By J.M. Poulard
There’s an old saying in professional sports that potential will get you killed. Valuing a prospective future at the expense of immediate or medium-term production is a recipe that can get executives and coaches fired.
Does this apply to Minnesota Timberwolves guard Andrew Wiggins?
It’s a fascinating question given that the way he’s evolved through three seasons in the league.
Wiggins’ shot selection has improved as he’s gained experience and acquired a better grasp of where to get his looks from, and his ball-handling is now at a point where the Timberwolves can regularly utilize Wiggins in pick-and-rolls.
He’s morphed into a somewhat efficient scorer who can take advantage of the opposition in the right matchups. Passive diminutive players that lack strength are in trouble against Wiggins, because he will punish them on switches in the low-post area.
That growth in his offensive game will make most general managers salivate at the idea of building a nucleus around him. After all, Wiggins is only 22 years old, and he seems poised potentially to evolve as the second coming of Tracy McGrady or Paul George.
The 6’8’’ Wiggins is one of the most athletic players in the league, and he appears destined for stardom in a league where more and more franchises are adopting the pace and space identity for their teams. With increased spacing, Wiggins would get additional opportunities to attack off the bounce and finish at the basket.
That isn’t the case yet, though, which is important to note when assessing where he is now and what the future holds.
The Wolves are a bottom-third team in the league when it comes to 3-point percentage and sit next to last in attempts. In other words, Wiggins is consistently navigating in traffic, thus preventing him from consistently manufacturing quality shot attempts.
Have a look below at the percentage of shots he takes with his defender within zero-to-two feet worth’s of distance, and how he fares when compared to other perimeter scorers:
|Player||% of FGs Vs Defender in 0-2 Ft||FG%|
Wiggins is the only player in the group to take over 20 percent of his field goals against a defender within two feet of distance or less. Also, he has the lowest field-goal percentage in that setting.
Part of that is a product of the personnel around him as previously mentioned, but Wiggins deserves some blame as well. He does not view the floor well and as a result will miss some of his open teammates when crowded by defenders.
The Wolves often utilize No. 22 as a pick-and-roll ball handler, where as one would guess it, he’s average on most days, per NBA.com. The lack of surrounding floor spacers makes it easy for opponents to collapse on these plays, and Wiggins isn’t great (yet) at getting from one spot to the next while handling the ball in traffic, which limits the areas he can access.
One way to counter that is by inverting the offense by stationing frontcourt players – within shooting range – on the perimeter while Wiggins operates near the block. He is effective at backing down his man and turning around for a jump shot, but he faces issues against active defenders.
Because he lacks upper body strength, it’s difficult to maintain position and seal his player as he awaits for the ball to find him. What’s more, even when he is in possession of the ball, Wiggins will have trouble against bulkier defenders that can push him off his spot.
Wiggins has struggled against the San Antonio Spurs this season precisely because of this. Kawhi Leonard has swarmed him with his physical defense and bothered his every move. In three games, Wiggins has made 14-of-44 (31.8 percent) shots and turned the ball over 10 times. Granted, few players have actually solved the Kawhi riddle, so it’s not a damning fact that Leonard has given Wiggins fits.
However, there are weaknesses in his game that other teams have been able to exploit.
For instance, he is not a great or even good open shooter. Indeed, NBA.com tells us that he only converts 37.4 percent of his wide open shots (no defender within six feet), which is somewhat problematic given that he doesn`t excel at anything other than finishing at the rim.
What’s more, his lack of upper body strength makes routine appearances in screen setting (average at best on this front) and on defense.
Wiggins gets hung up on picks and gets pushed around for rebounds, which he acknowledged to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst coming into this campaign:
“I looked at my stats, and I was like, ‘I’m too big and too athletic to average three rebounds a game,'” Wiggins said. “A lot of people can score. What else can you do?”
He is self-aware enough to understand his limitations and has taken steps every year to correct them little by little, and that suggests his growth mindset will remain.
If I were the Minnesota general manager, some of these details would concern me and perhaps lead to some hesitation when it came time to decide on whether or not he is worth a max extension.
And then, one would be forced to come to the realization that it’s absurd to even contemplate a world where Wiggins does not get paid.
After all, the third-year player turned 22 in February and is averaging 22.5 points per 36 minutes while shooting 46 percent from the field.
His scoring and efficiency have risen every year, which is somewhat remarkable considering where he started. Indeed, during his rookie season, Wiggins was a weird cog in a democratic offense that made little sense. He was forced to fend for himself and find shots alongside Kevin Martin, Thaddeus Young, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Shabazz Muhamad and Mo Williams.
It was difficult for Wiggins to find his way in this setting given that he lacked the experience to understand where to get his shots in the offense. Thus, he got out in transition and tried to attack the offensive glass given his imperfect fit in the team scheme.
He was often forced to stand around and watch others operate before the ball eventually found him in seemingly uncomfortable spots. Because he was a poor ball handler, he was incredibly limited on the perimeter and had to hope others would create for him.
This is why a little over 60 percent of his field-goal attempts came with either zero or one dribble in his rookie season. Contrast that with today, Wiggins is now among the top scorers in the league (ranks 13 in points per game), and he is doing this in a variety of ways.
As ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe noted, there’s a great player coming soon:
“I’m still betting big on his long-term success. Wiggins will be an All-Star. Will he be a top-5 or even a top-10 player? Maybe not. But when did that become the standard? When did anything but that become a failure?”
He has evolved into an average 3-point shooter (was subpar his first two years), has improved as a ball handler to the point where he can run secondary pick-and-rolls and is a legit post-up threat in the right matchups. Wiggins is still adjusting at reading the floor, but it’s really the first year where he’s really had to consistently figure out where the swarms are coming from.
He is going through an adjustment period, and he will have to maintain the workload and potentially even increase it to turn himself into a complete player. Minnesota head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau believes so as well.
“I want Wigg to improve, to get better, to be strong on both sides of the ball,” Thibodeau stated, according to the Minneapolis StarTribune’s Jerry Zgoda. “He can make this whatever he wants it to be. But he’s got to work.’’
Sure, he’s a work in progress, but he’s light years ahead of where he stood two seasons ago at this point. Heck, Wiggins’ last 10 games offer a glimpse into what the future might possibly hold. He’s averaging 28.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals on 50.2 percent shooting overall and 38.9 percent from long range.
That’s Kawhi territory folks.
That’s the biggest issue plaguing Wiggins in Year 3.
One easily forgets how young and inexperienced he is, and thus expect him to join the elite now while forgetting that most of the top players in the league truly ascended right around their third seasons in the NBA.
As much as one would like for Wiggins to become a terrorizing once-in-a-generation force, it will take at least another year before it’s known for sure whether he has that in him. The process may be mundane on some level, but he has continuously augmented his repertoire, which suggests Wiggins will improve on a year-to-year basis and reach the elite.
The potential coupled with production is there, and that tells me Wiggins will be good for a long time coming.
That’s what we should all make of him.