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A Fallen Maple Leaf

Andrew Wiggins, the pride of Ontario, once seemed like the next big thing. But even in the wake of Jimmy Butler’s exit, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ max player has done more harm than good.

Andrew Wiggins Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With 11 seconds remaining in the third quarter of Monday’s game between the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves, Andrew Wiggins fell back into old habits. Isolated behind the arc with Gerald Green defending him, his drive was cut off by Chris Paul’s lingering presence beside Green. “Don’t settle,” Wolves broadcast analyst Jim Petersen muttered, as though he were fully expecting the worst. Not two seconds later, Wiggins turned the ball over trying to back into Green and pivot into a turnaround jumper; he was blindsided by an immediate trap by Eric Gordon instead.

Gordon raced down the floor for an easy layup and—thwack. Wiggins ran the ball down and slapped it against the backboard before Gordon had a chance to convert the play. The ball landed right in the hands of Green for an easy putback, but Wiggins’s statement had already been made: He didn’t have to be defined by his offensive lapses. It was his third block of the quarter; it was the hardest he’d played in weeks.

Watching Andrew Wiggins has become a meditative exercise. As the 2014 no. 1 pick drifts into the left corner of the frame, one’s mind may drift off the screen entirely, to memories of a teen phenom that fray more and more at the edges with every shot he misses this season. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ $148 million man is shooting 37.7 percent from the field, so there’s been plenty to ponder.

It’s more than mere futility. Wiggins’s misses, when aggregated, suggest an identity crisis. The zone between the painted area and the 3-point arc that Wiggins, a Kobe Bryant acolyte, once considered sanctuary, has abandoned him. The 31.8 percent he shot from midrange last season was unsightly; the 20.7 percent he’s shooting from that area this season is downright unspeakable. Wiggins had one of his most efficient games of the season in the Wolves’ 103-91 win over the Rockets, but even his shot chart seemed suggestive of a paradigm shift: Wiggins went 6-of-8 from the painted area and behind the 3-point line; he missed all three of his midrange attempts. Wiggins is becoming a different player, shooting more 3-pointers and trying to wean himself off the midrange to satisfy the basic tenets of modern spacing, but the transition has been brutal.

At his best, Wiggins is in the firmament of the NBA’s very best athletes. His vertical explosiveness, his quick-twitch reflexes, his first step and downhill sprint—in a vacuum, his melting pot of absurd physical gifts manifest as game-changing pyrotechnics. All three of Wiggins’s blocks came against penetrating playmakers who were eager to hunt him down one-on-one; for a night, Wiggins treated Gordon and James Harden like the kind of highlight-reel pawns that he used to sacrifice for viral fame back in high school.

Only two years ago, I wondered whether Wiggins could do for the wing position what Russell Westbrook did to the point guard position, changing its parameters by sheer force of athletic will. Wiggins doesn’t stoke the same internal pyre that seems to drive Westbrook, but when he’s given the runway he’s nonetheless capable of awe-inspiring feats. And, indeed, Wiggins seems most himself when he, too, is in awe of his own capacity.

Wiggins’s breakout happened six and a half years ago, if you can believe it. At the 2012 Peach Jam, the end-of-season tournament showcasing the best teams in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League circuit, his performance in a hypercompetitive overtime game against fellow elite recruit (and future 2014 NBA draft classmate) Julius Randle cemented his status as the best amateur basketball player in the world. He was only a rising junior in high school then. Wiggins put everything on display in that game: He hit pull-up 3s; he took the ball coast-to-coast for dunks; and, perhaps most importantly, he defended Randle, one of the most dominant players in the tournament, and held his ground. He was the most gifted player in the tournament, and flaunted every ounce of superiority he had with a winsome, toothy smile, like a kid just discovering his superpowers, not yet burdened by the Uncle Ben lecture.

It felt like a mythmaking performance, like LeBron James’s leapfrogging of Lenny Cooke at the 2001 ABCD Camp, or Tracy McGrady’s alien crash-landing five years earlier at a 1996 ABCD Camp that was supposed to anoint Lamar Odom as the best high school player in the nation. But those legends relied largely on word of mouth. The 2012 Peach Jam streamed online for all to see; Wiggins was undeniable even then. Jabari Parker, whom Sports Illustrated deemed “The Best High School Basketball Player Since LeBron James,” sat out of the tournament due to injury, but even his absence couldn’t put a damper on the exploding Wiggins hype. To explain to his followers just how talented Wiggins was, veteran college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman claimed Wiggins would have been the no. 1 player in the vaunted 2007 high school class that included Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, and O.J. Mayo. That’s the thing with Wiggins: At his best, he’s not losing a battle of theoretics.

