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A pillar among pups: Andrew Wiggins is the most important player on the Timberwolves right now

When it comes to the Wolves’ fortunes, Karl-Anthony Towns may be the future. But Andrew Wiggins is the guy already more than holding his own.

Andrew Wiggins has played 1,761 minutes thus far in the 2015-16 season, eighth-most in the NBA and 240 minutes ahead of anyone else on the team through the first 51 games.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

Who is the most important player on the Minnesota Timberwolves?

If you are measuring that question on the basis of positive impact out on the court, the answer would be either power forward Kevin Garnett or point guard Ricky Rubio. The Wolves outscore their opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when KG is exhibiting his mastery of the pick-and-roll play at both ends of the court. (Even if he can no longer finish as the roll man on offense, those picks remain devastating in freeing up shooters. And his current defensive prowess remains phenomenal.)

But KG only plays 23 percent of the team’s minutes — less than one full quarter per game — in the sunset of his career. Rubio is the only Timberwolf who plays a majority of the team’s minutes who still produces a positive net point rating when he’s out on the court.

If you are measuring importance by future value and potential upside, it is hard to argue against center Karl-Anthony Towns. In terms of the polished abundance of comprehensive skills, KAT is the most complete rookie big man to enter the NBA since Tim Duncan in 1997 — and Duncan spent four years in college at Wake Forest (versus Towns’ one year at Kentucky) and has gone on to become one of the ten best players ever to perform in the NBA. While it would be foolhardy to project similar heights for Towns — circumstantial serendipity is an enormous X factor — he would probably be the top player chosen today if the goal was winning a championship in 2023. 

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But if you are measuring importance by the burden endured — the foundational pillar that supports your structure — the most important player on the Timberwolves is Andrew Wiggins.

Start with the raw numbers. Wiggins has played 1,761 minutes thus far in the 2015-16 season, eighth-most in the NBA and 240 minutes ahead of anyone else on the team through the first 51 games. He has attempted 177 more field goals and 177 more free throws than any of his teammates.

Since he entered the NBA at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, only one player, James Harden of Houston, has logged more playing time than Wiggins. That’s a heavy load for someone who is listed at less than 200 pounds and has yet to celebrate his 21st birthday (which will come on February 23).

Tax and spend

Earlier this season, Coach Sam Mitchell justified frequently limiting the playing time for Towns by noting that Towns is only 20 years old and that he wanted to ensure that the wunderkind would still be producing into his mid-30s. Obviously, this reasoning doesn’t square with the coach’s heavy reliance on Wiggins.

In his defense, Mitchell also had a couple of caveats: First, that the Wolves had a suitable replacement for Towns in Gorgui Dieng; and second, that the center position, along with point guard, is the most difficult to master in the NBA. Mitchell has also more frequently deployed Wiggins at shooting guard instead of small forward in an attempt to reduce the physical pounding Wiggins receives from opposing forwards.

But the role Wiggins plays in the Wolves offense levies an added tax on the minutes he logs. Dedicated watchers of this team know that the overwhelming majority of the time Wiggins will be the one taking the shot at the start of games and quarters, in plays called out of timeouts, and most especially in crunch time.

Adding to this load is the fact that Wiggins uses grit more than silk to rack up points. He is a subpar jump shooter whose accuracy falls further beneath the NBA average the farther his attempts occur away from the basket.

Consequently, the pith of his offense amounts to kamikaze missions through a maze of opponents standing between him and the hoop. He takes the ninth-most shots in the NBA less than five feet from the basket — and second-most among back court personnel, eclipsed only by Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City.

Further complicating this already daunting state of affairs is the fact that the Wolves rely on Wiggins’ dribble-penetration without him having become a reliable dribbler. It is almost literally like he is operating under the penalty of having one hand tied behind his back.

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So how does Wiggins shoot 64.2 percent on shots at the rim, versus the NBA average of 61.7 percent? With astounding athleticism and copious willpower.

His lightning speed helps him break out and score in transition, but in truth that remains an underutilized part of his and the team’s offense. No, his calling cards are quickness and toughness in the paint.

Begin with a spin move that he patented midway through his rookie year and further refined this season; the dervish whirl that makes him suddenly disappear in front of defenders and accounts for his gaudy ranking in the 83rd percentile in terms of points generated per each post-up opportunity.

Continue with a leaping ability that gets him higher, and in the air longer, than even NBA defenders expect. Then there is the footwork — the side “Eurostep” that he has weaponized in lieu of a crossover dribble — and his amazing “second jump,” which enables him to relaunch and grab his own miss for a put-back while opponents are still replanting themselves to go back up.

