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Andrew Wiggins vs. Advanced Stats

The T-Wolves swingman is a star in the making, but some of his numbers are cause for concern

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

The first time many of us witnessed Andrew Wiggins was a 2012 reel of highlights modestly titled, "Andrew Wiggins Has SUPERSTAR Potential!! CRAZY OFFICIAL Mixtape!! #1 Player In The Nation." The video, which has been viewed more than 2 million times, came out before his senior season at Huntington Prep, and showed him shaming schoolboys with tomahawk dunks and blocks during which his domepiece grazed the rim.

His freshman season at the University of Kansas ignited a leaguewide tanking "crisis," with fans of franchises such as the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers begging their teams to lose. Wiggins was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the first pick in the 2014 NBA draft, dealt in a blockbuster trade to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and won Rookie of the Year in a landslide vote.

Wiggins is three years into his professional career, still only 21 years old, and seemingly headed toward the basketball stardom that was recognized in the tea leaves and YouTube titles. After scoring 16.9 points per game as a rookie and 20.7 in his second campaign, the swingman was averaging 22.1 a night heading into Sunday’s game against the Warriors, placing 19th in the league. He’s attempting nearly four 3s a game and posting an impressive 37.5 3-point shooting percentage, far better than the 30 percent he notched last season. In mid-November, he dumped in a career-high 47 points on the Lakers, shooting 67 percent from the floor and marching to the free throw stripe 22 times. And, of course, Wiggins’s highlights this season are shareable Vine bait, like this one, in which he shoves the Warriors’ JaVale McGee into a coffin, nails it shut, and buries it several feet beneath the polished Oracle Arena floorboards.

Minnesota center Cole Aldrich compared Wiggins’s ability to that of a former teammate: Kevin Durant. "He’s just so talented," Aldrich told The Ringer before a December game against the New York Knicks. "You don’t always know what he’s gonna do, because he’s so skilled. He may take you off the dribble and spin, he might put it on your head. He loves that pull-up jumper. He’s just kind of one of those guys that you look up at the scoreboard and you don’t notice that he’s got 25."

Even if Wiggins’s rise has felt a bit scripted, his game has passed the casual sniff test. But a deeper look at more advanced numbers reveals a disconnect between his measurable contributions and his breathtaking athleticism, accumulation of buckets, and rep as one of the league’s glittering superstars-in-waiting. (This is obviously the point in the story where certain readers bellow, "Watch the games, nerd!" and fling their Motorola StarTAC into the sea.)

According to VORP — a metric which gauges "value over replacement player" — Wiggins has one of the worst ratings in the NBA this season, with a ranking that places him alongside such names as Jarell Martin, Isaiah Whitehead, and Semaj Christon. ESPN’s RPM (real plus-minus) ranks Wiggins 68th among small forwards, sandwiched between Kelly Oubre Jr. and Derrick Jones Jr. With all due respect to the juniors, this is not the company we expect Wiggins to be keeping in his third season.

Last week, professional sports gambler and basketball scout Dean Demakis published an article with the inflammatory title "Andrew Wiggins is a Bust" on his site, Dean on Draft. In the piece, Demakis charted Wiggins’s statistical development alongside wings like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Rudy Gay. His conclusion: "Andrew Wiggins is clearly not on the path to greatness." This prompted furious responses from the internet commentariat. "Did Wiggins bang ur GF or something? You salty AF fam," someone named Billy rebutted. While the war between the eyes and the numbers is nothing new, advanced stats are crucial to figuring out what kind of player Wiggins is now and the one he can someday be.

We know that Wiggins scores in bunches and in a variety of ways. While he’s a tick below league average by efficiency — mostly because of a frustrating penchant for long 2s — he’s nevertheless a volume shooter who is often asked to create shots for others. Along with his improved 3-ball, he’s an above-average scorer in isolation and out of the post, dangerous in transition because of his ability to fly, and excellent at getting to the line. His pet move is a whipping spin in the lane during which he attacks the basket like a tornado splintering a farmhouse.

"He’s not the biggest dude, but he’s extremely strong in the post," said teammate Zach LaVine. "He uses his body well, uses his length and athleticism well. He’s been getting his jump shot to the point where you have to get up and guard him — and then he can go around you."

