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Andrew Wiggins has nothing left to prove

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Andrew Wiggins has logged 2,640 minutes, most of it as a teenager, during this rookie season, the fourth most in the entire NBA.

The 2014-15 season of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball is aging like a beached fish in the morning sun.

On Monday night at Target Center versus the Utah Jazz, the Wolves trotted out the most absurd starting lineup yet in their clown-car campaign for a high lottery draft pick: A trio of rookies and two second-year journeymen who had logged more time in the D-League minors than the NBA before this season. Zach LaVine, drafted by the Wolves nine months ago, had seniority status in team tenure among the quintet.

Before the season started, the Wolves were marketing a brilliant slogan to corral paying customers: “Eyes on the Rise.” It disingenuously conflated the leaping ability of the team’s cadre of new athletic acquisitions with the tantalizing prospect of a similar elevation in the standings.

This second part of the “more dunks = more wins” equation was always a bit of a hoax, of course. Having swapped their superstar, Kevin Love, for a collection of beguiling jumping jacks, the Wolves were not about to “rise” above their 40-win, 10th place standing in the rugged Western Conference. But when injuries wiped out a trio of complementary veteran starters within the first three weeks of the season, the Wolves unofficial slogan inexorably became Guise on the Demise, as the team began figuring out ways to tank games in favor of developing youth and positioning themselves for this summer’s draft.

Before this year’s pratfall, the largest decline in win total in the 26-year history of the franchise (not counting the abbreviated strike season) was 14, from 58 victories in the magical 2003-04 season to 44 during the dysfunctional 2004-05 campaign that prematurely ended coach Flip Saunders’ first stint with the Wolves. Even if the current ragtag remnants of the Wolves’ roster were to miraculously win the team’s final eight contests of the 2014-15 season, they’d finish with a record of 24-58, or 16 wins behind the 40-42 mark posted in 2013-14.

No matter. As the Wolves face-plant themselves into another cruel April, there is optimism within the organization and among the fan base that is in stark contrast to the dolor generated by the team’s failed playoff chase and the impending departures of Love and coach Rick Adelman a year ago. This sunny outlook isn’t simply a refraction from the fool’s gold of slogans and wishful thinking. It is based on the cornerstone of a budding star with unfathomable potential who refused to be blinded or otherwise struck dumb by the glare of the hype. It is based on the fact that during his rookie season, Andrew Wiggins has consistently delivered the goods.

Last man standing

When second-year center Gorgui Dieng missed Monday’s game due to a concussion, Wiggins became the only member of the Timberwolves to appear in every game the team has played thus far this season. But that fact represents just the tip of the iceberg of what Wiggins has endured.

He has logged 2,640 minutes, most of it as a teenager, during this rookie season, the fourth most in the entire NBA. Two of the three players ahead of him, James Harden and Trevor Ariza, are teammates in Houston. The other one, John Wall, is a fifth-year veteran most commonly playing beside Marcin Gortat, Paul Pierce, Bradley Beal and Nene Hilario. Three of those four are holdover starters alongside Wall from last year’s playoff team in Washington; the fourth, Pierce, is a 37-year old former star and sage  professional.

By contrast, Wiggins has played 447 minutes more than any of his teammates, the largest gap in the NBA. Only one teammate has been on the court with him for more than half of his minutes — Dieng, a second-year backup center with just 3011 career minutes. After that, it is Thad Young, who lasted 48 games in Minnesota before being traded away in February. The most commonly deployed three-man combination on the Wolves has been Wiggins, Dieng and Young, but at 862 minutes, the combo represents slightly over a third of Wiggins’ total court time — and will never be replicated now that Young is gone.

In other words, Wiggins has been thrown into the maw of adjusting to the NBA in an atmosphere of total chaos. He is the polestar among a rapidly rotating crew of mostly motley characters. From the start, he was a teenager given the arduous task of defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. By January 10, he had already logged more minutes than his sole season in college at Kansas. And by that January night, the Wolves had already been without starters Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin for nearly two months.

