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Ruminations on Andrew Wiggins: Western Conference Rookie of the Month

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Andrew Wiggins was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for November, which says a lot more about the performance of this rookie class than it does Andrew Wiggins. What do we make of the prized piece of the Kevin Love trade so far?

Brace Hemmelgarn - USA Today Sports

Andrew Wiggins was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for November yesterday. So the Wolves sent out a press release:

Minneapolis/St. Paul - The NBA today named Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins as its Kia NBA Western Conference Rookie of the Month for November. Wiggins is the sixth Timberwolves player to win Kia NBA Rookie of the Month honors, joining Gorgui Dieng (March 2014), Ricky Rubio (January 2012), Kevin Love (March 2009), Randy Foye (December 2006) and Stephon Marbury (January 1997).

Wiggins averaged 11.6 points (2nd among NBA rookies), 3.7 rebounds and 1.13 steals in 15 games, all starts. He led all rookies in three-point field goal percentage at 44.0 percent (11-for-25). Among Western Conference rookies, Wiggins was 1st in scoring, steals and minutes played, 2nd in blocks and 3rd in rebounding.

The rookies in the Western Conference have not been an impressive lot thus far. Only four of them have played 300 minutes, and of those four, it's at least arguable that Wiggins has performed the worst. Realistically though, none of them--Kostas Papanikolaou, Dante Exum, and Joe Inglis along with Wiggins--have distinguished themselves.

The award doesn't matter, and in truth is merely a way in to start a conversation about the Wolves prized rookie, the guy they absolutely insisted on getting in return for Kevin Love.

I do not come to bury Andrew Wiggins. He's a flawed 19 year old basketball player on a team ravaged with injuries playing horrible basketball. Instead I want to ask: What is the way forward? How does Wiggins get better, and what can the Wolves do to encourage improvement?

But let me take a minute to bury Andrew Wiggins. I promise to excavate him later.

Wiggins has been pretty bad in his first 17 games as a pro. He's been bad in ways we expected: his lack of ball handling ability and strength are major detriments to his game, and are a severe hindrance to his ability to get to the rim on his own. I also worry that some of his vaunted athleticism might have been oversold: I haven't seen the quick first step needed to consistently beat defenders, though it's hard for me to sort out how much of that is his quickness or lack thereof and how much is his poor ball handling and lack of confidence in it.

The result has been an ungodly number of shots, mostly contested, between 10 feet and the three point line. 46% of his shot attempts are coming from those distances, and he's shooting under 30% on them. Overall, his 38% shooting on all two point attempts is disastrous, and indicative of the kinds of shots he's taking.

Wiggins12.4.14

His off the ball numbers have not been impressive either. In particular, he hasn't rebounded the ball well so far, which has contributed the Wolves' dire results in that area at the defensive end, where they are 26th in Dreb%. Wiggins himself is averaging just 3.4 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes, and posting a pedestrian 11.6% Dreb%. He needs to find a way to use his leaping ability more productively on the glass.

Defensively he's been a mixed bag. He's usually matched up against the opponent's best wing player, and he's had his moments. On the other hand, as the season has slogged on and the team defense has gotten nothing but worse, he's regressed in this area as well. He clearly wants to make something happen at that end of the floor, and has gotten his share of steals and deflections for a kid with his lack of experience, but he's also getting beaten more and more frequently, particularly on backdoor cuts and by stronger players. Still, for a 19 year old his defensive skills show a lot more promise than his offensive ones at this point. It isn't the worst thing.

Not surprisingly, his assist and turnover numbers are poor. A 1:2 A/TO ratio, and a clear lack of vision to see a pass. It isn't that he's selfish--in fact he clearly isn't. He just isn't a good passer, which is a real negative given where he usually has the ball--at the elbow and in the mid-post.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue.

Flip Saunders has said on multiple occasions that his approach with young players is to give them some responsibility, and then when they show they can handle it, give them more. If they show they can't, scale things back. He does not appear to be adhering to this plan when it comes to Wiggins.

Everybody wants him to become a superstar. Flip Saunders might need him to become a superstar. So they ask him to do superstar things when they ask him to do anything at all. The most common Wiggins sets involve him getting the ball at the elbow or the mid-post, and being asked to do...something.  This is the common vision of what a superstar wing player does--create good offense out of these kinds of spots.

The problem is Wiggins cannot do this right now. Whether he ever will be able to remains to be seen; we can but hope. Right now, however, he can't. The result of these sets is almost always a missed shot that we would prefer he not take; occasionally it's free throws. He sometimes manages to get fouled out of these sets.

What he doesn't do is get to the rim with any regularity, pick out a pass, or make a basket. It's painful to watch, and I don't think it's aiding his development. Defenses will always give the step-back or contested turn around jumper, and they won't double team unless a guy shows the ability to beat his man one-on-one and get to the rim.

As a result, I don't think forcing him into these situations is helpful. There is very little positive feedback either on an individual or team level, and settling for those jumpers isn't making Wiggins a better player. It's time to scale back.

Or at least change focus on the offensive end for now. What's the one thing he's done better than expected?

Shoot threes. The sample is incredibly small--26 shots in 17 games. He's made 12 of them (46%), almost certainly an unsustainable rate. But he's looked comfortable, particularly from the right wing and the left corner. He's also attempting fewer than 2 per 36 while he's racking up all those contested mid-range misses.

Do I think he's a great three point shooter right now? I do not. But  in the short term this is the development direction that makes the most sense to me. Try to make him into a true "3 and D" player until he develops the skills to add more things to his game. Instead of throwing him the ball in difficult spots and asking him to make plays he isn't capable of making, get him moving to open spots on the perimeter. Simplify. Ask him to catch and shoot when it's there, swing the ball when it isn't.

He'll get a few layups and free throws in transition and the occasional basket cut, but don't ask him to be a post-up/isolation guy at this point in his career.

The Wolves are a team bereft of three point shooting with a coach who more or less ignores the shot anyway. Wiggins might actually be able to impact the offense positively by stretching opposing defenses, something which absolutely isn't happening now when all five Wolves players are often inside the arc.

Things are not going well for Wiggins or the Wolves at this point. Nobody, including him, seems to know what to do out there, and the sets they are trying to execute simply aren't working. Let Wiggins try something else, something simpler that might help basic problems like spacing and ball movement. Get him out of the post and outside the arc.

It seems to me that trying to establish him as a threat from beyond the arc, especially on a team that lacks such threats and when he's shown an early comfort level with that shot distance, is a better short term approach than clogging up both the court and Wiggins' decision-making by asking him to make plays from more contested spots on the floor.

Getting him comfortable and reasonably successful on a higher volume of three point attempts while exerting effort at the defensive end is an actual platform from which to build. I'm not sure what they are building with Andrew Wiggins now, other than a brick house.