But Wiggins needs to work on his passing. He’s averaging a paltry 2.3 assists per game, fine for a 3-and-D wing like Trevor Ariza or a catch-and-shoot marksman like Klay Thompson, but disappointing for a player who usually needs the rock in his hands to create scoring opportunities. A bit of good news: According to player tracking, Wiggins is averaging 4.8 potential assists a game, up slightly from last season’s 4.3.

Some of his struggles with distribution could be situational. Playing alongside a ball-dominant point guard in Ricky Rubio and an elite offensive big man in Karl-Anthony Towns, Wiggins spends long stretches of the game lurking. LaVine takes 15.9 shots a game, and he’s also more of a scorer than a lubricant. Sometimes Wiggins goes invisible, slipping into the background like a beer vendor.

Still, he’s a solid offensive player. The scary issues come on the other side of the ball. While Wiggins was advertised as a potential lockdown perimeter defender and had a ballyhooed performance against James Harden as a rookie, the numbers don’t give him the same credit.

This season, he’s averaging an abysmal 4.0 rebounds, 0.5 steals, and 0.3 blocks a game, down from his already-anemic career averages. His defensive box plus/minus is a shocking minus-4.0, even worse than last season and roughly the same as semipermeable humans Bojan Bojanovic and D.J. Augustin. On/off splits are noisy, especially this early in the season, but opponents are scoring 5.5 points more per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. Wiggins is rangy, springy, and has the tools to be a dynamic defender — but he isn’t doing nearly enough stuff. In the Timberwolves’ December 2 game against the Knicks, he finished the first half with seven points, one rebound, zero assists, zero steals, and zero blocks. But by the end, just as Aldrich had predicted, Wiggins had used an assortment of jumpers, free throws and fast-break buckets to amass a quiet 19 points.

Despite the arrival of coach Tom Thibodeau, a grimacing defensive guru who last worked in Chicago, the Wolves are currently 27th in the league in defensive rating. Minnesota sagged to a dreary 6–18 after Sunday night’s loss to Golden State, and is dramatically underperforming preseason expectations for a team with the past two Rookies of the Year. The defense is the culprit, and its putridity has produced statistical oddities like this nearly-inexplicable nugget: By defensive real plus-minus, Towns is ranked last out of 68 centers.

"We just gotta make an effort," said Shabazz Muhammad, a fourth-year player. "Coach says we’re one of the most athletic teams in the league. What we do on the offensive end, we gotta figure out how to do on the defensive end. That’s just moving your feet and being disciplined. We’re a young team, but at some point we have to get those intangibles down and be able to contest our own guys and guard our own men."

Wiggins doesn’t play with a noticeable lack of activity — he runs the floor, scrambles around picks, closes out diligently on shooters — but he wears the kind of emotionless mask that is bound to attract skepticism about his effort and passion. Guys like Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard were or are successful, so they’re considered efficient machines, unencumbered by the frailties of anxiety or overexuberance. But a stone-faced kid like Jahlil Okafor of the Sixers, who also struggles defensively and with rebounding, is savaged by fans for not caring enough about the more selfless elements of the game. If Wiggins does not improve, even if his deficiencies have nothing to do with mental toughness, it’s likely his impassivity will get the same scrutiny.

"He’s so quiet," said Jordan Hill, who signed with Minnesota this offseason. "He don’t talk much. He’s so cool, so laid-back. I feel if he got that Kobe mentality or that Russell Westbrook mentality to go out every night and just be fierceful — ain’t nobody gonna stop him. He’s just that good of a player. There’s nothing wrong with being quiet or laid-back. He could be shy, may just want to be by himself. He still goes out there and plays ball. It’s his third year in the league, he still hasn’t gotten to that bright spot. He’s gonna get there and shock the world."

Wiggins has talent and time. Metrics that question his immediate impact also indicate that young players usually improve. And few 21-year-olds have the freakish physical attributes he has at his disposal. His prime is years away, and writing him off is clearly premature. But Wiggins has holes in his game that need to be patched up, or his reputation as a rising superstar will start to fray.