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Andrew Wiggins: Embracing Optimism

Despite a slightly disappointing freshman season at Kansas from a statistical point of view, there are legitimate reasons to be excited about the future of Andrew Wiggins.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With the Timberwolves, pessimism is like the "don’t pass" line in craps.  Technically it is the smartest play, but it makes you look like a jerk.  If you are only in it for the money, you probably should not be playing craps; and if you let reality get in the way of your optimism, you should probably not root for the Timberwolves.  I try to keep this in mind, but with a string of draft-day disappointments culminating in the selection of my least favorite prospects in two consecutive drafts, my negativity has come dangerously close to bit territory.  Thankfully, Andrew Wiggins has come to the rescue.  There is a real possibility that Wiggins will never develop into a special player, but hoping for stardom does not require any delusions.  Wiggins is the first prospect since Ricky Rubio I am legitimately excited for, and I want to lay out some of the reasons why.

The bad...

Some of you may be thinking, "Of course you should be optimistic for Wiggins, he was the #1 pick!".  Well.... so was Anthony Bennett.  There are a lot of basketball people who are not that excited by Wiggins, and most of them have good reason for their skepticism.  Prospect evaluation is not easy, and few prospects are as difficult to peg as Andrew Wiggins.

Most readers know that I make draft models.  I use statistical production to evaluate players.  This makes me an unlikely champion for Mr. Wiggins.  In an aggregate of the different models available on draft night, Wiggins averaged out as only the 15th best prospect.  My own flagship model, "Estimated Wins Peak (EWP)" ranks Wiggins as only the 8th best prospect in the recent draft.  These rankings are a major departure from his #1 selection and the over-eager projections by expert analysts.

I do think there is something to Wiggins’ poor performance across these models.  Relative to the hype, he failed to regularly fill the box-score, and had several disappearing acts, most notably Kansas’ final game in the NCAA tournament.  Wiggins had a relatively high usage at Kansas but was not particularly efficient.  More worrisome, is the fact that few elite NBA wings created as little offense for their teammates in college as Wiggins, even as freshmen.  Some have argued that Bill Self depressed Wiggins’ numbers, but I have found that, if anything, Self historically made his players look better than their actual potential.  This same argument was a favorite of the now endangered "Ben McLemore fan."

There are even some reasons to think Wiggins’ statistics may overrate his potential.  For example, in the half-court Wiggins shot a lowly 45.7% eFG, and more often than not, failed to get himself to the rim (30% at rim vs. 39% 2pnt jumpers in HC via  Dependence on transition buckets in college looks like a red-flag, at least based on limited data.

I start with negativity because these are all flags I waved throughout the season.  I continue to stand by them, but if you look hard enough you will find flaws in every prospect (excepting Anthony Davis).  In spite of these concerns, Wiggins has features that make it easy to get excited about him.

Andrew Wiggins and "Potential":

I wrote an article earlier this year on the use of the word "potential" in discussions about NBA prospects.  Far too many people have begun using it as a lazy substitute for the word "athletic," and ignore the many other features that may help predict growth trajectories.  I want to expand the conversation beyond "he jumps sooo high," but that does not mean I reject the role of athleticism in identifying potential.  However boring it may be, that is where the discussion needs to focus with Wiggins.  I doubt anyone will argue the claim that physical profile is Wiggins' hallmark attribute.


Athleticism: Wiggins did not participate in the Draft combine.  I assume his agent decided whatever measurements Wiggins posted, they would disappoint in comparison to the mythical status his athletic reputation has reached.  Instead, Team Wiggins tweeted a picture of him jumping 44" off the ground.  It is a bit unfair to treat this the same as measurements made in the actual combine, but the way Wiggins bounces in games that seems a relatively appropriate figure.  

Wiggins adds to his crazy vertical leaping with a 7’ wingspan and prototypical size for an NBA wing.  His speed is also often noted, but I caution that across several studies (including my own unpublished research) I have seen no evidence that speed says anything about a player’s potential (in fact it weirdly seems to be a negative).  I have long wanted to believe that everything physical tools say about potential is captured in actual production, but that does not appear to be the case.  This stuff matters when we are talking about the "P"-word.

Looking through my combine numbers, here are all of the wings taller than 6’5", with at least a 6’8" wingspan, who recorded a max vertical over 40":

Nick Young

Brandon Roy

Vince Carter

Rodney Williams

Al Thornton

Ronnie Brewer

Patrick Ewing '08

Ronald Dupree

Tracy McGrady

Matt Barnes

Rudy Gay

LeBron James

Obviously not every wing fitting the ideal physical profile pans out, but the worst cases on this list were easy to identify.  Guys like Patrick Ewing Jr. and Ronald Dupree were pegged more as small power-forwards out of college due to their limited skills.  What really stand out here is that a list of only twelve players includes four of the greatest wings in the past 20 years.  That is tough to ignore.

Moving away from possibly contorted lists and into findings from work using large datasets, myself and others have found that adding combine measures (especially vertical and wingspan) helps improve prediction above and beyond looking only at on-court production.  My EWP model noted above only includes boxscore statistics and size.  In order to include players going back to the mid-80s, I need to omit physical measurements.  However, I have an additional model that takes the EWP outputs and plugs them in next to important physical measurements.  This is my "star model", a multinomial regression that gives the likelihood a player will be a "bust", "benchwarmer", "starter", or "star."  Wiggins tops the 2014 class in this model with a 30% chance of becoming a star.

