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How much of Andrew Wiggins’ start is real?

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The sixth-year player has been one of the season’s early surprises, but will it last?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t usually much solace in losing. After defeating the Utah Jazz on the road on Monday, the Wolves lost 103-95 at home. Games like these against division rivals are going to continue to be important as long as both teams are in the playoff picture. Getting two wins in the same week could have given the Wolves a significant edge down the stretch but this isn’t the end of the world.

Wednesday’s game also saw the return of Andrew Wiggins to the Wolves. Wiggins had missed the three previous games because of a death in the family and illness. Those three games showed, at times, just how important it is for the Wolves to both have Wiggins and have him playing well.

His strong play has been a league-wide story in this young season. Wiggins is averaging 25.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game — all of which would be career-highs if the season ended today.

Sixteen players this season are averaging at least 25 points, five rebounds, and three assists. Those players include James Harden, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Devin Booker, Kyrie Irving, Pascal Siakam, Bradley Beal, Kawhi Leonard, Trae Young, Brandon Ingram, and Paul George.

Wiggins is also on this list and ranks 14th among this group when sorted by win shares. Win shares are far from a be all and end all, but the best players tend to have the most by the end of the season. As for Wiggins, he’s already almost doubled his total of win shares last season (0.6) this season (1.1).

There’s no doubt that Wiggins is playing better and many are asking if what we’re seeing is real because sixth-year players don’t make this kind of leap. While I’m inclined to say that the influence of outside influences, like a coaching and organizational philosophy shift, as reasons for why his play is sustainable, there will likely be some regression.

Why Wiggins’ play could continue

One of the most notable differences in Wiggins this season from previous seasons is the increased aggressive play and reduced mid-range shots. Wolves management and Ryan Saunders have gotten Wiggins to buy-in to this change in philosophy and the results are paying off as Wiggins has won several games for the team already.

Wiggins has taken 48.5 percent of his shots between the rim and 10 feet and 19.3 percent between 10 feet and the 3-point line. As for 3-pointers, Wiggins is taking a career-high 32.3 percent of his shots from deep. He’s cut down those mid range shots by nearly 50 percent and it’s paying off.

Despite making just 32.9 percent of his 3’s, it’s important to remember that he’s never come close to taking the 6.8 treys per game that he has this season. Wiggins’ 3-point efficiency could come up by taking more corner 3’s. He’s a 41.8 percent career corner 3 shooter who is hitting just 27.3 percent of them this season. So far this season, Wiggins has taken fewer corner 3’s than he has in three seasons.

Wiggins is making 54.1 percent of his 2-pointers, including 69.6 percent within three feet of the rim and 48.1 percent between 3-to-10 feet. Both of those would be career highs but not such a dramatic leap that immediately strike you as fluky. Even as a rookie, he was adept and getting in the paint to use his athleticism to draw fouls or make tough shots.

While this is hard to quantify, Wiggins is averaging a career-high in assist percentage with a career-low turnover percentage on a 29 percent usage rate. Basically, Wiggins is accounting for a higher-than-ever amount of his team’s assists when he’s on the floor while not turning the ball over and using a high amount of possessions. Wiggins generally appears to have improved as a passer and handling the ball, so it seems possible for him to sustain a similar level of production.

Why Wiggins could regress

It’s important to remember that while what we’ve seen is encouraging, that it’s only been 12 games. Playing at this level requires a lot of focus and reshaping perceptions that were formed over the last five years is going to take some time.

Wiggins’ play under Ryan Saunders has been a revelation this season, there’s no question. We also have a 37-game sample after Tom Thibodeau was fired where Wiggins averaged 18.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game on 42 percent shooting from the floor and 33.5 percent on 4.6 3-pointers per game.

Thirty-seven games isn’t a small sample; that’s nearly half a season. How Wiggins continues to adhere to his team’s new philosophies will be crucial to his continued success. The team could also continue to add shooting or develop the players on the roster to give Wiggins more room to get into the lane.

There’s also the matter of how much more Wiggins is creating for himself this season. Wiggins has been assisted on 46 percent of his 2-pointers for his career but has just been assisted on just 34 percent of his 2-point shots this season. Similarly, 80.5 percent of his career 3’s have been assisted compared to just 63 percent this season.

Fewer baskets being created for him while suddenly increasing his efficiency makes you wonder if this is the result of Wiggins working on things like his dribbling and a refined shot selection or if he’s simply making shots.

For instance, Wiggins has been very streaky from 3-to-10 feet for his career, oscillating between the mid-30s and mid-40s for his career. His career high from this distance is 45.9 percent in 2018, but shot 34.1 percent from this range in 2019. There is a pattern here as he shot 34.7 percent from here as a rookie and 45.6 percent the following season. His 48.1 percent shooting from 3-to-10 feet this season is right in line with this pattern.

Determining what’s real

Here’s the thing, the answer likely lies somewhere in between “Future All-Star” and “This is fraudulent.” Having covered Wiggins and been around him since he entered the league, he’s never shown this level of adherence to improving his shot selection or proficiency in setting up teammates. He looks improved at all of these things and it seems that the changes that Saunders and Gersson Rosas have implemented are in place to maximize Wiggins’ game.

His effort has always been a question mark and many of us have said there was no reason he can’t grab five to seven rebounds every night and now he’s doing it. This is something Wiggins has always been in control of and it’s paying off.

What we certainly haven’t seen in the past that we saw on Wednesday is that a bad shooting night would infect the rest of his performance. Yeah, he missed nine of his 10 3-pointers but he made 9-of-14 2-pointers that all came in the paint except for one elbow jumper. The Wiggins of the last five seasons wouldn’t have bothered grabbing seven rebounds and found a way to add three assists.

Finding ways to impact a game when Wiggins’ shot hasn’t gone down has been a challenge throughout his career and it’s great to see him finally doing it. It becomes that much more important on a night when no one is shooting well and Towns is managing foul trouble.

While Wiggins may not suddenly be one of the 15 most productive players in the league, it feels safe to say that he’s improved and that this hot streak has different circumstances than previous ones. Players of his experience level don’t usually flip the switch like this but it’s not impossible to think that a 24-year-old could mature and improve.

The Wolves and Wiggins need this hot start to sustain. Another year of being a negative offensive player would have held this team back so much and added pressure on Towns to carry this team. This version of Andrew Wiggins is not only a player you can play for more than 30 minutes, but he’s a player you want to play and that’s huge for the franchise.