It’s almost two years to the day since Nicolas Batum first saw Andrew Wiggins play in person. “It was right here in Portland, when he played in the Hoop Summit,” recalls the Blazers’ swingman, getting dressed after his squad beat up on Wiggins’ young Timberwolves in one of the last games of the ’14-15 season. “I was at the game and it was clear he was good, the way he was jumping all around the court that day. But I didn’t think it would come together so quick.”
Join the club, Nic. Andrew’s potential has been obvious since the now-20-year-old Canadian became a YouTube sensation in the ninth grade. I saw Wiggins play in the Jordan Brand Classic the week before Batum caught him at the Hoop Summit, and the way he flew along the baseline had visions of Tracy McGrady dancing in my head.
But good hops and a smooth gait do not a superstar make. It takes skill, intensity, dedication and a whole lot more. That’s where people wondered if Wiggins, who carries himself with a shyness radically different than the swagger most NBA stars walk around with, would have what it takes.
“There was really just one question about Andrew,” says a Timberwolves staffer who asked not to be identified. “Is he hungry enough? The answer is yes. We can see it in the big games, against the best players. Look what he did against Cleveland.”
In December, in Wiggins’ first matchup with the franchise that picked him first overall in last year’s Draft but then traded him to Minnesota for Kevin Love, the 6-8, 200-pound wing went for 27 points. A little more than a month later, as Love made his much-hyped return to the Twin Cities, Wiggins notched a season-high 33 points on 14-25 shooting, and also snagged 4 steals. Game, raised.
Batum, the seventh-year pro who not only saw Wiggins in high school but also has almost the exact same build as him, guarded him head-to-head four times this year. “It’s amazing—I played against him four times this year, and he got better each time. For real. We played him a couple times in December [November 30 and December 10] and then last month and then tonight, and each time he’s been better. I’m surprised he got better so quick.”
What’s interesting to see in person is the grown-up nature of Wiggins’ game on offense, which tonight includes and-ones out of halfcourt sets and turnaround 15-footers that hit nothing but net. During a rollicking high school career spent primarily at Huntington (WV) Prep and then his one season at Kansas, Wiggins usually made his mark in transition. He could make a steal himself, leak out on a miss or just out-run opponents to create a one-man fast break that often ended in a crowd-pleasing dunk (think of his jam over age-appropriate rival Jabari Parker and Duke in his national-television debut in November of 2013 as the perfect example). The other place he stood out was in isolations on the wing, where he could face up a smaller, less-athletic defender and go around, through or over them for a bucket and/or a trip to the free-throw line.
It’s a package that yielded 23 ppg as a senior in high school and 17 ppg at Kansas. The numbers, height and wingspan all translated well to the pros, but without a dead-eye jumper (which he still doesn’t have), how would it work in the big, bad NBA?
Well, as you see in person (or by watching on TV, which couldn’t have happened all that often for non-Minnesotans), he’s working out just fine, albeit in an unexpected way. What the Wolves do tonight, on almost every halfcourt possession with Wiggins, is let him establish position in the post, throw the ball in, and let him go to work. And he can. Going up against Batum, who has a good reputation for isolation defense, Wiggins has the skill and power to control the ball, score in a variety of ways, or pass the ball out to the perimeter or hit cutters. It’s reminiscent of the way some of the game’s greatest scorers operate. “Melo, Paul George, LeBron, they all have a post-up game, and he’s getting one too,” Batum says. “He’s gonna get there.”
Says Wiggins’ teammate Kevin Martin, an 11-year pro, “Andrew has all the tools to be a special player. Tonight is a prime example of how he can hold his own against bigger, older players. I don’t think even he understands just how good he can be.”
For now, of course, Wiggins and his promise reside in Minnesota, where the TWolves just wrapped up a League-worst, 16-66 campaign, and head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, derided in many corners as a dinosaur with no grasp of how modern basketball works, has as much control over the franchise as anyone in the NBA.
When Saunders drops soundbites about not liking three-pointers, and not wanting Wiggins to take too many of them, stat-friendly observers—including local fans and media scarred by the longest Playoff drought in the NBA (2004!!!)— shudder. In the long-term, those observers are right. Three pointers are more valuable if deployed correctly, and Wiggins will be a better player if he is a consistent threat from downtown. But Wiggins, with or without encouragement from Saunders, can take his game outside as time goes on. He’s got the form and athleticism already, he just needs to work on his shot. And having just turned 20, with the first of many off seasons in front of him, he’s got time. Given all that, getting the tougher, inside part of the game down first is not a bad idea.