People who have been following my work may catch that this was not always the case, Wiggins has consistently done well in the star model, but several other players were higher in earlier iterations.  What changed, in short, is that the bar for what level of performance is labeled as "star" has been raised.  This helped Wiggins more than any other prospect, which is consistent with the idea that he has a very high ceiling.

Not only is Wiggins’ 30% star potential tops in the current class, but it is actually the second highest likelihood of any wing in my historical data, which includes all collegiate prospect’s with available physical measurements (mostly this millennium):


This is a comparison set that fits with the pre-Kansas hyperbole.  Wiggins’ EWP rating is a bit lower than his cohort at the top of the list, but it is not completely out of place either.  That is pretty impressive considering the top-5 historical players on this list may all end up in the Hall-of-Fame.

Wiggins' numbers might not be unusually good.  But the combination of very-good production with exceptional athleticism is a big deal.  Bad basketball players do not have much basketball potential just because they can jump high.  However, if you are a physical freak and you have proven you know how to put those tools to use on the court, the future starts to look pretty bright.

Core stability and repeatable motion: Moving on from athleticism, at least the sort we normally talk about, I am going to get a bit eye-testy.  The first thing that jumped out to me watching Andrew Wiggins’ highlight videos before last season was not his crazy vertical, but rather his balance.  Wiggins’ posture stays remarkably stable whether he is shooting, spinning, or going up for a dunk.  You could set a glass of beer on his head for an entire game and not lose a drop.  Core stability may seem an odd thing to focus on here, but it has potentially important implications for Wiggins’ ability to improve.

"There are two roads to becoming a good shooter: Learning correct form and making 250-500 shots per day or shooting with bad form and making 2,500-3,000 shots per day." – Chris Mullin

This is a great quote, but I probably need to explain why it is relevant.  The reason balance and core stability are so important in sports is that they standardize muscle memory.  I can go to the gym and take 100 shots, but if I am constantly off-balance, leaning, and tilting, I am not practicing my shot 100 times.  Instead, I am practicing N shots 100/N times each, with N being the number of different forms I manage to contort myself into throughout the ill-fated practice.  Stability creates consistency.  Rather than training the ideal motion for infinite different postures and situations, if the relationship between your hands, eyes, and waist never changes, you are constantly training, then executing, the same action.  This concept does not just apply to shooting, but generalizes to any practiced action on the court.

Kobe is one of the most impressive players in this regard.  Even when he is taking very difficult shots, his torso remains stable and allows for a shooting motion that is much more routine than it looks.  It is no surprise that Kobe is also one of the first guys you think of when discussing players who constantly add new scripted moves to their game.  It is much easier to add to the toolbox when you have complete control over your body.  This is something I think Wiggins has, and it may be a source of future improvement.

Defense: One of the best reasons to be skeptical of Wiggins’ merely average statistical projections is the fact that his real calling-card might be defense rather than offense.  Defense is notoriously difficult to measure statistically and thus players on the extremes of defensive ability are likely to be under/overrated when we only look at numbers.

On/Off-court team performance can be useful and Wiggins looks stellar in this regard:


[Click HERE to embiggen]

Opponents went to the line much more often, shot more efficiently, and averaged 10 points per-100 possessions more when Wiggins was on the bench.  These are by far the best on/off splits on Kansas' 2014 roster.  Unfortunately, these numbers do not adjust for the quality of players sharing the court, and the sample with Wiggins off the court is quite small.  I don’t think I can advocate taking these seriously, but they fit the popular narrative, so maybe this counts as information after setting priors.

One other statistical source of information about defense comes from steals.  Good defenders tend to collect a lot of steals while dominating in college.  At first this looks like a negative for Wiggins, since his 1.4 steals per-40 minutes were average at best.  However, despite my claim above that Bill Self does not dampen his players’ collegiate production overall, he does depress their steals rate.  Wiggins actually collected 41% more steals than the next best thief on Kansas last season.  System can be very important for steals, and steals have not historically carried much information under Bill Self.


In the absence of convincing information otherwise, I am inclined to believe the many NBA scouts who gush over Wiggins’ defensive prowess. It never really stood-out to me when watching Kansas, but I do not pretend to have a better eye for man-defense than the professionals.  Defense is not directly captured in any publicly available draft models, and thus it is safe to give defensive reputation a subjective bump when using model outputs.  Add that subjective bump to scouting appraisals and the evidence that athleticism really does matter, and we start to build a serious case for Wiggins as a special talent.


Andrew Wiggins’ freshman season was a disappointment statistically, but only because the bar was set unusually high.  Nobody is going to say he was not an impressive 18-year-old.  There is real reason to be concerned about Wiggins, so it is too early to pencil him in as the next superstar to eventually leave the Timberwolves.  However, Wiggins is an impressive prospect with the ideal combination of physical tools and inchoate ball-skills.  Wings like this do not come around often.

Get excited.  This may actually work.