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Deep Dive: Andrew Wiggins vs Advanced Statistics

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Why does Andrew Wiggins rate so poorly in Advanced Statistics?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Wiggins is about to get a max contract from the Timberwolves. It does not necessarily matter if he deserves it, it’s simply what the market dictates. We know this, the Wolves know this, and Andrew Wiggins know this.

But this contract will have a great impact on the Wolves’ financial future. They are essentially betting the farm on Wiggins becoming a great player. The team certainly has some insurance policies, namely Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler, but the team’s ability to reach the top tier of NBA competition will likely depend on Wiggins living up to his potential.

So why are we worried? Why shouldn’t we be ecstatic about the team giving a max contract to a player who averages over 20 points a game at such a young age that has also added skills to his offensive toolkit every year? He certainly seems to have the ability to be a superstar in this league.

The answer lies in part in Wiggins’ advanced statistics, which are not those of a superstar. Or perhaps a better way to put it is: Wiggins does not yet impact the game positively in enough ways to qualify as a great player and his advanced stats bear that out.

In fact, let’s see if you can guess who is who. These statistics are from Basketball-Reference and are cumulative over three seasons

Player A is 21-years-old in their third season. Scores 20.3 points per 36 minutes, grabs 4 rebounds per 36, dishes out 2.1 assists per 36, and averages 1 steal and 0.5 blocks per 36. Their true shooting percentage is 53.2 percent, usage 26.3 percent, PER is 15.7, WS/48 is .059, BPM is -2.4, and VORP is -0.8.

Player B is 22-years-old in their third season. Scores 19.8 points per 36 minutes, grabs 7.2 rebounds per 36, dishes out 2.7 assists per 36, and averages 0.9 steals and 0.5 blocks per 36. Their true shooting percentage is 51.4 percent, usage is 27.3 percent, PER is 16.2, WS/48 is .069, BPM is -2.8, and VORP is -1.3.

Player A is Andrew Wiggins in the season before he is about to receive a maximum contract. Player B is Michael Beasley, who was playing his final season as a starter. Beasley has been an NBA journeyman after a heralded start to his career, played a stint in China, and certainly has never gotten a maximum contract.

Comparisons like this are often misleading, of course. There is more to basketball than box scores and Beasley, self-admittedly, has struggled off the court and one of the reasons for his lack of success has been work ethic. There are no questions around Wiggins in that regard.

But it begs the question of why we can even make this comparison. Beasley wasn’t lighting up the league by any means. What makes Wiggins different?

This is important, trying to figure out why these statistics paint Wiggins in a bad light, because he is going to tying up the Wolves’ cap space for years to come. 538 did a great analysis, which you can see here, of exactly who you want to pay the max to, and while outdated due to the changing cap landscape, the answer usually boils down to, “is this player going to make an All-NBA team?” If so, give them a max. If not, then don’t.

Let’s start simpler, with the All-Star team. The All-Stars in the last ten years have had quite varied beginning starts to their NBA careers. This is a list of 62 players that range from solid NBA players having career years like Jrue Holiday and Luol Deng, to system players who shined in specific roles like Roy Hibbert and Kyle Korver, to the NBA first-ballot Hall of Famers like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

On this list, there is exactly one player whose advanced stats were as poor as Andrew Wiggins’ in their first three years. That is DeMar DeRozan, who many have pegged as an example for Wiggins’ career trajectory. Many of these players had bad rookie years, some had bad second years, but every time their advanced statistics would shoot sky high in their second or third year as their talent broke through.

Why is Andrew Wiggins rated so badly by advanced statistics?

Option 1) Andrew Wiggins’ performance is not captured correctly by advanced statistics (that are available to us) in a manner that does not seem to track with almost every other NBA player.

Option 2) Andrew Wiggins will perform better in a more conducive system and get better as he further matures.

Option 3) Andrew Wiggins is not going to be a player who helps his team win.

I am going to simply look at BPM for this discussion. ESPN’s RPM is a black-box, VORP is essentially just modeled off of BPM to account for playing time, 538’s CARMELO projections are similarly based off BPM and give Wiggins an arbitrary boost due to his draft status, and most of the other advanced statistical modeling are based off BPM. PER and Win Shares per 48 are similarly unkind to Wiggins.

So why use BPM, what does it tell us?

Try to make sense of this:

Raw BPM = a*ReMPG + b*ORB% + c*DRB% + d*STL% + e*BLK% + f*AST% - g*USG%*TO% + h*USG%*(1-TO%)*[2*(TS% - TmTS%) + i*AST% + j*(3PAr - Lg3PAr) - k] + l*sqrt(AST%*TRB%)

Does your head hurt yet? That is the formula for BPM.

Now, I am not going to pretend that I understand this completely (because I don’t) and no one is interested in reading a 5,000-word primer on BPM. You can go do that on Basketball Reference here if you really want to.

Instead, I am going to try to tease out the variables that could perhaps explain exactly why Wiggins looks so bad using advanced statistics. To know why he rates so poorly, it might help to know exactly what he is being punished for.

