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How about Andrew Wiggins after thirty-SIX games?

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Why judging Andrew Wiggins after just 30 games is way off base. And whether comparing him to LeBron is even fair to begin with.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, FiveThirtyEight published a pair of articles assessing Wiggins' performance through the first 30 games of his NBA career. The first set off a storm of debate and criticism, as it used age-regressed WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) ratings to conclude Wiggins' career is more or less destined to be James Posey-ish. The second, which is my estimation used a much cleaner and fairer base-year experience comparison system, concluded that Wiggins hasn't been bad, but he's still no LeBron, Carmelo or Durant.

The first conclusion honestly goes mostly over my head. I understand the numerical comparison result of Wiggins being similar to Posey, but the process of calculating WARP out of Simple +/- quite frankly loses me. The second of those conclusions is probably closer than people would care to admit, but still trips up over a couple things:

  1. 30 games is way too early to be making a judgment call on any rookie
  2. The comparisons are not accurate to who Wiggins is as a player

Since it will take someone smarter than me to untangle the first article's use of WARP, I'll focus on the second article's method. Which for our purposes, will work just fine. The system takes the basic box score stats, then ranks the players in each statistical category first-to-last. Pretty simple. Take a look at the results below.

538

(via Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com)

But that's still a bit deceptive I believe, so let's adjust a couple things to try and get a clearer picture.

First, the system uses straight box score numbers adjusted for per-36, rather than the advanced metrics. So you're not seeing the numbers in the context of usage, pace, or efficiency. Rebounds/36 don't tell you as much as rebound percentage. Assists per 36 doesn't factor is usage rates. Shooting percentages don't indicate shot volume or location.

Second, all positions are represented in the sample. Wiggins ranked 9th in rebounds, but four of the players on the list are power forwards or centers (Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Anthony Davis, and Kevin Durant, who spent a lot of time at power forward his rookie year because of Jeff Green) Likewise, Wiggins is 12th in assists (not that he'll rank great in that regard anyway) but six of the players on the list are point guards: Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, Stephon Marbury, Dejuan Wagner, Shaun Livingston and, for all intents and purposes, LeBron. Not only is that unfair to Wiggins, but unfair to all of the wing players, who aren't tasked with specializing in any one category by default. It doesn't change where any one wing ranks in comparison to the other wings, but it does clutter things unnecessarily.

So to begin with, let's eliminate the post players and point guards so it's wing players only, then translate the numbers into the advanced metrics.

After first 30 games TS% eFG% Reb% Ast% TO Ratio Ast/TO Usage Net Rtg PIE*
LeBron James 49.4 44.7 7.9 26.6 13.0 1.54 26.4 -3.9 12.0
Kevin Durant 51.1 44.4 6.9 11.2 12.5 .068 28.9 -10.8 10.0
Luol Deng 48.3 45.1 5.7 14.6 10.3 1.23 23.8 +2.2 11.6
Bradley Beal 46.5 41.6 6.4 15.6 8.6 1.70 22.6 -13.1 8.1
Carmelo Anthony 48.4 42.3 9.7 14.0 10.8 1.06 26.3 +1.9 9.6
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 55.7 51.0 12.9 11.0 12.1 1.13 18.6 -6.4 10.9
Andrew Wiggins 47.8 43.0 7.2 7.3 11.5 0.71 21.6 -12.5 5.7
 *Player Impact Estimate - the % of events that happen during the game that can be attributed to the player

We can see here, individually and much more accurately, where Wiggins falters: facilitating and what can generally be described as "doing stuff". This should not be a surprise. Coming out of Kansas, the two biggest knocks against Wiggins were poor handles and a lack of a motor.

We can also see that Wiggins' standings among the group don't change much in translation. He still ranks in the bottom half in almost everything.

But now let's extend that and look at Wiggins' entire career to date of 36 games.

Basic stats per36 Pts Rebs Asts Stls Blks TOs FG% 3pt% FT%
After 30 games 15.1 4.5 1.6 1.1 0.6 2.3 40.6 39.5 68.8
After 36 games 16.0 4.6 1.8 1.3 0.5 2.2 42.3 38.7 71.9
- - - - - - - - - -
Advanced stats TS% eFG% Reb% Ast% TO Ratio Ast/TO Usage Net Rtg PIE
After 30 games 47.8 43.0 7.2 7.3 11.5 0.71 21.6 -12.5 5.7
After 36 games 49.9 44.9 7.4 8.3 11.1 0.81 22.0 -11.8 7.0

What a difference six games makes. Wiggins' TS% and eFG% jumped by 2%, his assist rate went up while his turnovers went down, and most encouragingly, the sharp spike in PIE rating shows he's become exponentially more active. And he's done it without any change in usage. He's simply getting better. Kind of like you'd reasonably expect a 19 year old rookie to.

The results are even more dramatic when compared to the rest of the field after 36 games.