The numbers bear all this out. In terms of points generated per type of play, Wiggins ranks in the 62nd percentile on attempted put-backs; the 76th percentile as the roll man on the pick-and-roll; the 61st percentile on cuts to the hoop; and the 64th percentile on hand-offs.

By contrast, Wiggins is down in the 30th percentile both on “off-screen” plays and on “spot ups,” both of which generally call for a jumper. And he is in the 54th percentile on isolation plays.

That’s because he has already been isolated and game-planned against by opponents due to scouting reports — and common sense. You take away Wiggins and the Wolves offense is mired in misery. Everyone knows that, relatively speaking, he can’t shoot and he can’t dribble. So you invite the outside shot and attack the drive, or the post-up, or the roll, with gang coverage that sends defenders from different angles to deter the spin and walls up with big men 7-10 feet away from the hoop. And you pound that 199-pound body so he has a little less inclination to keep coming at you.

That’s where the grit is so vital. Rail-thin and still weeks away from “legal age,” Wiggins keeps coming at defenders even as his body is not yet fully mature enough to handle the punishment from their fouls, both whistled and ignored. He currently ranks 8th in the NBA in free throw attempts. Of the seven players ahead of him, two are “hacked” with deliberate, less physical grab fouls because they are such low-percentage free throw shooters. The other five are in their physical prime, between 25 and 27 years old.

To find a player of an age and experience even remotely comparable to Wiggins who goes to the line a lot, you have to go down to 20th place among free throws attempted, and locate 22-year old Anthony Davis of New Orleans.

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A surprising evolution

It is hard to remember that just 16 months ago, the book on Wiggins coming into the NBA was that his initial value would evince itself primarily as a lockdown defender on the wing. That was the glaring need on the Wolves 2014-15 roster, and the rationale for immediately inserting him into the starting lineup.

Then came the welter of early injuries to veteran mainstays of the team, and the decision to tank the season for a high draft pick while milking minutes and fast-forwarding the development of then-teenagers Wiggins and Zach LaVine.

Then-coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders coveted Wiggins because he had the potential to score on his own — a genuine “go-to” guy on the wing, the likes of which the Wolves had never seen in the life of the franchise. (The best history can offer is Wally Szczerbiak and the good year of Latrell Sprewell.)

Wiggins wasn’t physically ready yet for this particular role, and Saunders’ offense, which neglected three-point shooting and thus encouraged opponents to pack the painted area, certainly didn’t help. To only a slightly lesser extent, the same is true this season.

In light of initial assumptions about his virtues, it is ironic, although probably not purposeful, that Wiggins has compensated for his unfair workload on offense with lapses of intensity on defense.

After Saunders’ tragic illness was disclosed and Mitchell took over he coaching reins, he made a huge deal of going back to the basics on defense, beginning with the proper stance required to best position yourself for coverage. More than anyone on the roster, Wiggins eschews this fundamental lesson, frequently encountering his man without the crouch and spread and squared-up positioning of a classic NBA defender.

Wiggins also is recalcitrant about hustling back on defense every now and then — at least once or twice every handful of games — and it directly costs the Wolves points, not to mention the indirect harm of disrupting the normal schemes as his teammates try to fill the open seam (or not).

Coming into the NBA, Wiggins was also dogged by the reputation that he wasn’t “hungry” enough for greatness. Part of this is that pundits frequently draw too strong of a correlation between affect and effect; between the way a player “seems” to approach the challenges ahead and the way he is actually responding when the challenge is at hand.

Most likely for reasons of self-protection in this media-saturated, reality-show culture, Wiggins exudes a sleepy disdain for ersatz competitiveness. Although he has elongated his answers to the media from two or three words to an actual sentence or two, Wiggins still isn’t about to reveal the raw, motivational side that has helped put him in such rarified territory in competitive team sports.

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Are the lazy stance and occasional lack of hustle back in transition a sign of something more troubling? Watch the pounding he endures, check the minutes he plays, consider the size and age of his frame, and the ill-suited system in which he currently operates, and answer the question for yourself.

Meanwhile, the month of February has arrived with back-to-back 30-point games from Wiggins, including the appearance of an accurate three-point shot. It is probably more of a blip than a harbinger in context, but make no mistake; when it comes to important levers on the fortunes of the Wolves, Rubio may be the present and Towns the future. But Andrew Wiggins is a constant, a sturdy pillar already more than holding his own.