The Way of Andrew Wiggins

Andrew Wiggins hit his first 3, then his second, and his coach knew right away what kind of night it would be.

It was Feb. 7, 2013, inside the gym at Marietta College in Ohio, and all Rob Fulford could do was stand and watch. For two years, Fulford, the Huntington Prep coach, had seen his star player perform any number of breathtaking feats — plays in games or practices that left him shaking his head and looking toward his staff in disbelief. But this night was different.

Usually content to take over a game only when it was required of him, Wiggins was slashing to the hoop and sinking shots from the outside. He was rebounding and swatting balls near the rim. He was locked in like never before.

What had gotten into him?

The answer could be found hours before tip-off, when Sports Illustrated published an article placing the young basketball stars from Canada under a microscope. Included among them was Wiggins, the crown jewel of the growing crop of ballers from the north — a long and lean 6-foot-8 wing born in Toronto and inspired during the age of Vince Carter’s Raptors. Wiggins had become a local star — and a YouTube sensation — before traveling to West Virginia to play high school ball at Huntington Prep, a renowned basketball factory.

When the article came out, Grant Traylor, who covered the team for the Herald-Dispatch, was enjoying his day off. But it would not last. He texted Fulford about the story, and the coach replied that Traylor might want to show up for that night’s game.

“Trust me,” Fulford wrote.

If there was one criticism about Wiggins’ game at the time, it was that he lacked a certain killer instinct. He played hard and he played smart, but some observers wondered if he had it in him to, just once, rip out an opponent’s heart.

His coach knew otherwise. Before the game, Fulford tweeted he had a “strange feeling” Wiggins would go for 50 points that night. “Just a hunch,” he wrote.

Fulford missed the mark. Wiggins, a senior at the time, scored 57 against Marietta College’s junior varsity team, connecting on 24 of 28 shots from the field. He also grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked four shots. Huntington Prep won 111-59.

“I think that was the first time somebody had publicly called him out. That was just his response, like: ‘Hey, kiss my ass. Here’s 57 for ya.’”

Rob Fulford

Fulford compares Wiggins’ performance with Michael Jordan’s famous “shrug game” against Portland during the 1992 NBA Finals, because even Wiggins couldn’t believe some of the shots he was making. “I think that was the first time somebody had publicly called him out,” Fulford says. “That was just his response, like: ‘Hey, kiss my ass. Here’s 57 for ya.’”

The press rushed to Wiggins afterward, desperate for a juicy quote confirming the performance was his ultimate act of revenge. But Wiggins would not puff out his chest. “I thought I responded well,” he told reporters.

Wiggins chose to let his game speak for him, just like he does today, refusing to boast when given the opportunity even as the Timberwolves’ franchise player, the NBA’s reigning rookie of the year and the 20-year-old charged with lifting Canada’s national team to prominence.

“We used to make a joke saying, ‘Goddang, Andrew, quit being so nice,’” says Bill Self, who coached Wiggins at Kansas. “He said: ‘You know, people in Canada are polite. What’s wrong with being polite?’”

It was in Greece where Wiggins first took to basketball.

One of six children, Wiggins lived there with his family for two years while his father, Mitchell, having previously spent six seasons in the NBA, played for three Greek teams during the mid-’90s.

As a toddler, Andrew would watch his dad in practice, his wide eyes tracing the ball as it zipped around the court. But it was park battles with his older brothers, Nick and Mitch Jr., that hardened his resolve. Once, after the family had settled in Vaughan, a suburb of Toronto, Andrew returned home crying and bloody after another thumping. He told his mother, Marita, he didn’t want to play anymore.

Marita Payne-Wiggins is no pushover when it comes to sports. A Canadian by way of Barbados, she met Mitchell at Florida State, where he played basketball and she flourished in track and field. Later, after she graduated, Marita won two silver medals for Canada at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

On this day, Marita sized up her son. “Well,” she said, “you don’t have to play then.” It was the out Andrew was angling for, permission to quit. But the very next morning, he was back on the court, scrapping again.

By 2007, Wiggins’ older brothers were great talents at Vaughan Secondary School, where Andrew would tag along and watch practices. One afternoon, the team’s coach, Gus Gymnopoulos, decided to throw Andrew into a scrimmage to see what the kid had.

“I remember one drive, he went up and he created contact with his shoulder and finished with his left hand,” Gymnopoulos says. “He looked like a pro.”

Andrew was still in the seventh grade.

He later excelled at Vaughan in his own right, leading his team to a 45-1 record and a provincial championship as a sophomore. Then, seeking greater competition, he enrolled at Huntington Prep as a junior in 2011.

“Some guys, the more attention they get, the more they want it. I think the more attention he gets, the less he likes it.”

Kansas coach Bill Self

Wiggins immediately became a major draw around the country. Before one travel game against an inner-city school in Cincinnati, the line for tickets to see him stretched down the sidewalk and around the corner. Kids would approach him for autographs in the mall or at the movies. Basketball blogs would post highlights of Wiggins with greater regularity than those of many NBA players.

