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Monday, September 24th, 2012 at 10:40 am  |  6 responses

Let’s Go

Seventeen-year-old Andrew Wiggins is the best HS player Canada has produced—and may be the most promising one playing in America.

by Matt Caputo / portraits Dermot Cleary

On the second day of the Nike Global Challenge in Alexandria, VA, Andrew Wiggins is the first player in the gym for an 8 p.m. game between his Canadian team and China. He’s so early, in fact, there are still more than two minutes left in the preceding game between USA-East and Brazil. With time to burn, Wiggins parks his lanky frame in the doorway of the gym and watches wide-eyed as Brazil upsets the Americans.

In the same gym hours earlier, Wiggins put on a show that coaches from nearly every major college program—Coach Cal from Kentucky, Rick Pitino from Louisville and Roy Williams from UNC, to name a few—witnessed. He led Canada in an upset of the same USA-East squad that he’s now watching lose to Brazil. In that game, Wiggins scored 23 points, added 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block and a steal in 39 minutes. He didn’t play perfectly, but the promise he showed was enough to reinforce what scouts already know: Andrew Wiggins is probably one of the most gifted prep players in North America, and he already possesses NBA-ready tools and physique.

What the college coaches and several NBA scouts in the gym don’t know about Andrew Wiggins is that he won’t be playing tonight. His shoes are tied and his jersey is tucked in, but he won’t check into the game.

Wiggins travels the layup line normally, dunking once or twice just because the opportunity is there. He stands for the national anthems—Canada and the USA—and then takes the last seat on the bench. Midway through the first quarter, he taps his foot impatiently. In the stands, despite him not getting any burn, the conversations among the coaches and scouts are all about Wiggins. “Just look at the kid, he’s got an NBA body already,” says one NBA scout, observing Wiggins’ 6-7, 205-pound frame in a folding chair. “He’s only going to get stronger.”

As the game continues and Wiggins still languishes on the pine, the video guys—there to capture dunks and crosses for highlight videos they hope go viral—realize what’s up and head out. But many of the coaches present, who are there as much to be seen by Wiggins as they are to see him, stay, even if seasonal NCAA rules prevent them from speaking with him. They stay, even if they can only watch him on the bench. “All he needs to do is straighten out the jump shot and he’ll be alright,” one DI head coach says into an Android phone. “He’ll get there.”

***

It makes sense that Andrew Wiggins is the son of world-class athletes. His father, Mitchell Wiggins, starred at Florida State before embarking on a nearly 20-year pro career that included being the first-round pick of the Pacers in ’83, playing in the NBA Finals with the Rockets in ’86 and—after serving a suspension for testing positive for cocaine—averaging 15.5 ppg for Houston in ’89-90. His mother, Marita Payne, won two Silver medals for Canada in track and field at the ’84 Olympics.

Andrew was born in February of ’95 while his father was still playing professionally overseas. He’s the fourth of his parents’ six children, all of whom play ball. Andrew’s older brothers both stand over 6-5; Mitch Jr, 22, has two years of college eligibility left, and Nick, 21, recently signed with Wichita State. The oldest daughter, Stephanie, 20, also played growing up. The final two Wiggins children, girls Taya, 12, and Angelica, 15, are described as “very good players” by one Canadian coach.

When Andrew was in, as Canadians say, grade seven, he followed his oldest brothers on Mitch Jr’s recruiting visit to Florida State University, where their dad had averaged 23 points per game as a senior in ’83. The brothers found themselves shooting around in the Tucker Center. Andrew connected on an alley-oop from his older brother Nick and dunked for the first time in his life.

He grew into the type of player who commanded the court from every angle. Even now, his leaping ability jumps out at people.

“We were working a pretty advanced drill at a camp and Andrew might have been 13 years old, but didn’t look 13,” says Greg Francis, an assistant coach for Canada’s men’s national team who once led Fairfield to a near upset of North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. “Andrew tried this spin move and tripped, lost his balance and then jumped and had to move his head away from hitting the rim. You could tell how much potential he had even by watching his mistakes.”

Over the summer, at the LeBron James Skills Academy, Wiggins earned praise in a game attended by the camp’s namesake. On one play, he drove down the baseline and released a hawk-like leap, reaching so high from an odd angle that the attempt prompted LBJ to rise from his seat in recognition. Wiggins missed the dunk by a mile, but it was another instance where he left a good impression even while making a mistake.

Wiggins played at Christian Faith Center in North Carolina in eighth grade—his first schooling stint in the States—then bolted back up north for two years before returning to the US in the fall of 2011. At West Virginia’s Huntington Prep, Wiggins fit in right away with the squad of elite level basketball players. He averaged 24.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.7 blocks per game, helping coach Rob Fulford’s  Express to a 28-2 record.

“It’s hard to pinpoint one great game, he’d have 6 or 7 points in a spurt, not score for a couple minutes and then go on another run, end of the game he’s got 30,” says Fulford, recounting Wiggins’ performance last year. “It’s kind of like what Jordan used to do.”

