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

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 02/04/2016 - 12:02 pm.

    My concern with Wiggins is his vision and defense. I see flashes of finding the open man on his drives to the hoop but not enough to say he can distribute at a high NBA level. If he becomes a good scorer/bad defender/average passer he will be on a long list of NBA players that put up better numbers than wins. We shall see.

  2. Submitted by Jerry Gale on 02/04/2016 - 03:55 pm.

    Someone who can score ten straight times down the floor

    Britt, Help me with my concern. I think to win a championship, a team needs one person who can score ten straight times down the floor in crunch time. Think Bird, Wilkins (remember the Bird-Wilkins play-off shoot-out), Jordan, Kobe and now Curry. Do you agree with that? If so, can Wiggins become that guy? I don’t think a center like Towns can be that guy.

    Thanks

  3. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 02/04/2016 - 09:02 pm.

    “Most Important” player?

    When you phrase it like that, it’s not easy to refute. In fact, I agree that Wiggins’ development is probably the biggest barometer of success for this franchise. But that’s only true given the near-automatic “A” grade that Towns has *earned* this far through half of the season (and the fact that Rubio is more of a known quantity at this point).

    But I can’t be the only one who sees weaknesses in Wiggins’ game. Yes, I’ve heard reports from reliable sources that’s he’s only 20 years old. But if we’re to compare him to other combo wings (like Kawhi), Wiggins’ shooting is the first thing that jumps out as being deficient. I’m on the record as saying Rubio’s shooting woes are clearly detrimental to our chances of making the playoffs, but I think that can be overcome with the right personnel around him. I *really* don’t know how we can do it with TWO poor perimeter shooters on the court at once (to say nothing of Prince). If you’re shooting 25 percent from downtown, you NEED to do something else at an elite level to justify the minutes (maybe that’s scoring at the rim).

    Yes, Wiggins can score, and yes he’d do it more efficiently with mythical 3-point shooting unicorns on the perimeter, but Steve Novak is not walking through that door (nor would we want him to). Andrew needs to be able to make a perimeter jumper if he wants to force hard close-outs, which will enable him to continue to get to the rack. Likewise, he needs a better handle if he wants to take advantage of mismatch opportunities.

    Don’t get me wrong: Rubio, Wiggins, and Towns are the cornerstones of this team’s future, and I do like Wiggins. He’s showing improvement, and you’re right to point out we’ve never had a dominant wing player until now. Developing our young talent is important, but it’s also important to surround them with complementary players.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 02/05/2016 - 10:59 am.

    The crucial next step is learning the details

    Defensively, he can guard most guys one-on-one but doesn’t seem to be as effective on help defense when, theoretically, he could be an excellent help defender at the rim just by using his verticality to contest shots. Offensively, they could get him open looks at the rim if he’s cutting efficiently and crashing the boards, but most of his looks seem to come from drawn-out post-ups that lead to rushed shots at the end of the clock for him or his teammates. Part of that is the offense, and I think we’d get the best sense of what he’ll be with a coach who runs a sophisticated offense; can he learn to set himself up for easy shots, or does he need to do things the hard way because that’s all he’s ever known? There are a lot of high-scoring players in the latter category who become easy to guard because they get outsmarted too much.

    It’s not clear what the goal of all those minutes is, but the amount of each game he spends on cruise control is at least worth discussing. They already start with Prince on the tougher offensive wing and Wiggins still doesn’t provide the same transition presence that Shabazz does or help and rebound with consistency despite usually being the fastest guy on the court. Offensively, they’ve gone more to the Rubio-Towns pick-and-roll to take pressure off, but it’s not like he’s consistently moving off the ball. It’s at least worth a shot to bring him back to 32 and see if some of those other things improve. I think it’s stupid to question his ferocity as some have done given how many guys he dunked on at the end of last season and his willingness to take the ball in crunch time this season, but I don’t see his sheer physical gifts impacting the game in areas other than scoring.

    Ideally, they could use a creative, smart scorer like a Ginobili in his prime, a guy who can shoot, handle, pass, and move off the ball, even if that guy is more a supplementary player and weak defender. They can live with a mediocre defender next to Wiggins if the guy can shoot and pass well for his position. Maybe that’s Zach, but his shot selection is still too Beasley-esque for that to seem likely.

  5. Submitted by Chris Clarke on 02/05/2016 - 03:17 pm.

    Well He is only 20

    Britt, great article. I am surprised by some of the stats you referenced. It really does bring into focus just how impressive Wiggins has been from a usage standpoint as compared to 99.9% of all other rookies over the last 20 years. The one thing I still have issue with others over is that, in fact, Wiggins is only 20, half way through his second year, after a rookie season that saw him playing with more non-NBA players than real NBA players. I would dare say one could not find another rookie with similar circumstances being as successful as Wiggins is. And you noted, while you are not a fan of “He’s is only 20”, he is only 20. Again, as you noted, Wigs is having a year right up there with current All-Star players. So maybe we could all cut him some, not a lot, of slack?

    On a separate note, it continues to amaze me just how focused fans are on scoring and shooting as, seemingly, the only means of measuring a player’s worth. Rarely, and I mean rarely does a rookie enter the NBA and shoot a decent, let alone high percentage, It is just not realistic for fans to think in these terms, but we still do.

  6. Submitted by seanie blue on 02/06/2016 - 09:17 am.

    But what happens if he’s on a winning team . . .

    . . . with two three-point shooters and a better than average defensive power forward? Then I think we’d see Wiggins be the star of a fabulous team. Your article doesn’t weigh the effect of two types of losing on a young player: losing constantly, and losing while working for a team that doesn’t seem to know how to win in the future. How would Oklahoma use Wiggins? Suppose he played for San Antonio or Dallas? His body language would be different, and I think we’d see him be that consistent lockdown defender, if winning was possible every night. I think he would be a thrilling star if he had somebody like Kyle Korver playing 15 feet away from him, always ready to shoot. I think he’s the genuine article, for all the reasons you’ve listed, but also for his intelligent demeanour. And just like last season, he seems to be making a statement with his play just as he seemed on the verge of a burnout. But do you think he’ll sign for more time here after next season? It seems like the Wolves will need to acquire one solid free agent in the off-season, a real surprise, to convince him that staying will result in a championship. There’s no question in my mind that he intends to be the best, so why would he settle for a Wilkins-like career? It’s so, so easy easy to see him playing in Toronto two seasons from now, and being an unstoppable player surrounded with shooters and muscle.

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