October 18, 2018
Despite his team's 5-31 record, and his own inefficiency, Wiggins is expanding his game.

Things aren’t going well in Minnesota. The Timberwolves have lost 31 of their 36 games, including the last 15 in a row, and are missing all three of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin. But the one encouraging beacon of hope amid all the losing has been Andrew Wiggins. The number one overall pick in last year’s draft has scored 151 points over the last seven games, and is starting to find his way offensively. BBALLBREAKDOWN colleague Kelly Scalleta has written that Chicago BullS forward Nikola Mirotic is the deserving front runner for rookie of the year, but if Wiggins continues to score in volume, it’s doubtful the old media would give Mirotic the honors over him.

Wiggins is doing most of his work out of the post. The Timberwolves run a pet set on every other possession, in which a wing will set a baseline screen for the wing cutting from the weak-side to establish deep position. They do it not just for Wiggins, but also for Shabazz Muhammad and Chase Budinger, and Muhammad too was thriving prior to injury (although Budinger isn’t interested in that post-up life).

Flip Saunders is heavily invested in seeing his young players develop a back-to-the-basket game, even if modern basketball is going away from that. Wiggins is encouraged to create his own shot out of the post regardless of who is defending him, whether it is point guards like Kyrie Irving and Tony Parker, or wings of prototypical size such as LeBron James, Rudy Gay and Danny Green.

On occasion, Wiggins has flashed great footwork working his defender for layups, as well as some passing instincts. Mostly, however, he looks to take turnaround jump-shots because the lane is always crowded. Minnesota is one of the worst teams in the league generating spacing, despite the fact they still have several half-decent shooters healthy. Thaddeus Young in particular rarely ever knows where to stand when he doesn’t have the ball.

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This has also hurt Wiggins when he is forced to create against a set defense. He’s not been in position to use his explosive first step by attacking closeouts very often, because the Timberwolves rarely force the defense out of position by swinging the ball even a couple of times in a given possession.

The one creative thing Saunders has done is having Wiggins screen on pick-and-rolls, and those have often led to good results. But most of his 94 drives have been one-on-ones, and this is not something Wiggins excels at right now. He remains unable to create much separation off the bounce, still relying on his go-to spin move a little too much to get to the rim. I believe he has improved his ability to maintain his balance through contact, but his handle is still loose and he continues to struggle with his touch finishing in a crowd, shooting just 41.5% on those drives according to NBA.com’s SportVU tracking technology.

Minnesota’s unhealthy offensive ecosystem has gotten Wiggins open on just 35.5% of his shots, although he shares some responsibility in this. Sometimes Wiggins won’t pull the trigger on a potentially contested look off the catch, instead opting to put the ball on the floor, only to realize there’s no path to the rim with at least a couple of opponents in the lane and pulling up for a mid-range shot. Wiggins looks like a decent shooter off the bounce, getting pretty good elevation to shoot over defenders and doing so in balance. Yet a hand in his face affects his accuracy a lot, as he’s converted just 29.6% of his 137 pull-up attempts and 33% of his 194 mid-range shots. Thankfully, as detailed by ‘Eric in Madison’ at Canis Hoopus, his long-two point jumpshot attempts rate has declined over the last couple of weeks, signaling Wiggins and the team understand the need to clean up this shot out of his game.

Wiggins is probably better served being more aggressive taking the looks created for him off the catch, as he’s hit 45.7% of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts. Right now he seems only to be confident taking these shots with no defender within four feet of him (with such shots accounting for 49 of his 60 three-point attempts), but opportunities figure to increase once (if ever) Rubio and his playmaking return. It would be great if the Timberwolves started getting Wiggins some shots off pin-down screens or running him off baseline screens for catches above the foul line, because his floor game is limited at this point and those sort of actions would allow him better opportunities to attack off a live dribble.

Things are different on the defensive end, where Saunders has absolutely stretched Wiggins, having him guard the opponent’s best perimeter player on a nightly basis. It matters little what position they play. He’s started games guarding point guards like Tony Parker, wings of a similar physical profile like Rudy Gay and Gerald Green, and bigger wings like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokuompo.

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As projected, Wiggins has been a plus-defender right away at the pro level, though not necessarily a difference-making one. He hustles back in transition, gets on his stance, has great lateral quickness to stay attached to his man in isolation and exhibits good closing speed to contest spot-up shots effectively. But he’s unable to contain dribble penetration through contact and struggles navigating screens. Wiggins either leans into the opposing big man or goes under slowly, though he’s shown able to recover very quickly and use his length to contest mid-range shots.

Despite a slow start, then, Wiggins continues to improve. He has started looking like a vague form of the star he’s expected to become in time, despite the fact the Timberwolves have not put him in a good position for what his skill-set is at the moment. With the returns of others, better talent around him and better cohesion, Wiggins should continue to develop his all-around efficiency, which right now is his biggest weakness. With it, he could be a two way star.

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Rafael Uehara

Rafael Uehara is a contributor at bballbreakdown.com. More of his stuff can be read at basketballscouting.wordpress.com, his personal blog, and Upside & Motor, where he's also a regular contributor.

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