May 10, 2018, 1:05 am
We continue our player spotlight series with another young gun for the Wolves, but this one is much more polarizing among NBA circles. Andrew Wiggins was a former No. 1 overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers, traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a deal for then franchise-icon Kevin Love. Four years later, he’s averaged a shade under 20 points per game, set to earn a maximum salary and has a playoff appearance under his belt. Yet many feel there is a lot left to be desired.
The hype surrounding Wiggins coming out of the draft was immense. He had all the athletic tools that scouts drool over, excellent measurements and was one of the youngest players in the draft, coming off a productive single season at Kansas. His potential was limitless, perhaps unfairly so. There were concerns, sure, but nothing that people figured he wouldn’t be able to figure out. He wasn’t a bad person with a shaky past, or a troubled teammate. They were mostly questions about his shooting, but the answer was always “in due time, he’ll be fine.”
After spending four years in the league, the hope was that the narrative has changed somewhat (for the better), but here we are and many of the same buzzwords still surround Wiggins. He’s played in every possible game in his career, 332 including the playoffs, and yet it feels like Wiggins hasn’t made any significant progress in his game.
All of the tools are still in the toolbox, which is why the narrative is still somewhat positive. He’s still young at only 23, he’s still the most athletic player on the floor, when he’s giving it his 100 percent, and he still has the allure of this untapped potential that three coaching staffs have been unable to crack.
There are now two key differences that have really divided Minnesota fans. One is money and two is his fit on the team.
Wiggins is still considered to have another level that he’s yet to reach. The Wolves’ ownership think so because they offered a five-year, $146 million contract extension that he accepted. The problem is now there is no time for potential, the Wolves need more production, a realization of that superstar player they hoped they acquired from Cleveland.
If anything, Wiggins took a step back in his fourth year after the Wolves completely remade their roster and acquired Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. Even with Butler out, a factor that many pointed to as the main reason for his decline, Wiggins wasn’t able to step up and increase his production.
Now a nearly $30 million dollar player per year, Wiggins’ future is still as cloudy as ever.
2017/18 Stats: 82 G | 82 GS | 36.3 MP | 17.7 PTS | 4.4 REB | 1.9 AST | 1.1 STL | 0.6 BLK | 1.7 TOV | 43.8 FG% | 33.1 3P% | 64.3 FT% | 48.1 eFG% | 23.4 USG% | 101 ORate | 113 DRate
In almost every number across the board this was, statistically, Wiggins’ worst year since his rookie season. His points, assists, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, offensive rating and defensive rating were all his worst since his rookie season, or simply his worst ever. He made the most 3-pointers in his career, but his percentage took a step back from last year, an already unspectacular 35.6 percent.
Some of these can be pointed directly at the veteran additions made in the offseason. His usage rate was the lowest since his rookie season, as were his shot attempts. At the same time his 3-point attempts increased while his free throw attempts fell dramatically. Wiggins’ shot distribution changed and the results were mixed, at best.
On one hand, Wiggins taking more 3-pointers was a good thing because he took them at the expense of long two’s. The long two is the worst shot in basketball, and Wiggins consistently ranked near the top in attempts from that range (fourth most in 2016/17). The 3-point shot is a much better option, especially when it typically requires just one step back from where he usually took them. As a result, his effective field goal percentage remained fairly consistent with last year, despite a lower free throw and 3-point percentage.
On the other hand, Wiggins seemed a little too passive at times, especially when driving to the rim. He settled a bit too often, even pulling up on drives in the lane instead of taking the extra dribble to the rack. While Wiggins cut out the long pull up two’s from his game, he added more floaters and turnarounds at the expense of layups, dunks and free throws. Wiggins’ free throw attempts fell from 6.6 to 3.8.
The reason for this shift in Wiggins’ shot chart resulted from the addition of new veterans, as mentioned above, but also from the coaching staff. Often Wiggins would be relegated to the corner as a floor spacer and find himself out of many plays in favor of Butler or Karl-Anthony Towns. Tom Thibodeau would combat this by giving Wiggins more time in the first quarter than the rest of the starters, but Jamal Crawford did little to support Wiggins’ efforts to get more shot attempts.
Some of this is also on Wiggins, though. He has the athletic ability to beat his defender off the ball and fill in space correctly, but that would be a rarity. If Wiggins didn’t have the ball in his hands, he would often be stagnant.
When Derrick Rose stepped in for the Wolves, he was very good about cutting into the lane and receiving a quick pass from someone and scoring at the rim. It stood out like a sore thumb because it was such a rare occurrence for anyone on the Wolves. Wiggins has the ability to thrive in that sort of style, but for one reason or another he wasn’t incorporated in that way.
Squish all of that together and you get an inefficient offensive player that can’t really be relied upon from anywhere on the floor. Remember Towns’ shot chart? Wiggins’ is about the exact opposite, courtesy of NBA.com/stats.
The mid range for Wiggins is, quite honestly, horrifying, especially when considering it’s still his favorite shot despite cutting them down a bit. The interior isn’t much better, but at the rim he’s still slightly above league average.
