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Andrew Wiggins (and the Politics of Fandom)

Andrew Wiggins remains a frustratingly incomplete player at the midway point of his fourth season.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

There are moments. Moments when he unfurls himself toward the basket and finishes in traffic with a finger-roll or soft bank-shot. When he unleashes his signature spin move and uses his length to get all the way to the rim. When he gets out in transition and Euro-steps a poor defender on the way to another bucket. There are moments when it’s hard to believe Andrew Wiggins is not a star.

And your eyes do not deceive you, those forays to the rim, always the meat of his game, have become even more effective this season. Wiggins is shooting a career high 70.5 percent within three feet this season, significantly better, for comparison’s sake, than MVP-level attackers James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

But the portions, which should be growing as he’s surrounded by more talent, instead are getting smaller. The percentage of his shots that are within three feet have declined for the second straight year, and now sit at 23 percent. Perhaps even more alarming, his free throw rate, which peaked at .437 FTA per field goal attempt in his second season, has plummeted to a mere .286 this season, and his ability to shoot them effectively seems to have abandoned him.

We are now halfway through his fourth season in the NBA, and Wiggins has played over 10,000 minutes. The Wolves committed to him over the summer in the form of a five year, max contract extension that kicks in next season. Which is to say he’s going to have plenty of rope, because in the NBA, rope is often made out of dollars.

But the truth is, as we approach his 23rd birthday, Andrew Wiggins is nowhere near stardom. There are way too many holes in his game, some of which show no signs of closing, and there must now be serious doubt about what he will become. He remains remarkably capable of disappearing from long stretches of games. The mythical “future” is no longer that far ahead of us, and the excuses are running out.

Before they do, however, it is worth noting that Wiggins has had three NBA coaches in his three-and-a-half seasons as a pro, and the way he’s been used has changed multiple times in a relatively short period. As a rookie under the sorely missed Flip Saunders and a second year player under Sam Mitchell, Wiggins spent a lot of time in the mid-post, getting entry passes and attacking the rim in one or two dribbles. This was a relatively effective approach to point getting, as his sophomore season featured career highs in True Shooting percentage and free throw rate.

But neither Saunders nor Mitchell appeared to foster his development in other areas of the game, be it passing, defending, especially in a team concept, or rebounding. They also seemed content to let him continuously default to his natural desire to pull-up inside the three point line for long jumpers.

Tom Thibodeau changed things up offensively last season, putting the ball in Wiggins’ hands on the perimeter, and asking him to run pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler (while sticking passing maestro Ricky Rubio in the corner for 2/3rds of the season.) That was not a huge success, as Wiggins posted a career high in usage, but did not show any consistent ability to make plays for others.

This season, with the acquisitions of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague, Wiggins is not handling the ball nearly as much. His front court touches, seconds per touch, and dribbles per touch are all down this season per stats. More basically, his usage is down significantly, to 23.4 percent, compared to 29 percent last season. Unfortunately, this has not led to increased efficiency. His Effective Field Goal percentage is down to 47.3 percent, lowest since his rookie year (and well below the 52.0 league average,) and his True Shooting percentage is a career low 50 percent (against a league average of 55.6 percent.) It’s difficult to be encouraged by these numbers for a player whose best skill is scoring.

He has, happily, “traded-in” some of those long-twos for more three point attempts, which should pay off in the long run, but he is shooting only 32.8 percent from beyond the arc this season, perfectly in line with his career average. Overall, it is statistically his worst offensive season thus far, at a time when we are desperate to see improvement.

Elsewhere, his game remains, as it’s always been, limited. He’s averaging career lows in both turnover and assist percentages, which given his role is not a huge surprise, but certainly play-making was an area we hoped to see take steps forward. He’s grabbing a few more defensive rebounds, but a few less offensive boards. Overall, it’s very similar to what’s come before, and you have to squint extremely hard to see any significant positive changes in his fourth year in the league.

