November 16, 2019, 3:57 am
It was easy to write off Andrew Wiggins. The anti analytics darling has failed to deliver up to massive hype to this point in his career, turning into a low-volume scorer who can’t elevate his teammates while coasting through losing seasons. Burdened by a contract that he didn’t deserve, Wiggins has looked nothing like a former No. 1 overall pick.
This year, however, things look different. It’s far too early to declare that Wiggins has turned the corner, as five years of questionable performance most definitely deserve more weight than 11 games, but there are notable and significant changes in the way Wiggins is playing this year.
For a Minnesota team that’s trying to figure out who will and won’t fit next to Karl-Anthony Towns, any progress is meaningful. Apart from the cynical discussion of how this impacts Wiggins’ potential trade value, this stretch of play has at least cracked the door open for the idea that Wiggins can be part of the solution.
Of course, we’ve seen Wiggins produce quality numbers before. In 2016-17, Wiggins’ last full season without Jimmy Butler, he averaged 23.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks and 1.3 3-pointers on .452 from the field and .760 from the line.
Those numbers are below what Wiggins has put up through 11 games this season, but not so far out of whack that this year is a total surprise: 25.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks and 2.4 3-pointers per game on .478 from the field and .736 from the line.
The major strides? Wiggins has posted improved numbers in 2.5 fewer minutes per game while cutting his turnovers from 2.3 to 1.5 per contest.
More importantly, it’s the way that Wiggins is doing this that suggests it’s more than a return to his typical progression now that Butler is out of the picture.
Long known as a player who operates in the mid-range, it’s clear that this season Wiggins has drastically cut down on his attempts from 2-point range, with the chunk of points he scores on twos shrinking in size over the last couple seasons.
More threes at the expense of twos isn’t necessarily great when you account for 3-point shooting ability, but Wiggins is currently shooting .365 from behind the arc, which would be a career-best if it sticks all season. He’s also increased his free throw makes and attempts to three-year highs. Those profile changes are reflected by the spike in Wiggins’ effective field goal percentage.
While fewer two-point shots suggests more catch-and-shoot looks, or at least shots generated by ball and player movement in general, somewhat counterintuitively, more of Wiggins’ buckets are coming unassisted than ever before.
This is where some of Wiggins’ less noticeable gains come into play. With a vastly improved handle, Wiggins has taken to more of an aggressive, driving style of play. The NBA logs each shot that a player takes and categorizes it into a certain shot type. The league keeps track of driving layups, driving finger rolls, driving floaters, driving hooks and driving dunks. It’s a bit of a crude measure since Wiggins might be losing credit on a few drives that turn into jumpers, step-backs or fadeaways, but the numbers clearly point to an increase in drives for Wiggins. More bluntly, the NBA is crediting Wiggins with 13.8 drives per game this season. Last year, he was averaging 7.9 per contest.
That’s led to the analytically friendly developments of more shots from the restricted area and a big drop in the amount of shots and the percentage of scoring that Wiggins is doing from the mid-range.
One other potential development? Wiggins is turning some of that penetration into better playmaking. He’s currently obliterating his previous career-high (10.8) with a 17.8 assist percentage, all while posting career-low turnover numbers.
The players Wiggins has assisted most this season are Jake Layman and Robert Covington, at 10 and eight, respectively. Of those 18 buckets, 10 are from behind the arc. Of the five players that Wiggins has passed to the most this season, four are wings. Of the 27 buckets that those four players (Covington, Layman, Jarrett Culver and Treveon Graham) have scored following passes from Wiggins, 14 are 3-pointers.
Even Karl-Anthony Towns, the player who has received the most passes from Wiggins, has four threes and four 2-pointers off of Wiggins passes. The paint seems to be clearer, and Wiggins is turning those driving lanes into points, or at the very least, shots for teammates. It’s a more efficient way to live than what we’ve seen through the first five years of his career.
It’s understandable that there’s still skepticism surrounding Wiggins’ play. We’ve seen hot stretches before. And perhaps it is a hot stretch and we can all go back to snide remarks a week from now. It’s possible that we’re being bamboozled again, but this looks like something new entirely.
There are a number of potential causes for the changes beyond just personal growth.
Minnesota’s increased pace seems like a big one, as does the fact that they actually have a roster of pieces that make sense together rather than one that saw a star jammed in at the coach’s behest, fit be damned.
Wiggins is playing at a pace of 106.4, well above last season’s previous best of 101.6. As a whole, the Wolves have rocketed up to second in pace after finishing 13th a season ago. Pushing the tempo seems like a wise call now that this younger version of the team can space the floor properly, and now that Wiggins isn’t constantly swimming upstream he can make the right reads to deliver efficient possessions.
Maybe it’s as simple as working with a gentler, more supportive coach rather than an old-school guy who seemed insistent on recreating decent teams from the last decade.
Maybe it’s as simple as having the pecking order restored and getting out from under the shadow of a prickly star who never seemed all that interested in making things work.
Whatever it is, it’s resulted in a different Andrew Wiggins. Only time will tell if this is just another mirage.