The first 46 minutes of Andrew Wiggins’ sixth NBA season all but ensured this one would be no different.
Struggling to score efficiently and make the game easier for his teammates, Wiggins looked like exactly the same player he’d been throughout his career. Offseason hopes of wholesale improvement sparked by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ regime change had already been proven foolhardy.
The last seven minutes of Minnesota’s season-opening victory against the Brooklyn Nets, though, allowed for that optimism to linger.
Three weeks later, Wiggins is defying expectations in all the right ways, playing the best basketball of his career to lead the upstart Timberwolves to a 6-4 record.
And while it’s still too early to call his play the new status quo, Wiggins’ early-season progress is nevertheless a reminder of how environment informs a player’s growth.
The top draft pick in 2014, Wiggins was one of the most hyped high-school prospects ever, even being compared to LeBron James. Drawing broad similarities between him and James was always a stretch, but Wiggins’ jaw-dropping athleticism and nascent scoring skills at 6-foot-8 made his ceiling limitless regardless.
An underwhelming freshman season at Kansas hardly dimmed his potential, and neither did a debut NBA campaign in which Wiggins won Rookie of the Year. Two years later, the Timberwolves signed him to a five-year, $148 million contract that most league analysts deemed an overpay.
That skepticism ballooned the following season when Minnesota brought in Jimmy Butler, relegating Wiggins to a supporting offensive role that played into his worst tendencies. His penchant for floating through games persisted last season, even after Butler forced his way out of Minnesota.
But coach Ryan Saunders and new front office honcho Gersson Rosas entered this season intent on rehabilitating Wiggins’ career. They’ve put the ball back in his hands, letting him play de facto point guard for a rebuilt offense prioritizing pace and three-pointers.
Wiggins has responded by reasserting himself as a worthy co-star to Karl-Anthony Towns, averaging 25.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game. He’s using a team-high 27.5 percent of Minnesota’s possessions, and has emerged as the most efficient crunch-time scorer in the NBA.
Merely reverting back to his previous alpha-dog role wouldn’t have sparked change in Wiggins. He came into the league subsisting on post-ups and mid-range jumpers, shots he continued relying on even as the rest of the league veered away from them.
But Rosas and Saunders have embraced analytics in way the Timberwolves never did before, and Wiggins has, too. He’s taking fewer long two-pointers than ever, instead putting an emphasis on attacking the rim and stepping behind the arc for threes. The result isn’t just an easy career-high 52.7 effective field goal percentage, but newfound effectiveness as a playmaker derived from the constant pressure he’s putting on defenses.
Wiggins has taken flak for a supposedly shoddy work ethic, a perception based more on his minimal development than inside intel. Still, he and the Timberwolves have been quick to mention the extra training he put in over the summer to prepare for what still might be a make-or-break season.
“Every good thing that happens to Andrew, Andrew deserves because Andrew does work hard and he had a different mindset this summer,” Saunders said, per Chris Hine of the Star Tribune.
It’s too early to say Wiggins is bound for full-fledged superstardom. But every game he strays from the outdated scoring instincts that made him among basketball’s most frustrating players, there’s more reason to believe Wiggins has turned a corner most assumed he never would.
And for a player sometimes beset by waning confidence, the fawning reception of success-starved Timberwolves fans certainly helps.
Last modified: September 23, 2020 1:15 PM