As every year filled with mid-range disappointments and lackluster defense floats by, confidence in Andrew Wiggins’ ability to improve wanes. After a fifth season spent squandering his enormous potential, that faith that he will ever get to the level he was supposed to is almost entirely exhausted.
There have always been flashes. Most noticeably a year-long stretch in the 2016-17 campaign, where he averaged over 23 points per game while shooting a very respectable 45.2 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from beyond the arc. But just when he seemed primed to explode, his form plummeted.
From the outside looking in, Jimmy Butler’s arrival and Tom Thibodeau’s isolation-based game plan was the reason for his dramatic downswing. However, even when the two departed the organization he remained at rock bottom. He finished last season with the worst numbers since his rookie season, with his confidence in himself looking as broken as his jumper.
Now, it’s make or break time for Wiggins. His name was surely bandied around by Gersson Rosas in trade discussions this summer, but his long-term max contract makes him virtually impossible to move without giving up valuable assets. So he is in Minnesota for the foreseeable future, and the Wolves need to figure out how to maximize him. Specifically head coach Ryan Saunders, whose first full season in charge should see a complete overhaul in style and system.
Saunders has worked with Wiggins in a player development and assistant coach role since the 24-year-olds debut season. Due to that long and close relationship, Wiggins has openly campaigned for his new coach since the minute he took over. He even showed his support on the court, dropping 40 points and 10 rebounds to drag the Wolves to a win in Saunders’ first game in charge.
It looked like the coaching change had filled Maple Jordan’s lungs with the breath a fresh air that the team desperately craved, but his production, and subsequently the organization and fan’s hope, quickly plateaued. In 37 games under Saunders, Wiggins averaged 18.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists, rounding out a mediocre stat line with ghoulish shooting numbers of 42 percent from the field, 33.5 percent from long-range and 67.8 percent from the charity stripe.
One thing that buoys hope of even the most loyal citizens of Wiggins Island is the fact Saunders pretty much kept Tom Thibodeau’s system in place during his interim tenure. He loosened the seal on Thibs’ airtight rotation and made the obvious move to center the offense around Karl-Anthony Towns more, but he didn’t have time to drastically refurbish the schemes. He also didn’t have offensive coordinator Pablo Prigioni or defensive coordinator David Vanterpool by his side — two highly regarded assistants who joined the team this summer.
Maybe with those two in tow and a full summer to devise a better plan of attack, Wiggins could reap the rewards. The first order of business is glaringly obvious, they need to completely restructure the Canadian’s shot selection and scoring mentality. He has constructed a stereotype as someone who chooses to shoot the dreaded long mid-range shot far too often, which is fine if you can shoot them, but Wiggins can’t. He finished the season shooting 34.7 percent on all mid-range shots and just 32.9 percent on shots between 16-feet and the 3-point line.
Simple mathematics will tell you that even a 3-point shooter with Wiggins’ shaky history is far better off shooting the long-ball than putting up those kinds of destructive numbers shooting mid-rangers. And one look at his athleticism and ability to contort his body around the rim will tell you he should be trying to get there as much as possible.
As an astute coach and student of the analytic movement, Saunders knows this. After a blown-up picture of points per shot in different zones was placed in the Mayo Clinic for the players to see every day, Saunders didn’t beat around the bush when he was asked about getting the most out of Wiggins.
“Shot selection. Shot values. I think that’s really important,” said Saunders. “And it’s not something that’s just a suggestion in the NBA anymore.”
With shots at the rim and behind the arc emblazoned in green and mid-range shots painted red, it’s obvious what the picture is telling all the players — especially Wiggins. If, and it’s certainly a big if at this point of his career, he can change his mindset and choose his spots better, it seems almost impossible that his efficiency won’t rise closer to a league-average level.
Of course, there are things other than just mindset that will go into that evolution. Wiggins needs to work on his handle and strength. His high, loose handle has always been far too easy to strip, and his wiry frame forbids him from bullying his way inside. This appears to deter him from attacking the basket and, in his mind, forces him to take a jumper instead.
With Prigioni, Wiggins will have a guide who has effectively implemented an offense devoid of mid-range tomfoolery. Stationed in Brooklyn with the Nets last season, Prigioni oversaw a team that shot the 3rd least mid-range jumpers.
Perhaps a stricter focus on shot selection and harsher punishments for disobeying the system will enable Wiggins to flourish. It doesn’t seem likely he will ever live up to his contract, but if he becomes a semi-efficient scorer and avoids actively hurting the team, it should be considered a win.
In one of the few new wrinkles he did add to Wiggins’ game last season, Saunders flirted with the idea of giving his inconsistent wing more pick-and-roll ball-handling duties. Again, to fully maximize him in this role Wiggins needs to retool his dribbling technique, but it’s certainly a way to get him going downhill and not meandering around into a jumper.
Over the last 10 games of the season, Wiggins was a constant in the pick-and-roll. While it seems scary to think about the often clumsy and tunnel-visioned Canadian having the ball a ton, it actually yielded some good results. Wiggins averaged 21.5 points on 48 percent shooting. Getting him out in space and attacking bigs on switches is one of the rare times he looks completely in control.
In the example below, Mason Plumlee is stuck on an island after the pick-and-roll switch, allowing Wiggins to put his speed and long strides to good use.
He even showed more chops as a playmaker than previous seasons. He is never going to be a table-setter supreme, but Wiggins can make simple passes if put in the correct position to do so. Here, he comes off the screen and nails Anthony Tolliver right in stride and in the shooting pocket.
If he can provide that kind of attacking mindset and willingness to hit corner shooters, Wiggins can play a ball-handling role in an efficient offense. It wouldn’t be wise to stick the rock in his hands constantly, but being able to run lead guard plays with him initiating would be a huge step in his development.
The obvious dilemma here is Wiggins has never shown the ability to drastically change his ways. Even with Saunders and Prigioni provided the most stable offensive foundation he has ever had, it’s still no certainty he will become what the Wolves need him to be.
Defensively, he is just as bad, if not worse. Wiggins has shown a desire to compete in one-on-one situations and started to use his athleticism to chase down some blocks last season, but that isn’t enough. He is among the league’s worst help defenders and communicators, often gets caught ball-watching off-ball, and rarely uses his speed and long limbs to effectively jump passing lanes.
It’s rare that a player that poor defensively ever turns into a lockdown savant. However, like his shooting numbers, getting him closer toward league-average would go a long way to Minnesota collecting wins.
Aforementioned defensive coordinator and associate head coach David Vanterpool is one of the best around. He helped turn Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusef Nurkic from turnstiles to competitive defenders. Wiggins might be his biggest project from a mentality standpoint, but he also has the best physical tools of the lot.
Wiggins has been stuck and exposed in Thibodeau’s archaic defensive system for over three years now, so a fresh, modernized scheme might be just what he needs to get a bit more out of him. Again, don’t be expecting Andrew Wiggins to become some sort of defensive mastermind, but just incremental improvements would be extremely handy.
Wiggins has never entered an NBA season with more to prove. He needs to show he has some sort of guile and want to improve, or he may never be able to redeem his tarnished reputation. With a system that should play up his strengths and mask some of his glaring weaknesses, he has never had a better shot at redemption.