Andrew Wiggins has taken a lot of criticism throughout the past few years. He’s been a player who has been frustrating to most because his natural talent is through the roof, but the on-court production hasn’t matched. Now, things look different, and there’s reason to think that it may stay that way.
When President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas took control of the franchise this past spring he had a vision to change things, not only with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but with Wiggins’ game too. Head coach Ryan Saunders shared that vision, for the team and for Wiggins.
Last season, Wiggins was one of the least efficient players in the NBA. The Wolves wanted to change that, and the early returns show things to be much different.
As a whole the Wolves planned to increase their pace and their output from 3-point range. Minnesota wanted to play as one of the fastest teams in the NBA and finish near the top of the league in 3-point attempts. They wanted to become efficient in ways that seems far off in previous regimes and years.
As for Wiggins, the plan was to totally change the style at which he’s spent most of his career playing. Previously, he’s lived between 16 feet and the 3-point arc. Launching the most inefficient shot in basketball at a rate higher than anyone else in the game to find little success. In a way, he was wasting the talent that he possesses. If wasting is too strong a word, he was underutilizing it at the very least.
The 2019-20 season is young, and everything still needs to be prefaced with the phrase, ‘it’s a short sample size, but…’ and Wiggins’ performance to date is no different. This is a conversation that the Wolves have to hope is had a couple times, until the small sample size qualifier can be removed at some point.
That being said, Wiggins has exceeded outside expectations thus far this year.
He’s turned himself from what some deemed a lost cause and one of the worst contracts into a positive influence on the court for the Wolves on a nightly basis. The same could not be said in the past. Now, he’s become almost as important to the Wolves as Karl-Anthony Towns, at times. It’s not quite time to call him a co-star, but there are tangible signs pointing towards that being a very legitimate possibility in a way that seemed unfathomable just months ago.
Wiggins has done this by changing his game. He’s bought into the system in a way that he either never has wanted to or never has been forced to before. The days of him launching away from the midrange are all but gone. Now he attacks the rim and puts up 3-pointers. Right now it looks like he’s headed for a career year, and has a case that he could be the most improved player in the NBA right now.
“He’s just playing well, he’s playing real well,” Towns said of Wiggins following his 40-point outburst against Golden State. “He’s always worked hard, I think it’s just more of, things working out in his favor, and I think he’s done a great job of taking advantage of our system and making it his own.”
So far, Wiggins is averaging 25.5 points per game with 4.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 blocks, 20.7 field goal attempts, 6.5 3-point attempts, a field goal percentage of 47.3, an effective field goal percentage of 52.7%, and a 2-point FG% of 53.5. All of those numbers for Wiggins are career bests. He’s doing all of that while turning the ball over at a career-low rate of just 1.5 per game.
The argument to put down these achievements thus far could be that Wiggins has always had these hot streaks that leave outsiders salivating for more. This doesn’t feel like it has in the past though, this feels like this version of Wiggins could be here to stay, for a number of different reasons.
The biggest reason that Wiggins is shooting career highs so far isn’t because he’s exactly been lighting it up from 3-point range. He’s only shooting 33.8% from that distance, which is right around his career norm.
He’s been so good because of the fact he’s been able to connect from 2-point range far more consistently. That’s thanks to a new and improved shot selection. Entering Monday night’s game, Wiggins was attempting just 2.3 shots between 16 feet and the 3-point line, by far a career-low for him. Those shots have been moved either beyond the arc or to the rim. Last season Wiggins attempted 4.3 shots at the rim per game. Now, that number is up to 5.5 per game prior to Monday.
The looks he’s getting at the rim seem to be better, too. This season he’s shooting 68% at the rim compared to 62% last year. Wiggins has made an even bigger improvement between three feet and 10 feet from the rim, too. Last year he shot 34.1% on 2.4 attempts per game. This year Wiggins shooting 42.5% on 4.4 attempts per game. He’s had a floater that’s been almost impeccable for most of the season.
So far this season Wiggins has taken better shots compared to any time in his career. That’s the biggest thing that’s led to his improvement, but it’s not alone.
“I feel comfortable doing it. I feel like it’s working out for me. I feel good in the system,” Wiggins said following a practice last week. “Obviously, they don’t want me taking the midrange shot. But you take what the defense gives you. If it’s there, I’m going to take it. I’m going to try to prioritize getting to the rim more and shooting a lot more threes.”
Aside from the shots looking different, Wiggins has tightened up his handle on the perimeter and when he attacks. He’s never had a bad handle, so to speak, but it’s definitely gotten better now than it has been in the past. It’s something that teammates have noticed leading to his improvement.
“I mean, he’s always been doing that, I think it’s just better,” Towns said of Wiggins’ ability to handle the ball on his way to the rim. “I think he’s had a better transition of the handle to the drive. I think he’s doing a really good job of doing great transitions and putting the ball in — I don’t know if you guys know this — in a pocket. He’s putting it in the pocket, making sure he has the chance to make another move if he has to or secondary move or have an explosive move to the basket to dunk or layup or whatever the case may be and attack. He’s doing a great job of putting the ball in his pocket and making sure he’s doing what he’s able to do.”
There are a number of times in previous years where it felt like Wiggins would make an attempt at getting to the rim, only to have the ball stripped away while trying to get there. Those instances are still going to happen, as they do with everyone in the NBA, but so far this season it feels like they don’t happen nearly as often. That’s a testament to putting the ball in his pocket, as Towns puts it.
A previous version of Wiggins may have lost the ball when the help defender was able to move off Jake Layman as Wiggins made his way into the paint. Now, it’s a non-issue on his gather.
Aside from that, Wiggins has trusted his spin move more frequently this season when trying to attack the rim. It doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s a ‘go-to’ move quite yet, but he’s been comfortable using it at the proper times.
Golden State’s Willie Cauley-Stein has absolutely no chance of stopping that move from Wiggins, and honestly, few defenders would have been able to once Wiggins got moving downhill.
The two above clips against Milwaukee are perfect examples of growth for Wiggins. With the Bucks playing a drop scheme against the Wolves, Wiggins is able to get around the screens set by his teammates before facing Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, who has the intention of protecting the rim.
The old version of Wiggins likely would have settled for a 17-foot pull up jumper with a decent amount of space between he and Lopez and the trail defender closing in on him after going over the screen.
Now, Wiggins decides to either get the ball all the way to the rim thanks to a nice little mini-euro step to shake Lopez in the first clip or stop short at roughly seven feet for an easy floater over the Milwaukee big in the second clip. That didn’t happen at a high enough frequency in previous seasons for Wiggins.
It is now.
Lately Wiggins has been on a tear. His last five games have seen him average 30.6 points per game on 51.3% shooting. He’s done that by following the plan that Saunders and Rosas have set in place for him. Before this season, Wiggins had just 11 games in his career that featured 25+ points and 5+ assists. Now, each of his last four games have featured those numbers.
“When he’s had big games before, he’s always attacked the rim. But I think when he’s had big games before, he’s still had heavy midrange attempts, which can also result in a number of settles,” Saunders said the day after Wiggins’ 40-point night against Golden State. “There were a number of times last night where he could have settled but he ended up getting himself back to the 3-point line or getting himself all the way to the rim. So, to me, that shows an improvement.”
The improvement that Saunders is talking about appears to be very real, and it appears as if there’s plenty of reason to think that it’s here to stay.