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Deep Dive: The Development of Wiggins and LaVine

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Examining the development paths of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

What should development look like?

During LaVine’s rookie year, it was fair to ask if he was even worthy of belonging in the NBA. He was playing out of position at point guard and Wiggins was on his way to winning Rookie of the Year, built upon his immense offensive production.

Three years later, LaVine and Wiggins now start at shooting guard and small forward alongside fellow young star and franchise cornerstone, Karl-Anthony Towns.

Now, to preface, this is not a “Wiggins is a bust” article. He has already achieved relative success and has real NBA skills. He is elite at getting to the free throw line while being one of the main focal points of opposing NBA defenses.

This also isn’t meant to imply that the Wolves have to choose between LaVine and Wiggins; the team can certainly retain both players for the foreseeable future, although true positional overlap, as well as skill set overlap, may become a question down the road if the defensive woes continue.

However, it is always worthwhile to critically examine our own players, even if the results may not provide comfort to us.

Before taking a look at the development of LaVine and Wiggins, there are several caveats to get out of the way. The context for statistical evidence is always extraordinarily important, and this case is no different.

  • It is easier to show drastic improvement if you start from rock bottom. LaVine’s ascension from barely plausible NBA player to potential star in the making has been remarkable.
  • Wiggins has always had to carry a much heavier load than LaVine, from being force-fed isolation possessions in his first two years to the playmaking duties that Tom Thibodeau has foisted upon him. Wiggins has often been required to guard the other team’s best offensive threat as well. He carries a heavier burden on offense and defense, not mention the higher expectations that come with being the number one pick and the trade “haul” for Kevin Love.
  • LaVine is still bad at defense and he is prone to terrible decision making. It is likely that if he had to carry the load as much as Wiggins does, this comparison conversation would not happen.
  • Both players have had three different coaches in three years. This can make player development inconsistent and Wiggins may have been forced to approach basketball in a way that was not positive for his development, such as being asked to play a lot of isolation basketball in his rookie year.
  • Both LaVine and Wiggins have improved in their on-ball defense. Team defensive concepts, however, still elude the duo, which is quite common for young players. This is reflected in their abysmal advanced defensive numbers.
  • Wiggins has displayed several real developments this year than are somewhat unnoticed in the statistical evidence. This is especially true for his dribbling, playmaking in pick-and-rolls, and passing. To wit, in his three years, his assist percentage has slowly increased each year while his turnover percentage has slightly decreased each year. Most recently, his defense has improved in the last few games, but whether or not that holds true remains to be seen. It almost seems as if he is closing in on a tipping point of success, but has not quite crossed that precipice quite yet.
  • LaVine’s type of improvement is somewhat easier as he has been able to improve upon already existing strengths, namely shooting ability, attacking the rim in transition, and off-ball shooting. Wiggins, in comparison, has been asked to be the focal point of the offense, either through mid-post isolations, pull-up jumpers from mid-range, and now playmaking duties. Wiggins is not being asked to become a “3-and-D” player akin to Luol Deng. Wiggins is being asked to become a star.

Now that these counter-arguments are out in the open, let’s pretend they do not exist for a little bit and take a look at some overarching advanced 6statistics.

LaVine’s rookie year to now

  • True Shooting: 51.1 to 59.9
  • PER: 11.3 to 16.6
  • WS/48: -.018 to .114
  • OBPM: 1.3 to 3.6
  • DBPM: -2.7 to -3.0 (still very bad)
  • BPM: -4.5 to 0.6
  • VORP: -1.2 to 0.8
  • ORTG: 95 to 116
  • DRTG: 114 to 115 (again, still very bad)
  • ORPM: -2.53 to 2.03
  • DRPM: -4.34 to -2.92
  • RPM: -6.87 to -0.89
  • RPM Wins: -5.34 to 1.57

LaVine has improved across the board while increasing his minutes per game from 24.7 to a league-leading 37.5 while retaining a usage rate of between 22-23.5 percent. The rest of his numbers have been largely stagnant, other than a decreased assist percentage and turnover percentage, which is easily attributed to the move away from point guard to shooting guard.

To illustrate just how terrible LaVine was at point guard his rookie year, he contributed -5.34 RPM Wins. The next worst point guard was D.J. Augustin and he contributed -1.99 RPM Wins.