When Wiggins plans to go to college—as opposed to where he’ll choose to go—is the biggest question surrounding the 17-year-old. He’s listed in the Class of 2014, but over the summer, rumors flew that he might reclassify to be eligible for college next fall.

Some speculate that he may go to Kentucky and play for John Calipari, who has coached three of the last five first overall NBA Draft picks. Others say that he might choose Florida State, his father’s alma mater. Those close to Wiggins say that where he goes to school isn’t important.

“It doesn’t really matter where he goes, to be honest with you,” says Mike George, an assistant coach with Canada’s Global Challenge team and co-director of CIA Bounce, a Canadian AAU outfit. “He’s at a level where he can play whether you push the ball or play more in the half court. His athletic ability helps him create for his teammates; it’s a characteristic like LeBron has.”

One thing that makes Wiggins’ situation dissimilar to LeBron’s is that Wiggins has to go to college, while LBJ had the luxury of being able to skip school. He’s already Canada’s most celebrated schoolboy baller ever and doesn’t even go to school there anymore. He ranked at the top of most major rankings for the Class of 2014, and many goes as far as to call him the best player in high school, period.

“It’s impressive to see that he filled out a little bit, he was very skinny,” says Francis, who watched Wiggins at Canada’s Junior National Team tryouts. “He’s quicker and he’s doing things off the dribble that I didn’t see him doing a couple of years ago.”

By all accounts, he’s on pace—maybe slightly ahead of schedule—to be NBA-ready whenever he graduates high school. And that day may come sooner than expected.

***

The last day of the Global Challenge takes place at the DC Armory, closer to the heart of the nation’s capital. The building is showered with Nike swooshes and equipped with several stations designed for fans to test their vertical leap. Bobbito Garcia DJs as local hoops diehards stroll in, eager to see future NBA talent, perhaps from the invited countries.

Guys in polo shirts and khaki shorts holding cell phones and iPads crowd the sidelines and baselines. The number of college coaches and NBA scouts in attendance has multiplied profoundly since Canada’s last game. They’ve spent another long day in the gym by the time Wiggins reaches the court for the title tilt against USA-Midwest at 2 p.m.

The ball goes directly to Wiggins on Canada’s first possession, but neither he nor his teammates find a groove. There’s a hand in Wiggins’ face most of the game and his jumper is pretty streaky. Still, he scores 24 points, collects 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and despite 2 turnovers, he doesn’t get called for one personal foul.

“He looks like a pogo stick out there,” says one assistant coach and ex-NBA player, watching Wiggins from the baseline.

The game runs past the official cutoff time (5 p.m.) for NCAA recruiting during April/July evaluation periods. In compliance, all coaches in attendance make a mass exodus and the baseline that had just been mobbed stands empty.

Wiggins performs solidly in a 100-86 defeat but doesn’t overachieve. In the eyes of those watching him develop closely, Wiggins showed signs of improvement even if he couldn’t capitalize on winning the Global Challenge for Canada. “He was more vocal and he’s competing at a higher level,” says George, Wiggins’ coach since grade nine. “He’s responded to challenges and is taking them personal.”

He emerges from the constructed locker room/backstage area. Waiting reporters occupy a dark corner and faces are hard to see, but distant flashing lights shine on Wiggins’ friendly, honest smile.

“I struggled here, but I shot the ball well in the EYBL, Hoop Summit and during school,” Wiggins says. “It wasn’t my best weekend.”

Even so, he’s not discouraged in the slightest. In the dark, Wiggins says he’s set on graduating with the Class of ’14. Fulford says Wiggins is still undecided on his classification.

As the games end, LeBron James is brought out to half-court at the Armory, causing hysteria in the crowd. On the baseline, Wiggins stands alone and awestruck, staring at his favorite player. At 17, he’s the most naturally gifted kid in basketball, but he’s still working off his childhood. He’s into video games, girls, hitting the movies and the mall.

It’s a reminder that, when he’s ready—when he reaches the point where it all comes together—the basketball world will be waiting to watch him.

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  • KBM

    Posters and putbacks. AW’s gonna be the most exciting dunker in the L.

  • http://twitter.com/ProspectsInEuro Prospects In Europe

    By far the best player from Canada he has been dropping highlight tapes since forever! cant wait till he makes it to the NBA.

  • VanCityBBall

    For those who havent seen the (attempted) dunk that brought LBJ to his feet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGG4HaXeSaM

  • bravo

    cant wait till he hits the NBA…..raptors gotta grab home-town kid!

  • ess turn

    Technically, he only has to be one year removed from college. He could go to a pro league anywhere in the world like Brandon Jennings did.

  • TheDowJones

    No Euro league. That will just hurt his branding for when he enters the L, especially in Canada. People need to see him ball in the NCAA because thats what North Americans know. You leave high school, play NCAA, then you go league. David Stern is going to pull a fast one like he did for New Orleans and Anthony Davis and send Wiggins to Toronto in attempt to grow the NBA even further in Canada as well as attract more American born players to want to stay in Canada and ball. Him going through the motions like every other student athlete is vital to his future bank book, as well as part of a higher plan. Dude is NICE (no homo)

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