Still, Wiggins preferred anonymity, happy to deflect his glow to his teammates and coaches. “That’s just his demeanor,” Fulford says. “He never really liked doing interviews, or college recruiting.”

Indeed, sought after though he was as a senior, the 2013 Naismith Prep Player of the Year left little trace of where he might choose to play in college. Wiggins didn’t even tell his parents about his decision until the night before his official announcement.

Kansas coach Bill Self, who spent nearly two months calling and texting Wiggins to no reply, knew little of where the Jayhawks stood in the race to land their most-prized recruit. One day, Self was startled when a call to Wiggins finally connected.

“I’m like: ‘Andrew! Are we even in there or what, jeez?!’” Self recalls.

“He said: ‘Coach, you’re in there. I’m not talking to anybody. I don’t want to talk to anybody. This is how this needs to be. I’ll make a decision when I’m comfortable.’”

Wiggins’ patience paid off. As a freshman for Self at Kansas, Wiggins averaged 17.1 points per game on nearly 45 percent shooting from the field and was named a semifinalist for the Naismith College Player of the Year award. After the season, he declared for the 2014 NBA draft, where the Cavaliers made him the No. 1 overall pick. He would join All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, as well as recent top selections and fellow Canadians Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, to form a young core in Cleveland with a bright future. It all seemed so easy.

Then three words changed everything:

“I’m coming home.”

Two weeks after the draft, on July 11, 2014, another SI story entered Wiggins’ world. Through a first-person article, LeBron James announced he would be leaving Miami, where he led the Heat to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two championships, and “coming home” to Cleveland, where he was born in nearby Akron and starred for the Cavs during his first seven seasons in the league.

Cavs fans began dreaming, the trio of James, Irving and Wiggins foretelling glory now and glory later. But some noted a peculiarity in James’ letter, which named several Cavs he was looking forward to playing alongside — Irving, Thompson, guard Dion Waiters and center Anderson Varejao. There was one major omission, however: Wiggins.

“[James] could have easily mentioned him, as a young guy that I want to help develop,” says Bill Duffy, Wiggins’ agent. “But he chose not to. So maybe he knew more than anyone else.”

Wiggins heard the trade rumors that followed, that he was no longer likely to be a part of Cleveland’s future. He played summer league ball for the Cavaliers, even appearing in promotional material wearing his Cleveland jersey. But the prospect of being traded began to grow clearer.

“You can always see by people’s actions and stuff like that where it’s heading the most,” says Wiggins. “But I never knew 100 percent until the day it happened.”

Mercifully, on Aug. 23, Wiggins was officially moved alongside Bennett to Minnesota for Kevin Love. The trade was the end of a drawn-out ordeal, yet if Wiggins was upset about the swap, or merely frustrated at its unrelenting news coverage, he didn’t show it.

“I really thought that it was unfair to him that the No. 1 pick was kind of flapping in the wind,” says Self. “But if it bothered him, I never knew it.”

Having two parents who had spent many years in professional sports helped Wiggins acclimate to the business of basketball. As rare as the trade was – Chris Webber, in 1993, is the only other No. 1 draft pick since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976 to have been moved before playing a game for the team that selected him — conversations with his mother and father helped him keep perspective.

“I always felt he was too good to be somebody else’s wingman,” Mitchell Wiggins says. “With that trade, he was able to develop his own way and develop with the confidence knowing that he can make a big imprint and take this franchise over.”

In Minnesota, Wiggins’ rookie year began slowly, consistent production eluding him, he says, because he struggled to find the most efficient spots on the floor to attack.

Then, two days before Christmas, came a matchup with the Cavs — the first time he’d be facing the team that drafted him, then traded him.

Many wondered how he’d perform with all eyes on him. But those closest to Wiggins felt certain he would rise to the occasion. To them, he had done it so often before when the lights were brightest.

There was the time before his senior year of high school, at a tournament in Georgia, when Wiggins demanded to guard top prospect (and current Laker)Julius Randle, who had roughly 40 pounds on him.

“I remember him coming into the timeouts like, ‘Oh, my chest,’” says Wiggins’ AAU coach, Tony McIntyre. “I said: ‘Just drop once. Just take one charge.’ He’s like, ‘Nope, I can’t do it.’”

Or the time he first faced off against Jabari Parker in college. While Parker scored 27 points for Duke, it was Wiggins who was marvelous down the stretch, scoring 16 of his 22 points in the second half, including one breakaway dunk that drew Parker’s fifth and final foul. Kansas won 94-83.

“He has, like, a switch,” says Tyler Ennis, another former Toronto star who now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. “He’ll just be floating out there, then out of nowhere he just gets 12, 15 straight. A lot of people think he’s not that aggressive, or not that assertive. It just looks so effortless to him.”