Perhaps most important for a Wolves team that is still playing catch-up in a threepoint shooting league, with LaVine’s increased playing time, the his threepoint attempt rates has shot up from 24.7 percent in his rookie year to 43.6 percent this year.

However, it is pretty easy to see that LaVine’s defensive issues have yet to be resolved in any manner. LaVine also is more often a “net negative” on team lineups than Wiggins is. For a simple baseline, the Towns and LaVine are a negative 2.0 this year while Wiggins and Towns are only a negative 0.3.

Overall, LaVine’s rise from barely-NBA player to potential star with a positive impact is remarkable. The real palatable thing about LaVine’s development is how linear it is. It fits the narrative and timeline of how young players develop, as well as how they should respond to increases in playing time.

This ascension can be attributed to a number of factors, from LaVine’s reportedly sterling work ethic, natural talent, or even the ill-fated LaVine point-guard experiment which could have contributed to his playmaking abilities. Another way to look at it is that LaVine has been tasked with a limited range of tasks on offense that directly fits his skill set, which has coincided with the move to shooting guard.

There are still games where LaVine’s decision making is exposed as questionable at best, but it must be certainly easier to become a positive contributor and maximize a player’s skill set when they are put in situations that allow them to succeed.

Wiggins’ rookie year to now (from Basketball Reference)

  • True shooting: 51.7 to 53.4 (last year was 54.3)
  • PER: 13.9 to 16.0 (last year was 16.5)
  • WS/48: .034 to .068 (last year was .069)
  • OBPM: -.5 to .3
  • DBPM: -1.8 to -3.0
  • BPM: -2.3 to -2.7 (last year was -2.1)
  • VORP: -0.2 to -0.2 (last year was -.1)
  • ORTG: 103 to 107 (last year was 106)
  • DRTG: 114 to 114 (last year was 113)
  • ORPM: 0.47 to 0.15
  • DRPM: -2.13 to -2.26 (worst among Small Forwards)
  • RPM: -1.66 to -2.11
  • RPM Wins: 1.28 to 0.73

Now some of these numbers could stabilize and improve. Wiggins has his lowest DPBM by far this year and if that returns to normal levels, his overall BPM will jump back up. However, that jump will still not get him near a “zero” level. Many of his numbers were also higher last year than they are this year, which hopefully points to eventual improvement as Wiggins becomes more comfortable in his new role.

One of the main problems that has always dogged Wiggins offensively is his propensity for long-twos. His shot attempts from 16 feet to three have actually gone up each year, from 22.5 percent in his rookie year to 24.3 percent last year to 26 percent this year. While Wiggins is taking more threes, he is taking less of his shots at the rim and, as a result, has seen his two-point percentage drop to 46.1 percent, after posting 48.6 percent last year.

The other common knock against Wiggins has always been his lack of contributions in areas other than scoring, as his assist, rebound, block, and steal rate have always been low for a player of his caliber and athleticism. This has been covered at length by other writers in the NBA, but suffice to say that these numbers have not moved much in either direction since his rookie year.

This is not to say that Wiggins’ main skill is not impressive. He is able to achieve reasonably effective scoring with a usage rate of 27.6 percent, which is 32nd in the NBA.

However, out of those thirty-two players, the only players who have a lower true shooting percentage than Wiggins are small sample size (SSS) weirdos like Jerryd Bayless, Diamond Stone, and Pierre Jackson, and then D’Angelo Russell, Dwayne Wade, Reggie Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Zach Randolph.

Of those same 30: Wiggins has the lowest WS/48 other than Russell. old man Dirk Nowitzki, and SSS weirdos of Stone, Bayless, and Jackson.

Again of those 30: Wiggins has the lowest VORP (tied with Dirk), including the SSS weirdos, and the lowest BPM, other than Dirk, excluding the SSS weirdos.

If we expand this list out to the top 50 players with the highest usage rates and exclude all of the players who are SSS weirdos, then the only players who Wiggins is comparable to in terms of poor advanced stats are Brandon Knight, Devin Booker, and Dirk Nowitzki.

