Spurs’ speculative choice here.
It’s also the season in which Wesley didn’t shoot the ball terrifically all the time, any way you look at it. The overall raw field goal percentage (40.4) and the efficiency rate from 3-point range (30.3) were…not ideal. His effective field goal percentage (46.5) was the second-lowest among Notre Dame’s rotation players. This is the scab everyone picks at.
“His stroke is fine,” Brey said. “What happens with these guards that are so athletic — they don’t have to rely on it as much when they’re 17, 18. They’re getting by people and getting to the basket and finishing at the rim. When you learn you have to rely on it a little bit more, and you get the reps, and you don’t have to do school, and you can just be a pro? I just think he’ll jump up, improvement-wise. And, again, he believes. Even when he took bad shots, he thought they were going in. It’s there. It just needs to be repped.”
In short: Development is essential and determinative. Wesley doesn’t come fully assembled out of the box. He can score in transition (1.192 points per possession, per Synergy Sports) and he’s shown enough ability to get a bucket out of isolations (0.848 PPP, 62nd percentile nationally) to be optimism. Synergy also rated Wesley as “average” as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, which presumably won’t be sufficient in any role at any point for the Spurs. But Wesley won’t turn 20 until next March. Neither the potential to grow nor the time to do so are in short supply.
And going from relative recruiting outlier to first-round pick so quickly suggests Wesley tends to grow when there’s enough space and time to do so. “Some people said in high school that I wasn’t going to be who I am, or he’s going to sit the bench, he’s not going to play,” he noted last winter. “I had to prove them wrong. It’s all outside noise. You’re always going to have that.”
Some of it will follow along to San Antonio. If nothing else is certain from here, this is: Wesley will put in work to quiet that noise, too.
“He has never been scared,” Brey said. “He loves the moment. He is a baller.”
(Top photo: Jim Dedmon / USA Today)