Throughout the season, storylines have come and gone. Consider the point guard position alone. When Rubio went down, callow Zach LaVine leapfrogged over Mo Williams into the starting lineup and proved so stupendously unprepared for the task that he was mercifully replaced. Williams erupted for a team-record 52 points and was soon peddled to Charlotte. Before that, Corey Brewer, nicknamed the “drunken dribbler” by the Wolves’ faithful, logged some surprisingly effective minutes at the point before he was shipped out to Houston for dimes on the dollar. Then there was the night Lorenzo Brown played all but a few seconds of the game against Cleveland.

But most often it has been LaVine at the point when Wiggins is playing. Anyone who has watched LaVine play knows that, to put it charitably, he cannot play point guard in anything but a rudimentary fashion.

Consequently, Wiggins has shot 39.1 percent from the field and 24.5 percent from three-point territory during the 1101 minutes he has played alongside LaVine and 46.4 percent from the field and 39.1 percent behind the arc during the 1539 minutes LaVine has been on the bench. Folks who want to decry his wayward shooting percentage may want to file away that fact.

Indeed looking at Wiggins’ statistical shortcomings without considering the context is malpractice in punditry. Basketball is a team sport. If you consider Wiggins’ own youth and inexperience versus the responsibilities he has been handed and environmental shambles of his situation — the constant losing, the roster that has never stopped churning, the gross incompetence — nobody in the NBA has toiled so mightily and been provided with less support this season. He has had no “team” to speak of, no place to fit in and flourish with familiarity.

On the contrary, he has been buffeted by temporary pecking orders and challenged by head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, tromping the throttle on his development. Kevin Martin returned and starting jacking up jumpers. Nikola Pekovic returned and re-established his primacy in the post. Ricky Rubio returned anxious to feed his familiar veterans and showcase his new shooting stroke. Kevin Garnett created a tsunami of goodwill and sold-out crowds, then proclaimed that he’d rather instruct his teammates in practice and skip the games, even though scheduling, health, and a ravaged roster ensured that the Wolves rarely practice.

Through it all, it was up to Wiggins to do the adjusting, not vice versa. When asked if Martin was taking shots away from Wiggins, Saunders replied that it was up to Wiggins to seize those shots if he wanted them. Later, the coach added that he wasn’t going to call plays for Wiggins anymore. Apparently the rookie didn’t have enough on his plate and had to start hunting for his own spots on the floor and moving with the ball — before returning to guard a high-powered wing scorer on the defensive end. Imagine Kevin Martin trying that. Or any other member of this roster.

Standing proud

And yet, Wiggins has made both Saunders and himself look good by streaking to the finish line of his rookie campaign. Two months ago, Saunders was noting that he’d hit the notorious “rookie wall.” Seven games ago, back home in Toronto for the only time this season to play against the Raptors, Wiggins conceded that he was tired but determined to play all 82 games. Since then, he has averaged more than 42 minutes, 21 points (abetted by nine trips to the free throw line), four rebounds and two assists per game.

That stat line culminated on Monday night against Utah, when Wiggins took the floor beside four teammates who all would have been better off playing in the D-league this season. Before the game, he was the topic of conversation from both coaches. Saunders remarked that, “These last four games are probably as good a stretch as he’s had from the perspective of playing aggressive. He’s finding different ways to play.”

At the other end of the hallway, Jazz coach Quin Snyder said, “He’s putting a lot of pressure on the defense. Anytime a player can get his shot, it puts the defense in a position where, in order to defend him they have to be more aggressive. He’s taking advantage of that by making basketball plays — shot fakes, step-throughs and things like that.”

Utah has surged in the second half of the season on the crest of premiere shot-blocker Rudy Gobert, who stands 7 foot 1 inch, has a nearly 7-foot-9-inch wingspan and a 9-foot-7-inch standing reach. Just four minutes into the game on Monday, Wiggins drove up down the middle of the paint and delivered a slam-dunk beside the outstretched arm of Gobert. With five minutes to play in the first half, he topped that spectacular feat with a more impressive dunk.

