Accountability Season: We all owe Wiggins an apology
Yes, there was reason to doubt Andrew Wiggins when he played for the Minnesota Timberwolves. But he has proven all of the doubters wrong. And it's ok to admit it.
The first moment that comes to mind when I think of pre-Golden State Warriors Andrew Wiggins is a play from a random Wednesday night game from November 2018.
I don’t even know why I was watching a Minnesota Timberwolves - New Orleans Pelicans game in 2018, but I was frustrated by Wiggins and had literally no rooting interest in that game (or none that I can remember now). And Jeff Van Gundy’s commentary throughout the game sort of amplified my frustration – I recall him making a few comments throughout the game about how Wiggins was just sort of standing around looking disengaged. There just seemed to be long stretches where he seemed to be sort of floating around the court waiting for something to happen instead of making things happen.
And then this happened.
But it wasn’t really the play itself that made this stick in my memory, but the commentary.
“This is an aberration,” Van Gundy said. “What is preventing him from running, cutting, attacking the offensive glass, and dunking versus just standing on the perimeter watching?”
That game felt like a classic Wolves Wiggins performance: the man just sort of coasted his way into 23 points on 8-for-22 shooting, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals; he ended up with a +/- of -5 in a seven point win. Punctuating it by skywalking his way into a dunk over Nikola Mirotic in crunch time just validated everything I was thinking during the game: where was this the rest of the game? Why was a dude who could do that just wandering around the court tossing up an assortment of mid-range jumpers?
I guess I was so moved by this random performance in a game that I didn’t even care about that I tweeted into the void about it like a true junkie.
What made Wiggins so maddening on the Wolves – even to someone just casually watching him every now and then – is not that he was a bad player, as certain clowns suggested, but that he always just seemed so nonchalant. I just kept wondering, as Van Gundy did, why is this such an aberration? Why can’t he do this every night? Jon Krawcynski described all that frustration in detail for The Athletic on the day after the Warriors won the NBA Finals.
The frustration was born of the belief that Wiggins had everything he needed to be great, except for that fire in his eyes of which he now speaks. It is why the Cavaliers drafted him No. 1 ahead of Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid. It is why Flip Saunders waited the Cavs out when then-general manager David Griffin initially declined to put Wiggins in trade talks for disgruntled All-Star Kevin Love shortly after LeBron James decided to leave Miami and return home to Cleveland.
“Griff isn’t the one making the decision,” Saunders told me with his trademark playful smile during one point in the negotiations.
It is why Wiggins was the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year award in 2015, was averaging a gaudy 23.6 points per game by his third season and was given a max contract extension to stay in Minnesota even though the Wolves had never sniffed a playoff berth during that time.
And the problem that plagued Wiggins’ reputation early in his career despite the Rookie of the Year award and very much because of that massive contract was that inconsistent, nonchalant play perfectly fit the narrative that he brought with him into the NBA to begin with.
I was 100% aligned with the Harrison Barnes 2.0 assessment before he was drafted: a seemingly nice guy who just didn’t have the right tools to maximize his obvious athleticism. I, a man who never got a D1 scholly offer, believed that he coasted too much at Kansas and it would doom his NBA career. With the max contract the Wolves gave him, it was hard not to see this guy as an overpaid, inconsistent, nonchalant bust of a #1 pick.
And yet, the Warriors would not be the 2021-22 NBA champions without Wiggins.
Something clicked for Wiggins in the Finals this year. I mean, he was an All-Star already this season and dunked Luka Doncic into oblivion in the Western Conference Finals, but it was something that Van Gundy mentioned that really stood out: rebounding.
Much has already been made of how Wiggins recorded a career-high in rebounds in Game 4 (and followed that up by getting his second best total of his career in Game 5). Wiggins led the team in rebounding in the Finals with 8.8 per game to go with his team-high 1.5 blocks per game. But perhaps equally impressive and less publicized was the career-high tying 6 offensive rebounds that he recorded twice during the Western Conference playoffs this year, once against Memphis and once against Dallas. Offensive rebounds are not something you can just wander into – that’s the territory of a player who truly wants it. His efforts on offense and defense catapulted him to the top of the entire 2022 NBA playoffs in plus-minus with a +140 rating.
I was reminded of that 2018 moment during the Finals while watching a highlight reel about the best dunks from Wiggins’ career, including some of his best from his time with the Warriors.
So since it’s #AccountabilitySZN, it’s pretty clear I owe Wiggins an apology.
Given the Warriors’ financial situation, I really felt taking on his contract and (what I felt was) disinterest in basketball was an awful move – taking on an unmovable albatross of a contract. I was clearly, completely wrong about that, the idea that he’s just a Harrison Barnes redux, and that he was just coasting in Minnesota. Apparently, Wiggs is just a championship player who can’t be bothered with the lottery ball that the Wolves were playing in 2018. Give the man a role that maximizes his talents on a team that knows what they’re doing within an organizational culture that isn’t expecting him to right the wrongs of all their horrible past decisions and suddenly the man is an All-Star.
It turns out that Wiggins is able to do all that Van Gundy asked for on offense in 2018 while also frustrating All-NBA players into sub-par series deep in the playoffs. It turns out that Wiggins was the answer to some blowhard’s question of wHo’S GOnNa GuArd lUkA?!?!?!?!?! It turns out that you can test his IQ, body him and switch up screening schemes and he’ll still be the best defender available on Jayson Tatum. It is time we all stop underestimating this man based on whatever randomly pre-determined expectations we had of him as a #1 draft pick and just give this man his flowers.
Coming full circle back to Van Gundy, he recently put Wiggins development in perspective given that 2018 observation: he’s always shown flashes of brilliance and now he’s stringing them together consistently.
And maybe now greater expectations should lay ahead. We could have a whole separate conversation about how loosely the word dynasty is thrown around in sports, but there’s an element of inheritance to a dynasty; the Warriors are well-situated to start thinking about a warm handoff to the next generation instead of having to pass the torch to another franchise. And Wiggins can be seen as a part of that. Wiggins figuring out what it takes to become a leader alongside the young talent of Poole, Kuminga, Wiseman, and Moody could be the difference between the Warriors remaining a contender into the future and being reduced to the wasteland that Jimmy Butler once mocked and left.
As Tim Kawakami of The Athletic reported recently, Wiggins is invested in staying with this organization. And the organization is apparently willing to do what it takes to keep him around.
He loves it here. The Warriors love him. He’s never been better or more valuable, but chasing dollars doesn’t seem like the most enjoyable way for Wiggins to spend the prime of his career now that he’s a champion. Wiggins, who led all postseason players with a cumulative plus-140, won’t and shouldn’t come cheap, but there’s a possible middle ground in this situation, maybe something in the neighborhood of $28-30 million a year. (He’s due $33.6 million next season.)
Steph, Klay and Dray clearly still have more in the tank so Wiggins, who is just 27, has plenty of time to continue growing into his full potential. But it’s clear we were wrong to write this man off and we’d only compound our past mistakes by assuming he can’t get even better moving as he enters his prime years. Wiggins did not move closer to a full utilization of his powers because of intense self-reflection; put in the right situation with a coherent system and clear role where he didn’t have to dunk on people every night just unlocked that next gear that Van Gundy has been waiting for for year. It’s a testament not only to the Warriors’ ability to identify untapped potential, but also develop it in relatively short order.