With the quarantine and lack of sports, I’m ranking the top 12 players of the decade for Baylor basketball. That subjective category leaves some wiggle room. And if I stared at the list for another 10 minutes, I might add and flip several of these rankings. The inspiration s Joe Posnanski’s “Baseball 100” at The Athletic. This list is mine and is certainly flawed.
Nobody had a more unusual journey and career than Ish Wainright.
He came to Baylor as a top 50 recruit and started as a freshman over Taurean Prince—a sophomore, future lottery pick and current starter for the New Jersey Nets—and Royce O’Neale—a junior and current starter for the Utah Jazz.
Wainright wasn’t quite ready for major college basketball. He ended up out of the rotation as a freshman.
His sophomore season wasn’t much better. He barely was in the rotation and made just one 3-point shot. In Baylor’s 10 games that March, Wainright played just six minutes. It wasn’t crazy to think Wainright wasn’t good enough to play major college sports.
Sometimes it just takes small changes to begin a major transformation. Wainright was a little too thick to effectively switch onto guards, and he wasn’t as fast as the Bears needed getting to the hoop. So he lost 20 pounds before his junior season. As Wainright told John Wener of the Waco Tribune-Herald, “I love Taco Bell, to be honest.” “I grew up on it, so I had to stop eating it. Now I’m just eating healthy, grilled chicken, rice and staying away from a lot of carbs, and also doing extra cardio.”
That transformation led to a ridiculously different junior season for Wainright. He flashed his offensive game, making 47% of his triples. He went from an offensive rating of 84.4 in Big 12 play as a sophomore to 118.4 as a junior.
Wainright’s junior season ended with an NCAA Tournament loss to Yale. The Bears lost Prince and Rico Gathers to graduation, and a lot of people thought an NCAA Tournament appearance would be a spectacular season. As a result, they entered the 2016-2017 season without a top 25 vote.
The 2016-2017 Bears became one of the best teams in program history with Wainright. He was the unquestioned leader of the team. After back-to-back first round exits in the NCAA Tournament, Wainright was the soul of a team that reached No. 1 in the country in 2017. He used his 7-foot-2 wingspan to swipe steals and had no problem going into the stands:
Baylor’s offense also took off with an offensive set I’ve referred to as the “awesome play.” In that play, Wainright looked to hit a big man under the hoop for a dunk. He did that a lot:
The Bears have run that play for years, but it’s never quite been what it was that season. King McClure told me in 2018, “That play wasn’t quite the same without Ish Wainright making that pass.”
Even though he came in as a heralded recruit and was well out of the rotation for two seasons, Wainright stayed at Baylor. He stayed there so long that he ended up playing football when his basketball eligibility ran out. He caught a touchdown pass against Kansas—a school where his grandfather was the first black athlete to letter.
Wainright’s ultimate legacy is that he was a winner. In the program’s 114 seasons, he’s the only Baylor basketball player to make the NCAA Tournament four times.