Gobert was ready for him this time, and got himself set. Instead of trying to fly by him, Wiggins planted both feet and rose, exceeding Gobert’s hand well above the rim and slamming it home. When he landed, for the first time in memory, Wiggins allowed himself a celebratory roar as the crowd, players, everyone in the building, erupted.

It didn’t matter that minutes later, Gobert squashed Wiggins’ third dunk attempt at another miraculously high level and sent him tumbling backward from the clean block. And for this one night it didn’t matter that Wiggins finished with the horrible plus/minus of minus 38 in a 20-point loss.

It was ironic that in a rare game where his overall performance actually hurt his team, everyone was too fixated on his high-flying joust to notice — “Eyes on the Rise” indeed. His ineffective play was a rare chink in the armor of a season where Wiggins has been the consummate pro, grinding away at the dirty work in a losing cause.

If more celebratory roars and moments of joy can find their way through those chinks, let them come. Andrew Wiggins has nothing left to prove this season. 

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Germann on 04/01/2015 - 01:53 pm.

    Wiggins rise..

    I think it actually can be argued that while Flips managing of the team as coach and GM has been….spotty at best, he actually seems to be doing a good job with Wiggins. Yes, he’s apparently pushing him when conventional wisdom says give the dude a break…but I’m going to give Flip the benefit of the doubt. He spends time around Wiggs and he knows what makes him tick. Think about the shy kid who started the season who we all wondered if he had the “drive” and “meanness” in him to get to the rim and make himself better. Flip seems to have figured out how to make that happen. I’ll give credit where credit is due.

    On the other hand…the wolves should have the Better Business Bureau called on them for the way that they have scammed thier fans. I’m a season ticket holder and while I’m disapppointed with the season (and the 30% hike in ticket prices that went with it) at least I wasnt scammed into buying home games for KG’s return for the remainder of the season. What a farce. This truly is an embarrassment to the organization and to its fans.

    Finally, lets hope that either Ryan can get through to pops about the importance of moving out of the stone age of basketball or that Flip himself realizes that he needs to concentrate on 1 job for next year. (And please let it be GM). Flip needs to turn over the reins of coaching to someone more competent. Your article on the 3 ball was wonderful. If Flip could move his mindset, I’m not against the dual role of coaching and GM. But you have to give your team the best chances to win and running your team with a modern NBA offense is a good start.

    Lets hope all this 1970’s basketball is happening now for “develpment” and “lotto balls” and maybe next year will be different. (sigh)

  2. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 04/01/2015 - 02:24 pm.

    Depends on the threshold for proof

    All of his production is a great first step when considering how long rookies usually stay with a team beyond their rookie contract (if the team wants them). He’s shown a lot, and many parts of his game are fun to watch. He’s carried a heavy load and responded well to the challenges thrown his way.

    There are still questions about whether that leads to a top-30 or a top-15 player that may not be totally explained away by context. Advanced stats’ emphasis on stats that show activity don’t work in his favor: he’s rebounding at the same rate as PG Marcus Smart and a lower rate than PG Elfrid Payton, he has a lower assist rate than PFs Nikola Mirotic and Nerlens Noel, a lower steal rate than Noel and C Jusuf Nurkic, and a block rate similar to SG Nik Stauskas despite 4 inches of height and many more in wingspan and vertical leap. His best comps for becoming a top-15 player are guys like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, but both of those guys were better at rebounds and steals than him in their rookie seasons.

    The long-term concern is how to build around a post-centric wing. He’ll diversify his game, but the top offensive threats still mainly do what they do best, he’s not likely a stretch 4 option like LeBron, and it could present huge spacing challenges (it arguably already has). All of the 3-point shooting centers are bench specialists at best, not to mention how tough it is to find a high-volume starting stretch 4. It’s hard to find rotation-caliber frontcourt guys with that range.

