When he left the University of Kansas, the book on Andrew Wiggins was well-circulated: his infamous on-court timidity would inhibit his ability to muster the full range of his abilities, which made the first phase of his highly anticipated NBA debut a touch predictable.
Over the course of his first two months in the league, the No. 1 overall pick carried himself more like a bold defensive role-player than a future star, gravitating toward rebounds and playing free safety on the baseline. His post game was just a series of fadeaways and he curled off screens only to settle for midrange jumper after midrange jumper. Before a 27-point outburst against the Cleveland Cavaliers – the team that drafted, then traded him – on December 23, almost half of Wiggins' shot attempts were from least efficient spots on the court, inside the 3-point arc but outside the paint. He looked more lily-livered 19-year-old than can't-miss franchise savior.
"But that was then," Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach Ryan Saunders says. "Now, you can definitely see him growing in the NBA atmosphere." Wiggins is slowly but surely finding his place in the Association, working to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses by staying true to the oldest adage in basketball: You practice how you play.
"He can pick things up quick. He can really implement those concepts we put forth in practice and film sessions onto the court. One of the things we try to work on, which I think improved, is his ball-handling and his ability to put the ball on the floor and really use that athleticism around the basket," Saunders explains. "Every day we work on footwork. One of the moves we use is a jab step and then drive hard to your right, because that's the strong hand to get to basket."
The toil has begun to pay dividends. Correcting his dribbling mechanics is a longer game but for now, Wiggins' elite speed and stride are supplementing his line-drive aggression. Since that December 23 outburst, Wiggins is scoring 18.7 points per game, shooting at a 47 percent clip and grabbing 4.6 rebounds. He's still chucking too many inefficient J's, which might be a byproduct of his place in the Wolves' offense, but a chunk of those have turned into rollicking drives to the rim. His hang-time – that ability to fly in the face of gravity and stay elevated for longer than it'll take to read this paragraph – allows him to finish 68 percent of his shots in the restricted area. Against the Phoenix Suns on Friday, Wiggins' extra second in the air clinched the game.
On the other end, Wiggins is an airtight one-on-one defender who stunts well to help pick-and-roll coverage and leverages his quickness to recover on shooters. He only commits 3.4 fouls per 48 minutes, second-fewest among qualified rookies. As a first-year player guarding the opposing team's best scorer, Wiggins does get burned but increasingly, his mistakes don't resemble those of an idle-minded teenager, but rather a committed defender occasionally outmaneuvered by tricks he has yet to learn. The future has havoc-wreaking interception machine written all over it – and returning hero/defensive maniac Kevin Garnett will certain help aid in that transformation.
Even now, Wiggins is short on the gaudy histrionics we saw from Anthony Davis or LeBron James in their debuts, but he's conquered the two tried-and-true scales of rookie judgment: among his peers, he's not only the best right now, he carries the best potential.
And behind those layers of potential, my prevailing thought is one rarely associated with upstart rookies: Man, how smart is this guy? You can't play defense the way he does without an advanced understanding of the game. On the weakside, Wiggins rarely gets caught in situations that still plague veterans, like impromptu big-man screens that open up shooters in the corner. He's already using the extra coverage his improved post game gives him to sneak in layups from backdoor cuts, which goes full circle and helps his 200-pound frame gain post position six feet from the rim. The NBA's transcendent stars aren't just smart or just athletic. They're both, learning to leverage their gifts in the most advantageous way possible. It's astonishing how quickly Wiggins is travelling up that curve.
"He has a basketball and athletic pedigree, with his father and mother being elite athletes," Saunders says. "Having that background, you can think things through a little better, I believe."
In a loss to the Houston Rockets on Monday, Wiggins' 20th birthday, he ensured James Harden earned each of his 31 points, curbing his drives into a 7-for-20 night of contested jumpers. Can't ask for more against an MVP candidate. Wiggins himself caught fire too, adding 30 points to a stout defensive performance. And then, you know, there's this:
However, what you won't see in the box score is how many of Wiggins' five turnovers came from ill-advised drives into traffic, including a charge. It appears the "passive" tag is disappearing, replaced with looming crowds of defenders at the rim and the infamous rookie wall, daring Wiggins to make the next adjustment.
Just as soon as Wiggins' post game morphed from one-dimensional to a multifaceted attack, another cause for turnovers arose: double-teams. He's still figuring out how to effectively pass out of them, and often he waits too long to make a decision. "We'll sit on his right shoulder or his left shoulder. We'll put all our pressure on that shoulder. He has to basically push off a little, hold us off and really try to get into his move before the double team can come to him and over that left or right shoulder," Saunders explains.
Now, the dissonance between the once-in-a-generation prospect we were sold and the product we see on the floor is that his accelerated progress almost belies how far he still has to go. In the NBA, equal parts braintrust and chess match, Wiggins' most important fight will be waged against his own scouting report, with the nitty-gritty drills and details being the ideal vehicle to push him over the edge. Hey, better them than Garnett.