These are calamitous times for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Just hours before the team was to begin a back-to-back set of home games against the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings on Friday and Saturday, they discovered that shooting guard Kevin Martin had fractured his right wrist while scoring 37 points in a win over the New York Knicks on Wednesday. Martin’s enforced absence meant that four-fifths of the Wolves starting lineup from the season opener are in casts, braces, padded boots, or — in the case of power forward Thad Young — in mourning over the passing of his mother.
After San Antonio casually rolled to a 29-point victory on Friday night, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich correctly observed that “it wasn’t a fair fight.” After the Wolves lost by a dozen Saturday, coach Flip Saunders could nevertheless credibly proclaim that he was “happy with the way our team played.”
The reflexive optimists among Wolves fans must regard this carnage as providing opportunities for the youngsters and extraneous back-ups to strut their stuff. In this instance it is a pretty threadbare silver lining. The most blatant lesson of the season thus far is how vital injured point guard Ricky Rubio is to the fortunes of this team, at both ends of the court. Without Rubio, there is no “normal” functioning. Since he is now the most entrenched cornerstone, with the ink still drying on the contract that will keep him with the team through 2019, the team’s long-term development is retarded or skewed when he is missing from action.
That said, any time a player steps on the court, it adds to his education, and ours, about what he can and can’t accomplish. During a season when maturation is more important than wins and losses, the growth of Rubio and heralded rookie Andrew Wiggins is probably the most important barometer of success. Well, Rubio is “out indefinitely,” but after twelve games Wiggins leads the team in minutes-played and ranks among the top three in points, rebounds, steals, blocks, free throws and turnovers. His ongoing health is one of the few blessings thus far this checkered season. What follows are some of my impressions, attributes that seem less mutable to the prevailing turbulence currently engulfing the team.
Wiggins burns cool
Although he is most ballyhooed prospect in Timberwolves history, and one of the most hyped players ever to enter the NBA, Wiggins is not easily categorized. The things that jump out at you are that he is a phenomenal athlete, and that the biggest flaw in his skill set is below-average dribbling ability.
But what feels most indelible about Wiggins, who was born in 1995, is how much his entire mien mocks the omnipresent mirrors of the reality-show culture. The celebrity spotlight is like a reading lamp by which he does his life’s homework, according to his own schedule and motivations. Being raised in Canada by a mother who was an Olympic silver-medalist sprinter and a father who himself played professional basketball has given him a rare perspective on how to nourish his internal character as athlete and human amid the selfie-saturations of the external media maw.
Looking at him from the outside, it seems like he overcompensates to safeguard his soul. Saunders has said on more than one occasion that he has a tendency to coast on the court, echoing the criticism that dogged him during his lone year in college at Kansas. Usually this is a damning indictment—loafing or malingering is kindred to quitting, or at least not adequately devoting yourself to the task at hand.
But Wiggins is simultaneously so preternaturally gifted and so organically self-composed that the “lazy” or “unmotivated” labels don’t stick. You don’t quietly shoulder the burden of becoming your team’s wing stopper on defense at the age of 19—relatively unheralded dirty work that more often than not makes you look bad—without a significant degree of intestinal fortitude and team-first prioritizing.
Now that all four of his fellow starters have fallen by the wayside, the focus on Wiggins has intensified even as the stakes by which we can reasonably measure his value have been scrambled. On Saturday, Saunders didn’t rest him until there was five minutes left in the first half, then played him all but 82 seconds in the second half. In response, Wiggins made four first-half steals while operating in a zone defense designed to limit the damage star center DeMarcus Cousins could inflict on the Wolves beneath the basket. But what drew attention was his career-high 29 points, 20 of them in a second half where he attempted 14 shots (making six) and got to the free throw line eight times (making seven) without once turning the ball over.
After the game, Saunders did his best to shovel more fuel into the enigmatic engine of his star teenager. “I don’t want to say it was a coming-out party but I think we saw some of the things we would expect out of him. We forced it a little bit but he took initiative, had four steals in the first half…To see Wiggins take initiative, that is something we are hoping he is going to be able to start doing on a nightly basis. We still calls plays for him to get him the ball, but he got a little bit more aggressive, put the ball on the floor more, attacked the rim more.”
Later, Saunders pointedly noted that near the end of the game on a breakaway that was going to yield a Wolves basket, Corey Brewer fed the ball to Wiggins for the layup. His teammates know the pressure Wiggins is under, Saunders continued. They want him to do well and step up more forcefully.
Like any good coach during the postgame chat, Saunders was indulging in a mixture of message-sending and wishful thinking. Brewer and his teammates may see the political utility in catering to Wiggins—as Brewer himself said on Media Day, he’s the number one overall pick in the draft. But it seems pretty clear even at this early stage that Wiggins isn’t going to seize the reins of any leadership position until it has long been apparent that he should.
This doesn’t mean Wiggins lacks for self-confidence. On the contrary, his statement during Media Day, that he knows he “can impact the game,” reveals a mature context for measuring himself. (It stood in stark contrast to his fellow teenaged rookie, Zach LaVine, who dwelt on that night’s slam-dunk contest and has later proven he isn’t close to being ready for the NBA.) Different games call for different types of skills to make an impact. You get the sense that Wiggins is honing an all-around approach, a slower but more encompassing growth. Vocal leadership will be the last brick in the firmament.
Were it not for his stupendous athleticism, Wiggins would not be a crowd-pleaser. His interviews are terse and factual, like a transcript from a copy editor. His face is generally stoic, without the exaggerated grins and frowns that telegraph emotions like PR releases to viewers. He guards those emotions even better than he currently guards opponents out on the court. He is the anti-Kardashian, one of the many reasons to embrace him—but on his own terms. Because inside this stupendous athlete is an instinctively wary teenager, sure of himself to know what he doesn’t know and isn’t yet prepared for. He’d rather be late for superstardom than not show up at all.