    Without a doubt, it’s a good sign that these are the main concerns instead of the ones existing with their other youngsters. Casual MN fans, however, have the mentality of expecting too much of their stars and then resenting them for unrealistic-yet-unmet expectations (KG for perceived 4th-quarter issues, Adrian Peterson’s fumbling, Kevin Love’s supposed empty stats, and Joe Mauer’s health and lack of power). There just seems like a decent chance for cognitive dissonance with fan expectations of him.

    • Submitted by Jeff Germann on 04/01/2015 - 03:55 pm.

      these are not perceived negatives about KG’s game…

      these are real faults of his game and should be known by this point. However that being said. Its not kgs fault that he was unable to be counted on to get to the free throw line in the 4th quarter. It’s the fault of management to not put complimenary players around him to make up for his deficiencies.

      don’t try to make KG out to be someone that he wasnt. He was a wonderful player but he was not someone who you could count on to score of the game winning basket.

      • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 04/01/2015 - 04:50 pm.

        False but irrelevant

        It’s extremely anecdotal to say he was bad in the 4th. Compare him to Duncan and Dirk from 2000-07. In clutch situations (4th quarter and OT, game within 5 points) during the regular season and playoffs, he averaged more made FGs per game than either. His FG% was 44.4%, Duncan’s was 45.8%, and Dirk’s was 44.7%. So basically the difference between them is 1 made clutch FG in 100 chances. From 2000-07, he shot better than Kobe in the clutch in 4 of 7 seasons. Narratives are powerful even when they’re false; people think Kobe was clutch even though he’s had as many airballs as makes in the last 24 seconds of playoff games.

        My more important point, though, was even if it’s true, who cares? All of the concerns listed were/are concerns for all of those players. The point is that he’s one of the 5 best players of his era, and people thought what he did wasn’t enough, which is insane. Instead of bagging on the obvious shortcomings of his supporting cast, the focus goes to him for why they weren’t winning more when he was the main reason they won that much in the first place.

        • Submitted by Lou Deny on 04/01/2015 - 11:42 pm.

          Just looked up your stats

          And your numbers are correct. Kg was in fact so-called “clutch”. I recently looked up the numbers at SBNation. Since 2000, KG is one of 15 active players who attempted more than 650 shots in clutch moments. Kg shot 44% in clutch moments. Duncan 46%. Dirk 43%. Kobe 39%. Lebron 46%. Nash 45%.

          Yet somehow Garnett was labeled not “clutch”. A label I always thought was unfair and not true. During kg’s prime and peak years, he was the most productive player of his era from ’03-’06. It’s been proven by the analytics community as well as bballreference site. He lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and more, but he’s so-called “not clutch”. I guess u can’t please everyone, huh?

          Bottom-line those TWolves teams were trash during the Kg years. It’s amazing how he carried those teams with little to no help. It just shows how truly great he was, but underappreciated by some. The Wolves need to not make the same mistake with Wiggins like they did with Garnett and Love.

          If Wiggins can develop into the next star hopefully the Wolves can put the right pieces around him. Hopefully.

          • Submitted by Jeff Germann on 04/02/2015 - 10:01 am.

            I love KG…

            He’s my favorite Twolves player but I stand by that he was not someone who you could give the ball to at the end of games and say :”get me a basket”. Or more importantly…”get me points”.

            Where I’m going with that is KG’s game was one of avoiding contact. His step back jumper was a thing of beauty but it didnt get him to the free throw line. In the modern NBA I believe that you need to have someone who can get to the free throw line at the end of games to close out games. KG’s game just wasnt made for that. IMHO.

            That all said…its not a knock on KG as much as it is a knock on the Wolves for not putting players around him that could compliment his game. I think its now pretty obvious that KG carried the wolves to the playoffs in all the years he was here by himself. He deserved better.

            I’m glad for him he was able to get a championship in his career. I just wish somehow it could have happened here.