In Cleveland, Wiggins appeared as forceful as he’d ever been on an NBA floor; he scored often in the paint, including a soaring dunk that left Love’s feet planted on the court. The Cavs wiped away the Timberwolves, but Wiggins scored a then-career-high 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting from the field, including 3 of 3 from 3-point range.

It was a turning point in his season. After the Cleveland game, he scored at least 20 points in seven of his next eight contests. His season-high 33 points came shortly after, on Jan. 31, in Minnesota’s second matchup with the Cavs. Wiggins sailed to the rookie of the year award.

By many advanced metrics, Wiggins underwhelmed in his first season — he finished 272nd in the league in real plus-minus and had a PER of just 13.97 — but he proved he could score in many ways, including from behind the arc. He also displayed elite potential on defense.

Those around the league noticed. “I think the sky’s the limit for him,” says Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. “His talent level, I think he has the chance to be something special and one of the top players in the league for years to come.”

What will Wiggins do for an encore? Now in his second season, he hopes to make his first All-Star appearance this year, when, for the first time the game will be played in Toronto. “That’s the goal,” he said, underselling the moment.

For Wiggins to succeed, however, the Timberwolves must be careful with how they deploy him. Last season, with Minnesota racked by injuries, Wiggins played all 82 games and finished second in the league in total minutes. By the end of the year, he was gassed. After shooting 37 percent from deep over the first three months of the season, Wiggins hit just 17 percent over the season’s final three months.

“My legs gave out,” he said. “That’s what my dad told me. I was shooting with all arms.”

To combat another drop-off this season, Wiggins spent the summer working vigorously on his shot, in private workouts and also for Team Canada, which Wiggins led to the FIBA Americas semis in Mexico City. Over and over, he practiced shooting from deep, shooting while fatigued.

“There’s a fine line between playing him too much and playing him not enough to put us in position to win games,” Wolves general manager Milt Newton says.

Adds Sam Mitchell, the team’s interim coach after the Oct. 25 passing of Flip Saunders: “With all your players, you want to play them the most minutes they can handle.” If Wiggins can hold up, Mitchell says, the team will keep running him out on the floor.

“He gets more pumped up when his teammates do well than when he does.”

Wolves guard Zach LaVine

Minnesota is not expected to contend for the playoffs this season, though a strong start, including impressive wins in Chicago and Atlanta, has turned heads. Offensively, Wiggins has looked uneven so far, but a hot stretch, including 64 points over his last two games, seems more in line with his future output. On defense, Wiggins continues to show flashes of brilliance, some of his plays so artful they must be watched over and over to be fully appreciated.

Whether the team falls out of the playoff race or not, the good news is this: The Timberwolves, who haven’t made the postseason since 2004, the longest playoff drought in the league, have one of the NBA’s best collections of young talent. In addition to Wiggins, the Wolves’ core includes 2015 top pick Karl-Anthony Towns and guards Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, as well as third-year players Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng.

Finally, there is reason again to be excited about basketball in Minnesota.

Just don’t bank on Wiggins to express it. Win or lose, he’s not likely to get too high or too low, to make much noise of any kind, whether he drops 50 points in a game or 15.

“Some guys, the more attention they get, the more they want it,” says Self. “I think the more attention he gets, the less he likes it.”

Instead, save for the rare scream he lets slip after a dunk, such as the ferocious slams he packed in over Rudy Gobert and Omer Asik last season, or the flying right-hander he threw over Paul Millsap on Monday night, Wiggins is only likely to show out over the work of his teammates.

“If he has a big game, he doesn’t talk a lot of mess,” says LaVine, one of Wiggins’ best friends in the NBA. “But when I was having a pretty good game, I had a dunk, he was talking mess for me and yelling. He gets more pumped up when his teammates do well than when he does.”

Wiggins hasn’t forgotten about being traded, but his first professional slight isn’t gnawing at him today. He isn’t checking Cavs box scores, vengeful to see how his stats stack up against those of Love. “Not at all,” he says. “I’m not like that.” Somewhere in his house, Wiggins says, he even has a Cavs jersey with his name and number on it still hanging around.

Make no mistake, he has embraced his opportunity in Minnesota. “I just thought of it as a new chapter,” he says. “It would have been harder for me to get rookie of the year in Cleveland than it would’ve been in Minnesota. I got time to do what I had to do, and I got time to develop my game.”

Whether Minnesota or Cleveland won the trade will be a matter for history to decide. But don’t ask those who know Wiggins best and expect to find sour grapes or anyone who feels he is worse off outside the shadow of the league’s biggest star.

“I think it’s better for him to play against LeBron than to play with LeBron,” Mitchell Wiggins says. “People said [if he stayed in Cleveland] he would have been Scottie to LeBron’s Jordan.”

Mitchell pauses.

“My opinion is, why can’t he be Jordan?”

 

By: Jack Buckland, ESPN

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