Andrew Wiggins was hyped as the next LeBron James when he was still a high schooler. Now he’s being paid like he met those lofty expectations. Wiggins, now entering his fourth NBA season, followed in the footsteps of former Kansas teammate Joel Embiid by agreeing Wednesday to a multiyear contract extension with the Timberwolves at the max (five years, $146.5 million). The team now has its Big Three of Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler locked up for at least the next two seasons, which means coach Tom Thibodeau has the building blocks to assemble a roster that can sustain winning.
But the reality is that Wiggins hasn’t come close to clearing the unreachable bar set for him. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe tweeted in September, when the terms of the deal first began to surface, Wiggins’s new contract “may be the most polarizing deal” in the NBA. That’s true. Most execs I’ve chatted with don’t think too highly of Wiggins. One executive said to me a few months ago that the Wolves wing doesn’t defend, pass, or rebound, and he’s an inefficient scorer. He’s not worth this much, the executive said.
Still, the Wolves are in the right to pay Wiggins the money they just did. Even if those criticisms remain true, what’s the alternative? Wait until next summer? The Wolves would’ve been mad to make the same mistake that Utah did by letting Gordon Hayward go through the entire restricted free-agency process before matching a max deal. Doing so would risk compromising the relationship for the next time free agency rolled around.
Also, consider the emotional aspect. The Wolves haven’t made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season. What happened in 2004? Justin Timberlake caused Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction; we were all still using flip phones; George Bush was only starting his second term; and the NBA still had only 29 teams. Having any success would mean a lot to Minnesota, and it’d be hard to get there without Wiggins.
While his current package of skills carries some question marks, the Wolves are paying mostly for future potential. Wiggins is 22 years old. The problem may be that we tend to measure him against players who are much older and more developed. As Thibodeau said at Timberwolves media day, “We tend to forget the steps that those players made to get to where they are.”
Wiggins has been asked to carry a massive burden on offense since he first stepped foot on an NBA floor. He’s missed only one game the past three seasons and logged more minutes and played more games than any other player in that span, per Basketball-Reference. Thibodeau won’t be cutting minutes anytime soon, but Wiggins should realistically take on a lesser offensive role now that he’s starring alongside Towns and Butler.
First, it could free Wiggins to divert some of the energy he used on offense toward defending and rebounding. It sounds like that’s what Thibodeau wants. “Making the commitment to play great defense, understanding how important that is to winning, is critical,” Thibodeau said recently.
Wiggins has been an apathetic, sometimes downright lazy defender thus far in the NBA. It wasn’t too long ago that he was that freshman at Kansas who consistently displayed the upside of a multipositional lockdown defender. Wiggins’s lateral quickness and long arms made life hell when he switched onto point guards. He did an excellent job of closing out hard on shooters and using his long arms to disturb the shot.
Times have changed. Wiggins closes out and focuses off the ball like he’s the Dude. But considering his past performance, his decline could be a sign of waning energy, rather than a lack of interest in playing defense. Wiggins said at media day he wants to focus more on rebounding, which seems like a good sign.
With all that said, Wiggins was the no. 1 pick, and he’s getting paid for his scoring upside. He has shown major flashes. Last season he received a rare dose of opportunities, averaging 19.1 shots per game. Only 10 other players younger than 22 had ever averaged more than 19 shots per game in league history, per Basketball-Reference. I’m pointing out this stat because, realistically, Wiggins shouldn’t get that many field goal attempts this season now that Butler is in Minnesota and Towns is geared to take another leap.
The second major thing a third-star role could do is create more opportunities for Wiggins as a cutter and floor spacer, rather than forcing him to rely on isolations and post-ups. Wiggins drained 40.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season, per SportVU, yet he had only 176 attempts, which made up about one-tenth of his total shot attempts. By comparison, just more than one-quarter of Paul George’s shots were catch-and-shoot 3s. The Wolves should use George’s distribution as a road map for Wiggins. Feeding him easy looks will boost his efficiency.
Putting Wiggins off the ball also opens up chances for attacking closeouts against a rotating defense, or simply cutting to the rim.
Because he’s an explosive leaper, the Wolves occasionally turned to Wiggins like in the play above. More of this, please. It’s hard to game plan when he fakes like he’s going to run through a screen then sprints toward the rim before jumping off an invisible trampoline.
“Offensively, I’m a great weapon and I think of myself as the no. 1 option,” Wiggins said at media day. “I know other guys probably think that about themselves too. But it’s not in a selfish way. It’s more a way in believing what I can do.” Wiggins should feel this way. His ballhandling was once a major weakness and he’s continually tightened it to the point that he can create in the half court. High-volume scoring nights like this were exactly what the Timberwolves were hoping for when they acquired him:
But Wiggins doesn’t always bring it. He goes through spells when he’s detached and disengaged. It happened in high school. It happened at Kansas. It’s happening now. It might not go away. It’s OK if that’s the case. With Towns and Butler serving as the team’s alphas, Wiggins can be the guy whose wave they ride when he’s rocking and rolling. On nights he’s not feeling it offensively, the hope is he’s making contributions as a rebounder and defender, which is where he’s fallen short so far throughout his young career.
But there’s no denying the highs. Wiggins has had a handful of downright outrageous scoring stretches. He averaged more than 28 points in February and April of last season. Only Butler, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and DeMar DeRozan scored 40-plus more times than Wiggins did last season. In Minnesota’s epic overtime win against the 73-win Warriors in 2015-16, he played one of his best all-around performances by scoring in clutch moments and playing high-level defense. The signs are there.
Wiggins is too young to have written enough songs for a greatest hits album. But we already have a few tracks to enjoy. Give him time and we might have a full box set when it’s all said and done.