  3. Submitted by Tom Om on 04/02/2015 - 12:03 am.

    Wiggins, LaVine and the “history of no threes”

    By Tomer Sabo and Tom Om

    As usual reading Britt’s insight and arguments that are supported by relevant data and stats are enjoyable and appreciated. Splitting up Wiggins stats for the time that LaVine was on/off the court is another strong testimony to how Lavine, as a PG, inhibits the progress of the other young Wolves.

    Though somewhat late to the never ending 3pt discussion in Britt’s articles; hopefully it is OK with Britt and the other readers having the following comment added to this post.

    “let’s just do the math. The Wolves currently shoot 45.9% on their two-pointers for an effective field goal percentage of 45.9%. They currently shoot 33.6% on their three pointers for an effective field goal percentage of 50.4%. ”
    The 3pt shot is a very effective tool that should be utilized in modern basketball, but the premise of this quote, though mathematically correct, doesn’t reflect, or take into account other factors and aspects of the offense.

    One of these factors is the Free Throw, which is arguably the most efficient shot in basketball. Since most of the free throws are the end result of 2pt plays, the vast majority of the FTM should be allocated and calculated/adjusted into the effectiveness of the 2pt (maybe a new category “2pt effective percentage”- e2pt%).
    If we apply this concept to Minn. -second in the league in FTA- and allocate only 75% (it should probably be closer to 90%) of Minn’s FTM to this category, the 2pt effective percentage will be 50.5% the same as Minn. 3pt effective percentage.
    During the current NBA season, most of the teams that have attempted more 3s and less 2s than last year weren’t able to improve their scoring (points per game) even though their total FGA stayed the same or higher. One of the main reasons for this phenomenon is that while teams increased their 3pt FGA they reached the foul line less frequently (received less FTA) because they attempted less 2pt FGA which generate more FTA.
    Houston attempted 7 more 3s, but is -6 on the FTA column, and -5 in total points per game in comparison to last year.
    Clippers +3 on the 3FGA column, -5 on FTA, and -2 in total points per game
    Detroit +6 on the 3FGA column, -4 on FTA, and -3 in total points per game
    Portland +3 on the 3FGA column, -4 on FTA, and -4 in total points per game
    NO +4 on the 3FGA column, -2 on FTA, and +/- 0 in total points per game
    Dallas +4 on the 3FGA column, but no additional scoring

    Another interesting Phenomenon is that 22 teams increased their 3pt FGA but only 6 of them improved their 3pt %. (more 3s, less accuracy).

    The bottom line is that after a certain “saturation” point (and for each team this point is different) more 3pt attempts don’t guarantee more scoring.

    As for Minn. Britt has a point that the Wolves should take more 3s (they haven’t reach this “saturation” point yet), but the additional 3s shouldn’t come at the expense of the 2s. Minn. can generate the additional 3pt FGA by playing faster/more possessions which currently suits their young and athletic personnel.

    We know that the above quote was Britt’s reply to a reader that admitted to an average knowledge of basketball, and Britt was just trying to simplify the concept for this reader. At the same time we have heard this argument too many times from other sports pundits without the context that Britt always provides about the Wolves players and Saunders “history of no threes”.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 04/03/2015 - 05:55 pm.

    KG wasn’t afraid to take 4th qtr shots he just couldn’t create a good shot himself on the box or from the elbow. He made catch and shoot 15-17 ft’ers with ease late when he had Googs, Steph, Brandon, Sammy C or Spree attacking and hitting him late. His problem was when he didn’t have a guy creating a shot for him off penetration and he had to go 1 on 1 from low box for himself. KG was always a pass 1st guy and to have scored as many pts as he did is a testament to just how good he really was. He was never built to be Michael Jordan, he was a better Scottie Pippen. That is saying a lot!!!
    Wiggins will be a good late game guy because he attacks and gets to the line (not a KG strong point). I hope they get another player in this yrs draft that compliments Wiggins talents and can become a top 25 player in league as I think/hope Wiggins will be. Wolves will be fun to watch again if that happens.

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