1 - The lack of “do stuff” statistics

This is the most popular theory. Wiggins does not “do stuff,” that is captured in the box score. He does not get the adequate number of rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks for a player who is on the court as much as he is. Now, some of this has an explanation.

For example, Wiggins does not get a lot of rebounds. But, he seems to be instructed to leak out on a lot of plays and the team does not rebound better or worse when he is on the court.

He does not get a lot of assists, but his potential assists number has been slowly climbing and his numbers might be depressed by the system/teammates he has been surrounded by.

So, with that in mind, let’s run a player season finder for players who have scored more than 20 points per game, but have less than 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal. You can check out the results here. (Blocks omitted due to search constraints and lack of relevancy.)

There have been 37 players who have accomplished this feat. Sorting by BPM, Wiggins ranks 34th and 36th on the list. That is not promising for our theory. Wiggins lack of ability to “do stuff” does not fully explain exactly why his advanced statistics are so bad, as with this list, Wiggins ranks towards the top half in block percentage, steal percentage, and true rebounding percentage, and is middling in assist percentage.

Sorted by WS/48, Wiggins ranks 35th and 36th and in PER ranks 30th and 31st, so we know it is not simply due to the formula of BPM.

However, there are a few interesting notes about this list that may help us answer our overarching question. When sorted by age, Wiggins produced this type of season at the second and third youngest age. Kevin Durant at age 19 is the only other reasonable comparison and his advanced statistics were similarly bad. The next youngest player who produced a similar season was Richard Hamilton at age 23 and most of the players on this list produced this type of season in their prime years.

Durant obviously grew into a superstar, and his advanced statistics skyrocket up in his second year, but this similarity postulates one answer to this question, which is that very young players with high-playmaking and scoring responsibilities produce bad advanced statistics.

All of these players are also bad at defense, or at least have bad DBPMs. The highest DBPM on the list is -0.7 and most fall past -2.0. These are primarily players who are offense-first, defense-second players, the successful of which are so good at offense that their bad defense did not matter as much. This is why Wiggins looks so bad with this comparison, as out of all these players he has the 3rd and 5th worst OBPM.

But, at the very least, we know that Wiggins lack of “do-stuff” statistics are not 100 percent responsible for his poor advanced statistics.

2. Wiggins rates poorly with advanced stats because he is carrying too heavy of a load for a young player

The criteria for this variable is players who are ages 18-23, are in their first three seasons, have a usage of over 25 percent, and score over 20 points per game. You can see the list here. There are 94 such players.

The goal for this search is to look at players who have had to play high-usage scoring roles at a young age. Theoretically, young players are not able to really carry these burdens. Those that are able to succeed in these circumstances are often the superstars of the league, the LeBron James and the like. For example, Karl-Anthony Towns is on this list and his sophomore season ranks 19th in BPM and 17th in WS/48. The worst on the list is Jamal Mashburn at age 23 in 1995-1996.

Wiggins ranks 90th and 92nd on this list using BPM. Fellow young player Devin Booker is residing in the same category at 91st and Jabari Parker also had a similar season and is ranked 74th.

Wiggins’ usage rate does not stand out as extraordinary among this group, his 2015-2016 season ranks 56th and his most recent season is 24th highest in usage, so it is hard to say that variable would be an explanatory factor among this group for why his advanced statistics are so poor.

It is the same with his points per game, which he ranks 74th and 27th with his respective most recent seasons.

The only explanatory factor again is Wiggins’ relatively young age, as with a group of players with age-controlled variables, from 18-23, Wiggins’ sophomore season is the fifth youngest of this group and his third season is the 15th youngest. In fact, active players make up the predominant grouping of the youngest seasons on this list. Durant, LeBron, Melo, Devin Booker, Tyreke Evans, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, and Wiggins account for 12 of the 15 youngest seasons of players who produce 20 points or more per game with a 25 percent usage rate.

So again our theory does not seem to fully explain why Wiggins has so much worse advanced statistics among this grouping. Of all these players, Wiggins ranks near the latter half in any category of true shooting percentage, true rebounding percentage, assist percentage, steal percentage, and block percentage, but he is not remarkably worse in any of these categories. It is hard to tell what, if anything, is dragging him to the bottom of this group.

(More optimistic Wolves fact, of these players, Towns has the best true shooting percentage. That is on a list that includes Shaquille O’Neal’s first three seasons)

3. BPM (and likely other advanced statistics) are designed in a way that specifically devalues Wiggins

We are going to dive into a few of the actual terms in the BPM equation here.

First of all, the way that BPM’s scoring variables are designed does not do Wiggins any favors. Quoting from the BPM primer:

“2*TmTS% adjusts for the team's average shooting, without the player included. If a player is shooting 50% on a terrible team, he's a better player than if he's shooting 50% on a great team.”

and

“j*(3PAr – Lg3PAr) gives a positive value for spacing and additional offensive rebounds off of three-pointers. To help the regression work well historically, this is normalized vs. league average.”