After first 36 games TS% eFG% Reb% Ast% TO Ratio Ast/TO Usage Net Rtg PIE
LeBron James 48.9 44.5 7.8 20.3 12.7 1.60 26.9 -4.2 12.3
Kevin Durant 50.0 43.2 6.7 11.3 11.8 0.72 28.9 -11.7 9.9
Luol Deng 48.7 45.5 10.9 15.3 11.0 1.27 23.5 +3.6 11.7
Bradley Beal 50.0 45.6 6.1 15.0 8.7 1.68 22.1 -9.7 9.0
Carmelo Anthony 48.4 42.6 9.7 14.1 10.8 1.07 26.4 1.2 9.5
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 54.8 50.0 13.3 11.0 11.8 1.15 18.8 -6.7 10.8
Andrew Wiggins 49.9 44.9 7.4 8.3 11.1 0.81 22.0 -11.8 7.0

In the six game span from 30 to 36, Wiggins suddenly became a better shooter than LeBron, Deng and Carmelo, equaled Durant's net rating, and quickly closed the gap in PIE with Bradley Beal. In only the six games since 'Wiggins after 30', he's gone from 6th to 3rd in just the TS% department.

That massive fluctuation alone should be enough to tell you it's too soon to make a declaration. The process clearly needs more time to play out. Josh Smith may be the only player at all that can be judged after 30 games in a new situation. And at least for any veteran player, there's years and years of history to compare to, to get a better idea of how deviant the sample size is. But for a rookie, who has no prior NBA data whatsoever, we see that a time span as short as two weeks can radically alter the statistics.

If all of the rates between game 30 and game 36 were to stay linear, Wiggins would catch Durant in assist%, Beal and Carmelo in PIE, and exceed everyone except MKG in TS% and eFG% after another 10 games. Using the 1-7 system, Wiggins would go from being basically the worst of this group to nearly the best of this group in the span of 16 games. And the absurdity of saying that is the point. Thirty games is simply not a sufficient sample size to make a judgment about an NBA rookie.

As for the second part...should Wiggins be compared to LeBron in the first place...this is something I've been thinking about for years now.

To me, the idea that Wiggins has not lived up to the standards of rookie LeBron is a silly starting premise to even begin with. Not only it an impossible standard, but it's not fair to Wiggins as a player. Andrew didn't hype himself, and didn't pick himself first in his draft. The comparison is largely arbitrary based on events Andrew had no control over. No one got on Elton Brand's case for not being Tim Duncan. Andrea Bargnani doesn't get criticized for not being Dwight Howard. If all it takes is having the same draft number and kind of playing the same position, then FiveThirtyEight should spend their time on how Bradley Beal isn't Michael Jordan.

Further, LeBron is in a class by himself, not just currently, but generationally. Historically. By the end of his career he will be in the discussion as the greatest basketball player in the history of human existence. That's an unfair standard not just for Wiggins, but any #1 overall pick.

I would say it's much fairer to compare players to players they resemble. When LeBron was drafted first overall, his immediate comparison was Kobe, who was drafted 13th. And Kobe's comparison when he was drafted was Jordan, a third overall pick, who himself drew comparisons to Magic Johnson...another first overall pick who became LeBron's full circle of comparison.

Most draft metric systems, in whatever scale they used, had Wiggins in the middle of the draft pack. For example, VJL's Expected Wins Peak system rated him an 8.5, almost half the rating of teammate Joel Embiid (15.6) and well behind Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon and Kyle Anderson. Likewise, Kevin Pelton's WARP system gave him a 1.3. Marcus Smart got a 3.6, Joel Embiid a 2.9, and Jabari Parker a 2.5.

draft

In comparison to other wing players his age drafted in other years, Wiggins generally fell in the Harrison Barnes/Marvin Williams range. That's a far cry from Durant, who posted arguably the best single season of basketball in NCAA history at Texas.

But an even more accurate comparison, I think, would be to determine what kind of player Wiggins is. And we knew what kind of player that was coming out of Kansas, which has been reinforced early in the season: he's a lanky, athletic wing who rebounds, defends, and gets to the free throw line, and massively struggles to control the ball. We knew that. We talked about it all before preseason.

It's almost entirely on his handles. We talked about it. Jim Peterson (rightly) keeps bringing it up. Marc Stein talks about it. Matt Moore talks about it. Henry Abbott and David Thorpe talked about it. And we've all seen it early this season: Wiggins holds and dribbles high and away from his body, making it easy to poke the ball away from him, and will sometimes throw out-of-control passes....too high, too far, too fast.

That's not the profile of a 'next LeBron'. This is why I don't get the comparisons to LeBron, McGrady, Scottie Pippen and Grant Hill. A guy who averaged 1.5 assists to 2.3 turnovers in college and can barely dribble in anything but a straight line is not the model of an all-time great point-forward. Those guys run/ran their teams as full time point guards. Literally. LeBron literally played point guard his very first game in the NBA (and turned in nine assists). Wiggins didn't reach nine assists until his 12th game. He is not going to be that type of player, so it's not really fair to him to be making that comparison.

The player profile he does fit is much more akin to a Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, or DeMar DeRozan, perhaps with Durant as a very, very extreme end to the line. All guys who came into the league with great rebounding and free throw rates, a bias towards defense, and suspect handles. Those are the players I think Wiggins should be compared to.

