Over the last eight games, Andrew Wiggins has begun to resemble the rookie all Wolves fans hoped we were getting when he was the centerpiece of the Kevin Love trade last summer. It's being noticed around the league, and Wiggins got a chance to display his wares before a national television audience on Wednesday night when he scored 25 points in a tough 113-111 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
So what's different about Wiggins over the last eight games compared to the first 26 of the season?
Well, for one thing, numbers.
Notably, his per minute scoring is up over 30%, his field goal percentage has skyrocketed, and his FGA/min is up roughly 15%. He's a much more aggressive, confident scorer over the last eight games. The question is how?
The good news is that it doesn't appear to be simply a matter of random variation in his shot making; rather there is a distinct change in the shots he's taking, and it's a change for the better.
Like many things (OK, not really, but certainly like something), it started in Cleveland:
I've remarked on this chart before, but it's worth savoring again. Close to ideal--10 shots in the paint below the circle, three threes, and only three shots in the mid-range. It doesn't get much better for a player with Wiggins' skills.
Note especially the plays at about 0:35, 1:10, and 1:20 on this video. These are post-up plays, and they mark a change in how the Wolves are trying to get the ball to Wiggins. They have begun running cross-screens to try to get him the ball in the mid-post, and have had some success. The advantage here is that when Wiggins only needs to take one or at most two quick dribbles to get near the rim, his ball handling deficiencies are not as much of a problem.
Here, against Sacramento, he was able to do this several times as well, including two late plays against a bigger Rudy Gay that kept the Wolves in the game:
Establishing a post game, where he can make one quick move and be at the rim, has helped significantly. Now, he is still a 19 year old rookie, and thus he isn't able to consistently establish good position, because he lacks strength and technique. We saw this against the Suns, when a much smaller, but smart and strong Goran Dragic was able to deny him position on several occasions. But the post-up game is great place to start for a young scorer like Wiggins.
One of the results here is that he is not facing up an in position defender far from the basket nearly as much as he was earlier in the season. Those situations often resulted in a failed attempt to beat his man off the dribble, and a contested mid-range jumper, a shot we would prefer not be a major part of the arsenal.
And it hasn't been over the last eight games. This is the good stuff, numbers wise: In the first 26 games of the season, shots from roughly 8' out to the 3 point line accounted for 53% of Wiggins' field goal attempts. Over the last 8 games, those shots have only accounted for 33% of his shot attempts. That 20% has been roughly equally divided between shots in the paint and three point attempts, making his shot chart over the last eight look much, much better. It's such a nice thing, let's look at a table:
|Percentage of Field Goal Attempts
|First 26 Games
|Last 8 Games
So. Much. Better.
A bonus to Wiggins' season so far has been his 3 point shooting. The sample remains small, but he is shooting 39% on the year from beyond the arc, something that is rare for rookies. What's even more heartening is that over the last eight, both his attempts and his percentage have increased. He's shooting 42% on over three attempts per game over that span, which, while likely unsustainable, is awesome.
Now, this wouldn't be a Canis Hoopus article, at least not one of mine, without a little criticism. We've been discussing scoring, and for good reason: that's really the only thing that has changed noticeably about Wiggins' game recently. The other facets of his game have remained fairly stagnant. That isn't so bad, certainly not at this point in his career, especially when the Wolves are relying on him heavily to provide them with points. There's only so much it's fair to ask of him, and the Wolves have probably exceeded even that, given that he is usually matched up defensively with the opponents' best wing scorer.
However, one area that needs significant improvement is rebounding. He struggles on the boards in part, I think, because he is not consistently aggressive trying to get the ball, and in part because he lacks both hand strength and overall strength to corral rebounds that could be his. We saw this several times against the Suns, where balls that he looked in position to grab wound up being taken off his hands by a stronger, more aggressive Phoenix player.
I mention this because it seems to my eye test that Andrew Wiggins might have the tools to be a well-rounded star in the NBA, but obviously has a long way to go to get there. While it would be perfectly fine if he develops primarily as a scorer with some defensive chops, (more than fine, actually--pretty great), it would be even better if he can develop other skills, including rebounding and passing, areas in which he has struggled thus far.
That's for another time, however. Right now, Wiggins in ascending, and he's doing so by changing the nature of his offensive game. This is not merely a hot streak, rather it appears that the shots he's now getting could lead to sustainable improvement and efficiency.
It's been one of the few bright spots over a run of losses that has now reached 13 in a row, and it's made me more optimistic and excited about a Wolves rookie than I have been since the first seasons of Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love.
In another rough season of Wolves basketball, I hope you are taking pleasure in watching what appears to be the emergence of a good young player. It makes tuning in a lot more fun.