I noticed these as being potentially important when running a players season finder with the variables of 20 points per game, a true rebounding percentage below 7 percent, and a true assist percentage below 11 percent. Again, reflecting players who score a lot but do not do much else. This list, which you can see here, is 17 players long and Wiggins is on it twice, ranking dead last at 16 and 17 in BPM.

The question being, what makes Wiggins different than some of these players, like Kiki Vandeweghe, who put up these seasons in the 1980s, or Klay Thompson, who had these types of seasons over the last two years.

For one, while Wiggins has been increasing the number of threes he takes per year, he is barely keeping pace in a league where the average three-point attempts are skyrocketing. He gets no benefit here.

Secondly, Wiggins true shooting comes in about dead average on the Wolves on each team in the last two years. He gets no bump for scoring a ton on a team where his efficiency is average.

BPM also does not care about the one aspect of Wiggins’ offensive game that he is great at, getting to the free throw line. BPM takes no account of free throw rate. The other parts that work against Wiggins are, again from the BPM primer:

“Finally, a positive interaction term between rebounding and assists is included. This can be interpreted a number of ways — athleticism interacting with basketball awareness, size interacting with basketball skills, etc. This term was highly significant, and helped the overall fit of the regression quite a bit.”

While we have seen that Wiggins’s lack of “do stuff” statistics is not the only variable that causes him to bad advanced statistics, his lack of rebounds and assists seem to be an important variable in this regard. Simply put, for a player like Wiggins, there is a reason why he does not grade out well by these metrics.

To find out how far I could push this, we simply start to remove the variable that is propping up Wiggins the most, which is points scored per game. 20 points per game is completely arbitrary, so how does Wiggins look when that number is reduced to 15?

Player Season Finder for 15 points per game, less than 7 true rebound percentage, less than 11 true assist percentage, which you can see here. Wiggins ranks 52nd and 56th out of 62 players, right along luminaries like Nick Young.

Same test but at 10 points per game, which you can see here. Wiggins ranks 92nd and 95th out of 96 players in BPM.

He is, however, the youngest and third youngest on the list.

Making Sense of it All

It is possible that none of this means anything. There are a ton of very smart people in the NBA who believe that Andrew Wiggins is going to be a superstar. Decrying Wiggins over advanced statistics has become a cliche, with the most popular writer in all the NBA, Zach Lowe, deeming it a “blood sport.”

Advanced statistics also paint Wiggins not just as a bad defender, but perhaps the worst defender in the league, such as 538’s NBA Haters’ Ball or more simply ESPN’s RPM, where Wiggins ranks 92 out of 94 shooting guards in DRPM.

Those who watch the Wolves know this not to be true. Wiggins is a bad off-ball defender, but so have been half (and up to 90 percent) of his teammates in Wiggins’ short Wolves career. He plays pretty good on-ball defense and has the tools to be great at it. Also, almost all young players are bad at team defense, so playing with a bunch of them at the same time does not help.

Wiggins has also spent a lot of time playing on bad teams, with three different coaches over three years, who have each wanted him to play different roles but with the same idea: that Wiggins is supposed to be the “star” who carries the team on offense. Wiggins has certainly shown he can be a high-usage, mid-efficiency scorer, but it may have been too much to ask him to it all at once. Wiggins is not LeBron James.

We are also only using a few advanced statistics to look at Wiggins, using methods which are not always fully understood or clearly publicized. These statistics were never meant to be the be-all-end-all of player evaluation. But yet, Wiggins is clearly an outlier, and not in a good way.

A clear thread throughout all of these variable tests shows that there has recently been a crop of players who are more likely to produce types of seasons similar to Wiggins, which are usually high-offense, scoring seasons with little rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks. Part of this is situational. It is likely that there are now more players, like Wiggins, who are placed into situations where they are given heavy playmaking, or scoring roles, immediately out of college and on a bad team.

However, this is not necessarily a new thing to happen. Usually, the players who become stars still rise and shine in these situations and their advanced statistics adjust accordingly. The fact that this has not happened for Wiggins should raise some alarms.

Going back to our original question, which is why do advanced statistics rate Wiggins so poorly, our options were:

Option 1) Andrew Wiggins’ performance is not captured correctly by advanced statistics (that are available to us) in a manner that does not seem to track with almost every other NBA player.

Option 2) Andrew Wiggins will perform better in a more conducive system and get better as he further matures.

Option 3) Andrew Wiggins is not going to be a player who helps his team win.

The answer is a little bit of all three. What Wiggins is good at is not captured by most advanced statistics and what he is bad at punishes his rating even more as he does not get other “boosts.” The system he has been placed in has not done him any favors, although others have succeeded in similar circumstances and with similar types of production.

But, finally and most importantly, will Andrew Wiggins be a player who helps his team win?

We should know after this year. However, the Wolves are like a Texas Hold’em poker player who has been forced all-in before the flop and is holding onto a suited Ace-Jack. The odds are pretty good, but there is a whole lot that could go wrong.