Except on defense. Wiggins’ defense has improved appreciably this season, and that matters. His steal and block percentages are up, which is a signal that his awareness and effort on that end have improved. And you can see it. He’s active defensively with more frequency than in the past. He’s doing a much better job of helping the helper when a big slides over against penetration, and he’s reading and reacting more quickly. All of this is good to see, and vital to his future value and the Wolves future success.

For what it’s worth, this is reflected in his RPM, which shows him somewhat worse on offense this year, but significantly better on defense. (Overall he ranks 33rd among small forwards in RPM, after sitting 46th largely on the “strength” of awful defense last season.) His component BPM shows similar defensive improvement and offensive regression.

All that said, here’s what’s been rattling around in my head recently: Wiggins’ offensive stats in wins and losses are not very different, which is quite unusual for a high minute player. He scores the same number of points on the same TS percentage in wins and losses. He does rebound and assist at a somewhat higher rate in wins, but the differences are not huge. This is bizarre, and might just be a sample size anomaly. But Zach LaVine had similar splits last season, and it makes me wonder whether the impact of a “third option” is less than we might expect.

At any rate, here’s a chart:

Advanced Table
DeMar DeRozan 304 9734 .524 .074 .356 2.8 10.3 6.5 9.5 1.4 0.7 9.8 23.0 8.9 3.8 12.7 .063 -0.8 -1.6 -2.4 -1.1
Rudy Gay 318 11223 .530 .209 .272 4.7 13.7 9.2 8.5 1.8 1.9 11.8 23.8 7.1 8.1 15.2 .065 -0.1 -0.4 -0.5 4.3
Andrew Wiggins 285 10315 .528 .168 .380 4.2 8.7 6.5 9.8 1.4 1.2 10.1 25.8 9.1 2.4 11.5 .054 -0.1 -2.3 -2.4 -1.0
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/6/2018.

This is the first four seasons of each player’s career, with of course Andrew Wiggins in the midst of his fourth season.

I include this because DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay are often cited as comps for Andrew Wiggins. As you can see, it works fairly well. Gay was (and is) bigger, a better defender and rebounder, but perhaps lacks a little of Wiggins’ offensive gifts. DeRozan was quite similar, though an even worse and less frequent three point shooter. He also made an unusual leap in his fifth year in the league.

But I also include this because Gay’s career strikes me as instructive. Gay was a central player on some bad Memphis Grizzlies teams during his first few seasons. They ultimately gave him a big contract because they had little else and little choice. The Grizzlies started to win, but they did so because they acquired better players than Rudy Gay. In the end they traded him in the midst of their best regular season, and proceeded to make the Western Conference Finals, and win 50+ games the following two seasons as well.

That’s not to say it’s inevitable that Wiggins will follow the same path. But the similarities are obvious. The Wolves, having Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler, are no longer as reliant on Wiggins. That could be a good thing in the end for his development—perhaps his defensive progress will meld with finding himself offensively and he’ll be the star or near-star we would all love to see him become. But it’s also true that he might continue to be marginalized on a team with better players than he is, and that max contract will not look good in the ensuing years.

I’ve always been something of a skeptic about his likely stardom. But the entire story of Andrew Wiggins has not been written, and could still go in any number of directions. As more than one person likes to point out, he’s yet to turn 23.

The more time passes without major steps forward, however, the less likely it is that he truly emerges as anything more than a score-only guy with moderate efficiency. As I have pointed out in the past, players of this type often wind up as big scorers on bad teams, which is what Wiggins was for the first three years of his career. Now he’s less of a scorer on a better team. Figuring out how to be the best player he can be in those circumstances remains a work in progress. His success in doing so will determine whether we applaud or regret that max contract.

One final note: I’ve put off writing about Wiggins for a while now because the debate often gets ugly, and I preferred to avoid it, at least formally. What I would like to get away from is using Wiggins as a litmus test for Wolves fandom. There are people who are optimistic about his future, and those who are pessimistic. Both positions are defensible, and I invite people with any opinion on the continuum to the debate. Personally, I’ll take the under, but denigrating those who disagree on Wiggins has not been a fun aspect of Wolves fandom over the last few years.

Have at it in comments.