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A Few Thoughts: Andrew Wiggins, Passing, and Taking a Deep Breath

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Andrew Wiggins has been scrutinized for his lack of box score filling stats in his second season. As it turns out, his assist numbers may not be as bad as they appear.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Wiggins is a polarizing player. After being selected first overall in the 2014 draft and subsequently traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in an exchange that sent Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, all the talk surrounding Wiggins focused on what he could become. The young Canadian boasts pure athleticism that isn't rivaled by many in the world, let alone the NBA, and his potential is limited only by himself. So far, in his short time in the league, Wiggins has displayed flashes of what his future holds and has solidified himself as a legitimate scoring threat, averaging 20.5 points per game during his sophomore campaign.

Yet, a majority of the discussion surrounding Wiggins this season has focused on his lack of box score-filling stats (affectionately known to some as "do shit stats"). The fact of the matter is that, right now, Wiggins doesn't bring much more to the table other than scoring... Or, at least, that is the sentiment. But is that sentiment true? By strictly looking at the traditional box score stat averages (points, rebounds, and assists per game) that would appear to be the case; after all, Wiggins is only averaging 3.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. However, after watching many of the games this season, I couldn't quite shake the feeling that those numbers don't quite do Wiggins' overall production justice. So, I decided to do a little (and I use these words very liberally) "investigative journalism" into Wiggins' passing specifically.

Over a six game stretch from March 14th to March 25th, I watched every pass that Wiggins logged and filed those passes into four categories: resets, assists, should have been assists, and hockey assists. Resets were defined as Wiggins passing the ball back to Rubio or whomever was the point guard at the time in order to reset the offense; assists are pretty self-explanatory; should-have-been-assists were, well, passes in which Wiggins' teammate missed the shot after he passed to them; and hockey assists were passes made by Wiggins to the teammate who would eventually tally an assist. I realize that there are two fundamental things wrong with this study: 1. the sample size is only 6 games, which accounts for roughly 7.3% of the season (i.e. SMALL SAMPLE SIZE) and 2. all four of these categories are somewhat subjective (but such is life with assists), not to mention I could have missed a few in each. That being said, below is a table of my results:

Date/Opponent

Resets

Assists

Should Have Been

Hockey Assists

3/14 - @PHX

2

2

1

1

3/16 - @MEM

0

1

1

1

3/18 - @HOU

2

5

3

0

3/21 - GSW

1

4

1

0

3/23 - SAC

0

3

5

0

3/25 - @WAS

2

3

4

0

Totals

7

18

15

2

Avg./game

1.2

3.0

2.5

0.33

So, what does this limited sample of data tell us? First off, in the six game stretch, Wiggins averaged one more assist more per game than what he has averaged this season (3.0 v. 2.0). Now, you may say that that isn't hard to do considering he was averaging such a low amount before the six game stretch, however, I don't think it is a coincidence that Wiggins' assist numbers have increased recently. The Wolves have begun to put Wiggins in a position (or have maybe asked him) to "make a play" rather than just score buckets. And credit needs to be given to Wiggins for improving his vision and not simply looking to get his own shot all the time.

This video perfectly encapsulates what Wiggins has done more frequently over the past few weeks: driving to the bucket and kicking out to a teammate for an open shot. Is that some amazing feat that will change the way teams handle the Wolves offense? No, probably not. But that is prime evidence of Wiggins' improvement as a passer and play maker that doesn't necessarily show up in the box score. Wiggins' improved decision making in addition to Zach LaVine's transition into the starting lineup and Ricky Rubio's improvement explosion are major reasons as to why the Wolves' offense has been much improved since the All-Star break.

Second, the number of should-have-been-assists is basically just as high as the actual number of assists. I understand that every player has teammates that miss shots and that each member of the Timberwolves is probably effected to the same extent, but had Wiggins' teammates made half of the 15 misses (let's say 8), that would have put him at 25 assists over the six game span, good for 4.2 app (a.k.a. over two-times more than his season average). This emulates just how badly the Wolves still need shooters and how the Wolves' current offensive system doesn't necessarily place Wiggins in the greatest position to tally assists. To tie in data from the entire season, according to NBA.com, Wiggins has passed to Rubio, LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, and Karl-Anthony Towns with a frequency of greater than 10% (i.e. at least 10% of Wiggins passes have gone to these players). Below is a chart (courtesy of NBA.com) of how the data shakes out.

What this chart clearly says is that Wiggins, despite Rubio's improvements this season, needs to pass the ball more frequently to Towns, LaVine, and Dieng. Just by simply passing to those teammates more often, Wiggins' assist numbers are bound to increase.

Third, I find the number of hockey assists to be pretty...lackluster. The Wolves' ball movement has improved over the last month or so, but it still has quite a way to go. All too often the ball stops after the first pass and the team (and Wiggins) still rely on one-on-one action too much. Further improvement in ball movement, team shooting, and decision making will increase the number of hockey assists that Wiggins and others accumulate; although those won't show up in the box score, they are vital to the success of a team.

So, sure, Wiggins' numbers aren't eye-popping and the offense, despite it's improvements, probably still has to grow a bit, but, to an extent, what do you expect from a team that heavily features a 20-year-old and two 21-year-olds? As frustrating as it is, it takes time for teammates, especially young teammates, to gel and develop a rapport on the court, no matter how high their upside. Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder (a team the Wolves are often compared too) and players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Russell Westbrook have skewed in our minds what development looks like. At times, it seems like if a player isn't near their potential by their third season they are on track to be a bust.

I reject that notion. For as much as it would be nice to see players like Wiggins' take significant steps forward each season, the fact of the matter is that that isn't always the case. Take a look at DeMar DeRozan for example (a player whose talent level is often described as anywhere between Wiggins' floor or ceiling). DeRozan, now in his seventh season, entered the league at the age of 20 and put up numbers worse than Wiggins; through two seasons DeRozan averaged 13.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, and 1.3 apg (compared to Wiggins' 18.6 ppg, 4.1 rbp, and 2.1 apg). DeRozan has since blossomed into a two-time All-Star (a number that will only increase barring injury) and, at worst, is the second best player on a top team in the Eastern Conference (for reference, he's averaging 23.6 ppg, 4.4 rbg, and 4.0 apg on an eFG% of 45.6%, all numbers that are fairly similar to Wiggins').

This is not to say that Wiggins doesn't need to improve at all in his passing and rebounding; quite the opposite. He still needs to improve his vision and ball-handling, which will go a long way in improving his overall game, and he also needs to learn how to stay engaged and not wander as he is sometimes apt to do. But it needs to be kept in mind that Andrew Wiggins is a 21-year-old kid, about to complete his second season as a professional basketball player, and realize that he is putting up numbers that are comparable to a bona fide All-Star while playing on a vastly inferior team. Development takes time and occurs at different rates for different players; Andrew Wiggins will be fine and, in a worst case scenario, he will become the next DeMar DeRozan. Let's just step back and take a deep breath.