Whether it’s been a mental block that has affected Wiggins, mixed messages from the coaching staff or teammates, or simply he just lacks the inner motivation to improve remains in question. His lack of development, and if anything regression, is a troubling sign that is close to becoming a trend. After four years of more or less that same, when does his potential expire and become who he is?
Defensively Wiggins hasn’t been all that much better. He’s plagued by inconsistencies despite possessing all the raw ability in the world, awesome when he wants to be and a statue the rest of the time, which is the majority. It shouldn’t be an event when Wiggins pieces everything together for one defensive possession, but sadly it sticks out when he does.
Wiggins doesn’t need to be a Jimmy Butler on defense (even though he probably could), but raising that baseline would be advantageous for his future development. For what it’s worth the Wolves were better defensively when Wiggins was on the floor than when he was off, but considering Crawford and Shabazz Muhammad were typically the ones replacing him the bar wasn’t very high.
Overall this sounds like a pessimistic approach to Wiggins’ season, but it’s not necessarily meant to be. Anyone watching Wiggins knows this was not his best year, he even said so himself. He had his moments, particularly early in the season when he hit a game-winner over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
That game was peak Wiggins, everything fans expected out of him when the Wolves acquired him three years prior. It came in the first week of the season and many expected a monster breakout. Unfortunately it never came, only setting up for more disappointment.
Entering year five and a monster contract, it still feels like there’s more to Wiggins than what we have, but patience is beginning to run thin. Perhaps the Wolves will use that allure of potential to ship him somewhere else.
Upon signing a five-year, $146 million extension last summer it was assumed that Wiggins was one of the most secure Wolves on the roster. Owner Glen Taylor specifically told Thibs that Wiggins was untouchable in a trade, first in the Butler trade, then later in a rumored Kyrie Irving trade. Taylor challenged Wiggins before signing the extension to be a better player, mentioning that he wasn’t just paying Wiggins for what he’s done, but what he can potentially do.
That sounds obvious on paper, but generally star players in all sports are paid for what they’ve done. You’re perhaps expecting some bad years at the end of the deal, but that’s part of the cost for the immediate production. Taylor gave Wiggins a massive contract extension and a pinky promise that he’d improve.
Right now Taylor is probably already having some buyers remorse, and Wiggins hasn’t even started his new deal yet.
It’s fair to say that, as outlined above, Wiggins isn’t the best fit on this Wolves team as currently constructed. The team craves floor spacers with Butler, Gibson and Teague all interior based guys. Towns is an interior guy as well, but he’s also the team’s best outside shooter, so he find himself spacing the floor. At least Towns can succeed in that role. If you’ve reached this far in the article and believe Wiggins can, please start over from the top.
Unfortunately the coaching staff, thanks to roster construction and process of elimination, has put Wiggins in the role. The slow paced, halfcourt, clogged paint style of Thibs’ Wolves just doesn’t cater to Wiggins’ strengths. In three of Wiggins’ four years the Wolves have ranked in the bottom 20 in pace and 30th in 3-point shooting. In an offense that spaces the floor or plays at a faster pace, or both, Wiggins would possibly be much more valuable.
With that in mind, the Wolves face a tight cap situation ahead. With Towns in line for a max-contract extension, and Butler right behind him, the Wolves could tie their future into this core of players. They will be facing the luxury tax next season at this current rate. Is this team a championship level team? That is the question Taylor is wondering right now.
To significantly improve the team, pieces need to be shuffled around, but with no room to wiggle, existing players are at risk. With Gorgui Dieng borderline un-tradeable, the Wolves may have to turn to Wiggins.
He’d be tough to move with his contract, but they can still use that potential of a better player to their advantage. A bad team could be looking to buy the lottery ticket and take the risk. A small market that has trouble drawing star free agents could be their only shot. Perhaps a good team looking to shuffle the deck, or hoping to cash in some dead weight contracts.
A team like the Sacramento Kings could make sense, who have a collection of veteran players with contracts that could match, and a potential throw in like Buddy Hield to sweeten the deal. They have promising players at nearly every position, but could use that feature player on the wing.
Kevin O’Connor from the Ringer floated some ideas for the Toronto Raptors, including a deal that would send Wiggins and Teague for Kyle Lowry, C.J. Miles and Pascal Siakam. Such a deal might be attractive for the Wolves. They would add shooting and defense, but if things don’t work out have a completely cleared cap by the end of 2019/2020. It’s doubtful the Raptors believe their key to beating LeBron is Wiggins, though.
Maybe the Washington Wizards feel the need to mix things up and Bradley Beal or Otto Porter swap could be on the table. It would help the Wolves’ shooting woes, but likely ship them off to the Capital.
The alternative, of course, is to change the players around Wiggins. With the amount of money tied up simply signing players to minimum contracts could feel like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, so maybe Thibs and Butler are the ones to go.
The Wolves will look at all their options, and as a questionable fit Wiggins is a logical step to move on from. No decision will be easy however, least of all parting with the guy who was once thought of the unicorn. Minnesota might be quiet about shopping him, but in a league that feeds off of the rumor mill, expect the noise to pick up as the offseason progresses.
Or the Wolves stay on course and see if the elusive potential of Wiggins finally materializes.