Of course, just straight up comparing the first 36 games of that group is incredibly imbalanced. Jimmy Butler averaged less than 10 minutes per game his rookie season. Kawhi Leonard was drafted as the 4th option on a team with at least two guaranteed Hall of Famers (three if you count Pops). None of them came anywhere near Wiggins' usage rate their rookie seasons. Paul George didn't break a usage rate of 20 until his third season. Jimmy Butler and Kawhi both just topped 20 this year.

Wiggins doesn't have the luxury of a Tim Duncan, Danny Granger or Derrick Rose as a teammate, and therin you can see the dividing issue. He's being force-fed possessions like he's LeBron, but his game doesn't resemble LeBron's at all. But the players he is most alike all played on teams that didn't need to force the ball through them. That makes a statistical comparison a de-orbiting satellite at best, but for the sake of saying we at least tried...

First 36 games TS% eFG% Reb% Ast% TO Ratio Ast/TO Usage Net Rtg PIE
Kevin Durant (07-08) 50.0 43.2 6.7 11.3 11.8 0.72 28.9 -11.7 9.9
Paul George (10-11) 55.3 51.3 9.9 9.1 8.8 1.24 18.7 -2.1 11.0
Kawhi Leonard (11-12) 53.4 50.0 12.3 5.8 8.0 1.29 14.7 -1.6 10.4
DeMar DeRozan (09-10) 53.2 47.1 8.0 5.0 10.1 0.75 18.7 -0.4 6.1
Jimmy Butler (11-12) 55.4 42.4 8.9 5.9 10.8 1.00 14.3 +13.1 8.8
Andrew Wiggins (14-15) 49.9 44.9 7.4 8.3 11.1 0.81 22.0 -11.8 7.0

I think this does show the basic comparison: all players who rebound and get to the line and were/are bad handling the ball. A lot of strong TS% but not great eFG%. Four guys above 8% rebounding% but three guys below 6% assist%. No one above a 1.5 assist to turnover ratio, but one guy who's a straight 1-to-1 in that department, and three guys who are negative.

But again, all sizes of holes in this ship. Jimmy Butler averaged 8 minutes a game in that span. Kawhi and Jimmy have half the usage rates of Durant. Kawhi, George and Butler had really good teammates; Durant, DeRozan and Wiggins did/do not. Should 2011 being a lockout season factor in? Should we pull the first 36 games of whatever season they had a usage rate above 20, or just the first 36 game, even if it's in the middle of a season?

I guess what I will say is this: all of those players except Kawhi Leonard massively struggled the first year they were "the man". In Paul George's third year (2012-2013), the first year his usage rate rose above 20, he shot 42 % from the field and turned it over three times a game. DeMar DeRozan shot 9% from deep his second year, and had a negative assist/turnover ratio. Last season, Jimmy Butler shot 39%. And of course, you can see the start to Durant's rookie season above. This tells us a few things:

  1. Even with Timmy, Tony, Manu and Pops, Kawhi Leonard is freakin' amazing
  2. Jimmy Butler is going to win Most Improved Player this season
  3. Andrew Wiggins' path to success is one that is well-tread already
In the end, the answer is remarkably simple: the guys who struggled with their handles became stars by fixing their handles. For players in Wiggins' situation, that's all it really takes to get things going. When you figure out how to put the ball on the deck, the floor opens up and the game gets infinitely easier. You can get yourself closer and/or better shots, defenses don't crowd you, and your teammates transform into true resources you can use.

You hear Coach Thibs raving about this with Jimmy Butler this year. He can be on the ball or off it. He can initiate the pick and roll or he can finish it. He can shoot the three or attack the basket and draw a foul. Those are either/or options Jimmy did not have at his disposal last season, which is why this season is going twice as well for him.

There are no clear indicators for who figures out their handles and who doesn't. No markers or traits to tag. Paul George and Jimmy Butler....they got it. Meanwhile, the Wolves have a long history of guys never getting it who are marginal players now, or not in the league at all

  • Randy Foye - career backup steadily transforming into a three point specialist
  • Michael Beasley - exiled to China
  • Wes Johnson - shooting 42% in LA. Still averaging less than a single free throw per game for his career
  • Derrick Williams - his hair is now 80% of his game
The good news is, Wiggins's handles have already shown more progress in three months than any of the above guys have in years. It's not coincidence and should be no surprise that Wiggins' recent explosion has happened at the same time he's started consistently making plays like these.


And that's why, ultimately, 30 games, or 36 games, or 82 games even, is too short a time to be declaring Wiggins is, well, anything. This is a long term work in progress. Even going by the rapid ascent of superstars of LeBron or Durant's caliber, it takes at least two years to see who they really could be. Have we learned nothing from Shabazz Muhammad this season? In all likelihood, we won't start getting a good idea about Wiggins' true level until Christmas 2016.

As Paul George said after last season, the difference between struggling through year three and dominating year four was learning what it really took to be a star player; the amount of time needed, the amount of skill that had to be refined, and the sheer work ethic required. This season is not about Wiggins establishing himself. This season is about Wiggins learning what establishing himself even means in the first place. We need to remember that.