But it’s getting harder to discern just what he looks like at his best anymore.

Wiggins’s sudden inability to convert 2-point field goals isn’t just bad, it’s on the edge of history. Among qualifying players, Wiggins’s 2-point field goal percentage thus far this season ranks among the 150 worst figures ever, which doesn’t sound too horrific until you consider that only seven of those performances occurred after 1975. It’s not just that he’s lost his midrange; he’s lost his edge. Once one of the league’s premier poster artists, Wiggins’s number of dunks has decreased in each of the past three seasons. Twenty games into the season, he’s attempted only nine. Here’s how his most recent dunk attempt panned out:

That’s a nonchalant Wiggins getting stuffed by both DeMar DeRozan and the crushing weight of symbolism. Year 5 was an inflection point for DeRozan; he’d spent the first four seasons of his career fine-tuning his deliberate, methodical homage to wing scorers of yore, but it was his fifth season (2013-14, the first time he made the playoffs) when the game finally slowed down enough for him to begin using his scoring instincts to create plays for others in the pick-and-roll. DeRozan has been one of the league’s most reliable pick-and-roll playmakers ever since.

It’s Year 5 for Wiggins now, and there hasn’t been much growth to show in that time. The game hasn’t slowed down; he has. He’s no longer creating lanes for himself or teammates simply by running down the court at top speeds. He’s no longer rising and firing with the same verve he had only a few years ago. Wiggins threw down one of the most disrespectful poster dunks in recent memory three years ago; now, his dispassion has become joke fodder.

The NBA isn’t all about athleticism. Otherwise, Gerald Green may have been the greatest player in history. What’s made Wiggins’s season so disappointing isn’t necessarily the drop-off in numbers, but just how listless he appears on the floor. Not every athletic genius pans out; those who never develop the instincts to be much more than an offensive spark eventually settle into the lower-middle class of NBA wings, where their duties become simplified: be ready to hit a 3 when it comes to you. But players like DeShawn Stevenson, J.R. Smith, Nick Young, Lance Stephenson, and countless others of that ilk usually seal their fate earlier in their careers, not after becoming one of the six highest-paid small forwards. “I don’t know what else you can do but look at the person face-to-face and trust that he will follow through,” Wolves owner Glen Taylor said a few days before tendering Wiggins’s five-year, $148 million extension. “He seems like a very good person. He seems to have the ability, and so the only thing it would be is for some reason he didn’t work hard enough to obtain the skill sets. That’s what you’re asking him to commit to.”

Tacking on nebulous conditions to a massive contract in hopes of spurring on a nebulous player probably wasn’t the most constructive course of action, but Taylor was betting on the team’s infrastructure he paid Tom Thibodeau handsomely to build. (Sure, we all had our doubts about fit, but who could have envisioned Jimmy Butler being a negative influence on Wiggins’s competitive streak?) There’s no greater clarity now that Butler’s out of the picture; it’d be hard to argue for Wiggins as anything more than the team’s fourth most important player, and he’s certainly not Minnesota’s most important wing. Robert Covington has not only ingratiated himself with Thibodeau, but has shaped a new-and-improved Wolves defense in his image. The team has had a promising November, in spite of Wiggins’s struggles.

The Wolves’ vision of Butler sculpting a bloodthirsty alpha dog out of Wiggins was a bust; perhaps Covington’s example is a more tenable and realistic model. In spite of all we’ve been led to believe about his game, Wiggins was a defensive galvanizer against the Rockets on Monday, and it gave the team a completely different dynamic. It’d be a stark departure from the idea of Wiggins as a “primary” player in any capacity—a sentiment that had been expressed by both Thibodeau and Wiggins before the start of last season—but focusing on the 3-and-D aspects of his ill-defined game would, at the very least, offer some much-needed clarity to the team as a whole.

In his rookie season, Wiggins watched as Kobe passed Michael Jordan for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list in a game against the Wolves. After the final buzzer, Bryant paid the young wing a few wistful compliments. “I remember being Andrew Wiggins,” he said. “I remember playing against Michael [Jordan] my first year. To be here tonight and to play against him, seeing the baby face and the little footwork or little technique things that he’s going to be much sharper at as time goes on—it was like looking at a reflection of myself 19 years ago.” Four years later, Wiggins is being paid as though he were a reflection of Kobe, and he’s struggling with the burden of proof. But failure along one path doesn’t need to spell doom for an entire career.