Wiggins says he’s happy with how he’s used and feels like where things go from here is largely up to him. “Coach gives me the freedom to do whatever. He just doesn’t want me to settle,” Wiggins says during our post-season cover shoot, held largely at the First Avenue Club, made famous by Prince. “I can take three-pointers or any other shot, but I need to be aggressive. There was a time in the season when I was taking more threes, but as my legs got tired I was losing the bounce on my jumpshot a little, so I started taking less and just trying to attack the rim more. That also helps me get to the line a lot, which is a strength of mine.”
Wiggins went to the stripe almost 6 times a game this season, hitting 76 percent there, as part of a year-end stat line that read 16.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.1 apg and 1 spg, with 44 percent shooting from the field and a “mere” 41 made three-pointers total. After the All-Star Break, he took a lot less threes and a lot more free throws, and his scoring average rose to 20 ppg.
None of the individual numbers, which led to Wiggins being named Rookie of the Year, had much effect on Minnesota’s record. To an outsider, it seems like the Wolves were in Sixers-level tank mode from the day the season started, content to let Wiggins develop while the losses and ping-pong balls piled up. Wiggins points out, however, that the original plan was much different. “We were set up to have a good season this year,” he says. “We were young, sure, but it was the injuries that really hurt. We had guys go down all season, and that makes things tough.”
A lineup featuring Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio alongside rookies Wiggins and Zach LaVine might have won 35 games and been competitive every night. Instead, the vets lost substantial time to injury, the Wolves traded power forward Thaddeus Young to Brooklyn in February, and the team got blown out regularly.
Turned loose, Wiggins started all 82 games and played the most minutes in the NBA from December 1 until the end of the season. LaVine got valuable time, too. And the ping-pong balls did pile up, giving the Wolves a better chance than anyone at landing another transformative talent.
“It’s never fun to lose, but we got a lot of experience and we will only get better,” Wiggins says. “I didn’t think I’d play this much, definitely not be leading the NBA in minutes or anything, but I think it was a positive. Flip let the young guys like me and Zach get all those minutes and use them as a chance to get better. The best way to get better is to play, and we got to do that.”
LaVine and Wiggins at least also entertained. The rookie from UCLA flew to the Slam Dunk Title even easier than the rookie from Kansas won ROY. And along the way, the high-
flyers became fan favorites. “Guys like me and Zach, when we get out on a break, the fans go crazy,” Wiggins says about life as a Bounce Brother. “I mean, we go crazy ourselves, just watching or on the bench or whatever, because we love to see it. So I know how the fans feel.”
The place Wiggins felt the most love of all this season was in Toronto, where the Wolves played in mid-March. “The game in Toronto was the highlight of my season,” says Wiggins, who grew up in Vaughan, Ontario, just north of Canada’s biggest city. “All of my family was able to see me play. I had at least 50 people there and it was all love. Even the regular fans I didn’t know showed love and cheered when I scored. That was a great feeling.”
To get more great feelings, Wiggins knows he needs to create wins. And with the franchise focused on youth and letting him do pretty much what he wants, wins or losses are going to be on his shoulders. “[Being the leader] is not extra pressure for me,” Wiggins promises. “As the season went on I got a little more comfortable with everything—shooting, scoring and leading. There is still a lot of stuff I need to work on, too. Ballhandling, shooting, attacking the rim. I’m going to watch tape of myself, I’m going to practice my skills, all of that. I definitely don’t want to be the same player next season that I was this season.”
Back in Portland after the late-season Blazer loss, Saunders is lamenting the lineup he trotted out. “Playing the Blazers with all our injuries, it’s like men against boys,” he says. “We’re playing four guys who played in the NBDL this year.”
Of course, that means more minutes and shots for Wiggins. What does the coach think of how he’s developed? “Andrew just keeps getting stronger,” Flip says. “There were stretches when we got him the ball in the post and he just went to work.”
Just like the recipient of that work was saying. “All he needs is a jumper and to develop his court vision,” Batum says. “He had 4 assists tonight, which isn’t bad, but I think he’ll average 5 or 6 in the future.”
Fully dressed now, Batum pauses and looks me right in the eye.
“He’s going to be a 22-6-5 guy for a long time. Believe me.”
Ben Osborne is a former Editor-in-Chief of SLAM. Follow him on twitter @bosborne17.
Portraits by Ahmed Klink