If we change the criteria to simply the top 100 in total minutes played (which Wiggins is second in the league), the players he comes in front of in WS/48 are Wesley Matthews, Marcus Morris (tied), Andre Roberson (tied), Devin Booker, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Allen Crabbe, Luol Deng, Markieef Morris, Jamal Crawford, Derrick Rose, Emmanuel Mudiay, Andrew Harrison, Ish Smith, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, P.J. Tucker, Tony Snell, Sean Kilpatrick, Solomon Hill.

The same experiment using BPM: Booker, Clarkson, Ingram, and Mudiay.

Again, but with VORP: Booker, Clarkson, Ingram, Crawford, and Mudiay.

Now these lists are showing a lot of similarities, namely young wings or ball handlers who have to take on a lot of a team’s playmaking responsibility. There is a somewhat compelling theory that these types of numbers are the result of being forced to handle a high-usage and playmaking duties at a young age. Booker, Clarkson, Ingram, and Mudiay are also playing with teams that are not succeeding and are filled with other young players. No one has been calling these players “busts” nor calling for their trades.

However, it is discomforting to see Wiggins not improving across the board on such a consistent basis, especially since Wiggins has one to two years of NBA playing time on Booker, Ingram, Mudiay.

Charting a Path

The context of these numbers still must be taken into account when we have these discussions, as fortunately, although much less convenient for us, the NBA exists in reality rather than in an NBA 2K simulator. It is impossible to know what both Wiggins and LaVine would look like if their responsibilities and circumstances were swapped, or what the future holds for both players.

The simple takeaways that these numbers show us are that neither LaVine nor Wiggins have improved on defense in a significant manner thus far into their NBA career and only LaVine has shown real development in his offensive abilities, as well as the resulting advanced stats from this improvement.

Thankfully, the Wolves do not have to choose between these two players. In fact, they even have this other guy named Karl-Anthony Towns who has a brighter future than either of them.

Wiggins remains a strange case. He benefits from being a highly touted number one pick and the belief from some of the smartest people in the NBA that he is a star in the making. Yet, the criticisms of his game have yet to be addressed and the advanced stats reflect this.

Some of the more common names thrown around as comparisons for his development have been:

  • Floor = Rudy Gay
  • Middle Ground = DeMar DeRozan (although this has become less of a “middle ground” now)
  • Ceiling = Paul George or Jimmy Butler

However, Rudy Gay’s advanced stats for his career have never really approached the depths that Wiggins’ has outside of his rookie year. Jimmy Butler and Paul George were playing at an absurdly higher level than Wiggins is right now by their third year, not to mention their second.

DeMar DeRozan’s numbers were certainly similarly poor and he did not make the “leap” until his fifth season. However, these types of jumps in production in the NBA do not seem to be common.

Wiggins does not have the luxury of a linear development path nor well-defined role in the way that LaVine has. One imagines that Wiggins may have more success placed in a lower-usage role, focusing on his defense, three point shooting, and limited pick and roll duties while slashing towards the hoop and running in transition.

Instead, Wiggins has been asked to run the offense, carry a high usage rate, and defend the other teams best player. All while learning a new defense and trying to deal with his current “do-stuff” issues.

The optimistic viewpoint of Wiggins’ success is something akin to the idea of an emergent property, which is how many philosophers have come to view consciousness. Somehow, humans respond to stimuli and transmit the information across our synapses, which, in combination with random quantum physics, creates what we understand as our consciousness, or what some call the soul.

In this way, some combination of improvement across all of Wiggins’ deficiencies will reach a certain tipping point, which will be reflected in an across-the-board improvement in his effectiveness on the court and his ability to be a positive team contributor.

However, some philosophers reject this emergent property theory and dismiss it is as too hopeful of trying to find something that does not exist. Instead, they believe in a deterministic viewpoint, which leaves humans as little but a bundle of pre-determined responses to stimuli. Puppets simply responding to biological and social conditions gliding along an unseen railroad track of life.

Rudy Gay, the “floor” for Wiggins, was once seen as this almost-star type guy. Yet, he was unable to really put it all together to become that “Star”. In fact, one his teams, the Raptors, only found success after trading him to Sacramento. Toronto unexpectedly made the playoffs once their high-usage wing was removed. The rest of the team was able to flourish.

If nothing more emerges from Wiggins, the Wolves may find themselves in similar circumstances.

The other option is to learn from LaVine’s success, reduce Wiggins’ responsibilities and focus instead on allowing his strengths to flourish and create a more clearly defined role for the young almost-star.