Rob Rose (@RobRoseSports)
When Jim Larrañaga first watched Isaiah Wong while recruiting him he recalled seeing a skinny kid that could score the ball and loved playing basketball.
The University of Miami head coach needed to add a guard that could put up points with a pair of key players headed to the NBA at that time, and envisioned Wong working his way into a leader for the program.
While Wong’s talent was always evident, Larrañaga credits the Bonner-Prendie graduate’s work ethic for why in 75 games the 6-foot, 3-inch guard is 28 points away from reaching 1,000 points at Miami halfway through his third season and looks on the way to an NBA career of his own.
Isaiah Wong (above) and Miami (Fl.) are having a resurgent 2021-22 season after a down 2020-21. (Photo courtesy Tessa Mortensen / Miami Athletics)
“I don't think you can ever under-estimate the amount of passion that someone has for the game,” Larrañaga said. “If you look at Isaiah's passion for basketball, his work ethic, his willingness to do whatever it takes to get better, he has the ultimate goal of playing professional basketball and I think he's well on the path to accomplishing that. But it has to do with his tremendous work ethic. We describe that as everybody can work hard once in a while, but it's really the great players that work hard, consistently, every single day and that is definitely the way to describe Isaiah.”
When Wong walked onto campus in 2019, he was 20 pounds lighter and struggled to adjust to the size and speed of high-level college basketball. It took three months before he earned a spot in the starting lineup toward the end of his freshman year and set up a stellar sophomore season.
Wong worked with the coaches to adjust his diet and training to build muscle and it paid off immediately. Along with a commitment to improving his 3-point shot, Wong went from 7.7 points per game as a freshman to team-high 17.1 ppg as a sophomore.
The breakout season put him on the radar for NBA teams, and in April 2021 he decided to enter the NBA draft with an option to return to Miami after working out with teams. After he spoke with a few NBA squads, Wong made the choice to head back to college and continue to improve his game, armed with feedback from the league he always dreamed he would enter one day.
“Throughout the process, I learned a lot,” Wong said. “They said, ‘You need to work on defense, you need to work on your shot (and) you just need to keep on trying to win more games and try to be more just more of a help to your team.’ I feel like coming into this season, I've been working on that and just trying my best to be the best person I can on and off the court and just try to play my role on the team.”
Wong (above) was the two-time PCL Player of the Year at Bonner. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
After being named Preseason First Team All-ACC, Wong’s average is slightly down to 16 ppg, but the Hurricanes are winning a lot more. After Miami had losing campaigns during his first two years, the team is off to a strong start this season.
Headed into Tuesday’s game vs. North Carolina, Miami sits atop the ACC standing with a 13-4 overall record. With a victory over Duke on its resume, Miami could be bound for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018.
While Wong has been winning games and improving his professional prospects, his high school community has enjoyed watching him grow. Bonner-Prendie head coach Kevin Funston was slightly conflicted when Wong went against his alma mater Pittsburgh for the first time, but has been proud of how Wong battled adversity and became one of the top players in the ACC.
“He's always been able to just quietly put his head down, prove everybody wrong and continue to succeed and accept the challenges the best way possible,” Funston said. “So honestly, all this stuff that he's been doing has been par for the course. He's just doing what he does and that's why I feel like the future's bright for him because it's not like things have been handed to him. He's one of the hardest working kids I've ever been around. He's got an addiction to basketball and he plays with such joy, passion, focus and concentration that it's just incredible to see it and to me he's poetry in motion.”
That motivation Funston mentioned is something that has stuck with Wong since high school. Despite a pair of dominant seasons during his two years at Bonner-Prendie and success on the AAU circuit, Wong never received the recruiting rankings he wanted.
He ended up No. 79 in his 2019 class according to 247Sports, but took advantage of a chance to showcase his skills against them at the Iverson Classic event in 2019. Going against top-ranked recruits from schools like Duke and Kentucky, Wong was one of the best players on the floor.
While recruiting rankings don’t mean much now that he’s at college basketball’s highest level, Wong still plays with a feeling that he has to show he belongs every time he steps on the floor.
“I just feel like I always have something to prove because I think if I was in a position where they thought I was a 5-star athlete and all that, I feel like I wouldn't have like the grind or the obstacles that I had to get through my whole life,” Wong said. “So I feel like with all this like being the underdog and all that, I think it helps me more as a person just try to overcome and just try to prove people wrong that I am one of the top players and they should put some respect on my name.”
Wong has earned so much of what he envisioned when he got to Miami — a starting spot, all-conference recognition and NBA prospects — but his coach hopes this is just the beginning. As the Hurricanes head into the heart of ACC play with Wong on the brink of a major milestone, Larrañaga continues to be impressed by how much the skinny scorer he saw play as a high school sophomore has grown into a man looking to lead his team back to the NCAA Tournament and achieve his dreams.
“Certainly scoring 1,000 points as a college player is quite an accomplishment and for anybody to do it halfway through your junior year is even more significant,” Larrañaga said. “To understand that his ceiling is still even higher; he hasn't reached his full potential. He's got a whole ‘nother level he can get to and we want him to do that. Whether it's this year or in his future, I think for him in the long run he can develop every part of his game and truly be a great player.”