With less than ten seconds left to play in the third quarter, Tony Wroten had to make a quick decision.
Michael Carter-Williams returned to the Sixers roster for the first time in seven games after a knee injury. After crashing into a few bodies, the young guard entered early foul trouble. So it was Wroten’s chance to close the quarter. Brett Brown called the backup guard’s number.
Wroten’s classic, bleached double arm sleeves were at half-staff. His crisp, new Jordan IIs â€“ a part of his sneaker collection he raved about prior to the game â€“ were spotless. Wroten was ready for takeoff.
He rolled his sleeves to his bicep, laced his kicks and grabbed the inbound pass. In two dribbles â€“ no more than a bat of the eye â€“ Wroten was where he played his best basketball: in the air, parallel to the rim.
Finger-roll, clock ticking. Swish. Buzzer.
Two minutes later, he hit Sixers big man Lavoy Allen in stride with an over the shoulder, no-look pass for two. Two ticks more and he zoomed coast to coast after stripping the ball from Nets star guard Deron Williams. The Wells Fargo Center’s fans, which dotted the arena in red, white and blue jerseys, clamored for more.
The Philadelphia 76ers beat the Brooklyn Nets 121-120 in overtime in South Philadelphia on Friday night in exciting fashion in front of over 15,000 fans. Wroten scored 19 points on 8-for-17 from the field in 24 minutes.
Though the effort was there, his efficiency wasn’t spotless. However, coach Brown has been impressed with his young player, especially in his starter’s absence, and Wroten has come a long way since his days in Memphis.
“[Wroten] is really important,” Brown said in a postgame press conference, the coach now in his first season with the Sixers.
“It’s always a challenge on how those [Carter-Williams and Wroten] can coexist. I put it on them. [Wroten] did a good job of coexisting with [Carter-Williams]. You know people are going to challenge him to shoot, he showed a fearless side. He stepped up and made some…How can you not love how hard that young kid plays?”
And for Wroten, the transition was seamless. When asked the differences between the two franchises that are over 1,000 miles apart, Wroten put it simply: “Being able to play, that’s a key difference.”
“In Memphis it was a veteran team,” he said. “[In Philly] it’s a younger team and I’m getting an opportunity to play and show my abilities.”
Wroten said his abilities stem from his vision on the court. Whether it’s a coast-to-coast drive and jam or a no-look bullet pass between two defenders, he’s one of the recent West Coast players that has blown up from the “Mixtape Era,” a phenomena he said he only cared about when he was a high school player in Seattle.
Six years ago, Wroten took the coast by storm at Garfield High School, averaging 20.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game as a freshman. He was named to the 2009 All-Washington State Class 4A First Team, becoming the first freshman to achieve that.
In his sophomore season, Wroten averaged 17.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists for the season. After losing his junior season to a football-related injury, Wroten’s senior season at Garfield turned into a memorable one. Wroten scrapped together a 25-point, 7.5-rebound and 4.1-assist per game campaign and verbally committed to Washington, all while dazzling viewers computer-to-computer with dozens of highlight tapes.
“When I was in high school, not so much in college, I really paid attention to those,” Wroten said. “I’m starting to recognize it more [in the NBA] because of the Pro-Ams and stuff.”
In college, Washington became Wroten’s second home. In his lone campaign with the Huskies, he kept breaking records and kept blowing up computers as a highlight factory. He averaged 16.7 points, five rebounds and 3.6 assists at Washington, making the All-Pac-12 First Team and being named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Wroten was the only Washington freshman to ever be an all-conference selection.
His athleticism and excitement isn’t a coincidence. The Wroten family has a long line of athletes. His father, Tony Sr., played football at the University of Washington and for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His mother was a sprinter at Washington and Arizona State, still ranking top-ten all time in the 100-meter dash.
Wroten’s aunt, Joyce Walker, was a two-time All-American basketball star at Louisiana Tech and the third woman to ever play on the Harlem Globetrotters. And his cousin is another NBA spark plug, the Nuggets’ Nate Robinson.
Washington was in his blood.
“It was a great experience,” Wroten said about playing at the University of Washington. “It was great playing in front of my community, my city and my neighborhood. The coaching staff was cool. Me being from [Seattle] I had a really good relationship with them. I kind of knew them before I got there.”
Wroten was taken in the first round as the 25th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies, where his career quickly took a nosedive. He only played 7.8 minutes per game and only saw the court 35 times that season after being sent down to the Reno Bighorns organization in the NBA D-League. Wroten’s rookie stint was a short one, only having enough reps to score 91 total points. Wroten never started a game.
But everything changed on August 22, 2013. The 76ers acquired Wroten in a trade for a future second-round pick and a trade exception. He found his second chance. And the player that brought excitement to the Pac-12 in 2012 was back with new life.
He’s seen the famed “Rocky Steps” of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He’s visited different communities throughout north and south Philly and visited the historic playgrounds where Rasheed Wallace became a legend. Seattle will forever be his birthplace but Wroten has found his fourth home. Away from the halls of Washington or the teal sashes of Memphis, Wroten now has space to grow. He has a place to shine.
“Man I love Philadelphia,” Wroten said. “It’s just different. I love that Philly is so close to DC and New York and Jersey. I like Philadelphia a lot, it’s different than the city I’m from.”
After the Sixers electrifying victory on Friday night, Wroten left his postgame shower shouting. He sat at his locker as he dried himself off. Without his sleeves, his arms were bare for the first time all night.
His torso was colored with ink. But one mark noticeable stood out — near his bicep, a tattoo that read “L.O.E.” Loyalty over everything. It signifies his group of friends on the opposite coast that keep him grounded. Family is important to Wroten’s career.
In Philly he has a similar band of brothers called “Team W.H.O.P,” something he dubbed as “team we handle our problems,” a group that includes Carter-Williams, Marquette grad Vander Blue and Temple’s alum Khalif Wyatt, all on the Sixers preseason roster. Blue and Wyatt didn’t make the final team but Wroten still keeps in contact, sending group text messages on a daily basis.
In the locker room, he launched his towel into the wastebin and continued his animated chant. “L.O.E ’til the death of me, L.O.E. ’til the death of me.” For the first time in his NBA career, his excitement was tangible, his passion consistent.
From computer monitors to television screens, Wroten has become exciting to watch. The way the 6-6, 20-year-old prospect from Seattle sees it, he’s a starter in this league, but sometimes it’s just about the love of the game.
“I want to be a starter,” Wroten said. “That’s the goal, but I just want to play. If [MCW] and myself can figure out how to play together, we can be really dangerous…If I start at [shooting guard] that’s perfect. We’ve known each other since high school. We’ll play great together.”
Does Wroten have the potential to be a permanent starter in the NBA?
Follow Tyler on Twitter at @TylerRickyTynes.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.