Few spin moves are as delightful as Andrew Wiggins’s. The quick plant, the instantaneous wheel toward the basket, his defender’s body left frozen in the direction where it all began. The Wiggins spin move made it to YouTube as early as 2013, with footage of him unleashing it at Huntington Prep in West Virginia. Even then, babyfaced and 17 years old, it was clear Wiggins was undeniably special. NBA fans who had never said the word “prospect” or “vertical” in their lives pored over those heavily-saturated highlight videos to watch the native Canadian soar to the basket. People began calling him Maple Jordan for his hops and his promise. Wiggins was the most convincing next “Chosen One” in years.
On Monday, a 24-year-old, all-grown-up Wiggins did his signature pirouette around Pistons guard Luke Kennard. Once he lost Kennard, Wiggins launched the ball midair to Jake Layman on the perimeter. Layman sunk his 3-pointer, and Wiggins, with just under two minutes left in the half, collected his fourth assist of the game.
This is what we dreamed of when we envisioned a fully realized Mixtape Wiggins. We dreamed his skill set would grow to match his flash. That the scorer who showed such tremendous natural gifts would mature into Wiggins, the facilitator; Wiggins, the 3-point shooter; Wiggins, the rebounder. That he’d have the self-awareness to not force his shot, and to find the open man. Wiggins is averaging 25.9 points, 5.1 boards, and 3.6 assists through 11 games this season, and has scored 30 or more points in four of the Wolves’ past five games. It’s a world of difference from the kid dunking at Huntington Prep. It’s a world of difference from last season, too.
How many times have you been burned by Wiggins? His first five seasons in the league were an underwhelming blur, with a Rookie of the Year award, misleading scoring averages, and only the occasional hot streak bringing his potential back into focus. Those brief, encouraging stretches—which always proved to be the exception, not the rule—were so brilliant that people automatically bought back in on the former no. 1 pick. Sometimes, all it took was a single game. January 22, 2018: Wiggins dropped a 40-piece on the Clippers. January 8, 2019: Again a 40-point performance, this time against the Thunder. Despite months of doldrums, when he did explode it was enough to make us ask: Is Wiggins back?
Basketball has always looked easy for Wiggins. In a way, his athleticism is his proverbial cross to bear. It was as easy to believe in him again as it was to be frustrated when he underperformed. If only Wiggins wanted to be aggressive each game, and to care, and to hustle. The motor was there; we’d all seen it before. It seemed like he made a personal decision about whether to be great that night or not, which made those who believed in him take it personally when he chose the latter. Wiggins’s reputation has been marred with accusations of laziness, forcing shots, zoning out, a total disregard for defense, and not giving a fuck. A self-deprecating game between Wolves fans is ticking off how many shots Wiggins fires in a game before he tallies his first assist. Another fun game between Wolves fans: convincing themselves he’d eventually grow out of it. Another: crying.
The shortcomings were exacerbated when Minnesota re-signed Wiggins to a five-year, $146.5 million extension in 2017 with the expectation that he would get better someday. “I’m already extending to [Wiggins] that I’m willing to meet the max,” owner Glen Taylor said in 2017, before the two closed on a deal. “But there are some things that I need out of him, and that is the commitment to be a better player than you are today. … He can’t be paid just for what he’s doing today. He’s got to be better.” Taylor, in a wonderfully earnest Minnesotan fashion, met Wiggins in person to physically shake on it. Please be better isn’t usually what you ask of a player you just gave a max contract, and the deal seemed like a mistake from the start. It quickly, and predictably, became one of the most untradeable contracts in the league.
Wiggins has played more than 400 games for Minnesota. So the sudden change this season is validating for those who stayed on Wiggins Island all these years, and precarious to everyone else. (A volcano has always seemed like the proper landform imagery: rarely erupts, yet causes citizens who live nearby constant angst.) His defenders argue that Wiggins will prove everybody wrong. But those who have given up on Wiggins, who’s been a bad-team, good-stats guy at best and a mediocre player with a green light at worst, didn’t do so because they believed he lacked talent. It’ll take more than 11 games—less than one-seventh of a season—to seize redemption. Wiggins has the opportunity to change his perception from bust to slightly-delayed success story.
There are signs that his improvements could be sustainable. Enough’s changed with the franchise to make it seem plausible that the environment was holding Wiggins back. Minnesota officially hired Ryan Saunders last year, making him the youngest head coach in the NBA at 33. Saunders is the son of late Timberwolves legend Flip Saunders, and had been an assistant with the team since 2014, the year Minnesota traded for Wiggins. Ryan’s reputation as a player’s coach was a sharp contrast from Tom Thibodeau, the coach who occupied his seat on the bench previously. When the Wolves hired Thibs in 2016, it was celebrated as one of the best hires in franchise history. He was lauded as a schematic genius who could help Wiggins realize his defense potential. Soon, everything about Thibodeau revealed itself as outdated: the overworking of his players, the yelling, the tough love, the defensive scheme, even. If Saunders is the youth pastor, Thibs was the distant, hard-to-approach man at the altar.
Saunders doesn’t only engage with Wiggins differently, he asks him to be a different player on the court. His perimeter shot is more of a focus, relieving the world of a couple of more Wiggins long 2s, and there’s been a clear effort to push through to the rim rather than pull up short. (He’s averaging seven shot attempts in the restricted area this season, after averaging 4.9 attempts last season.) His notorious midrange jumper is still present, but Wiggins has slightly eased up, and is hitting them at a better rate. Team composition has guided this change. Minnesota has legitimate 3-point shooters now who make the facilitator role easier to grow into, creating space for Wiggins to sneak inside.
Ultimately, the only for Wiggins to change his reputation is with consistency. A playoff run would certainly help, and at this point might be necessary for him to be deemed a success story. Narratives change by the week in the NBA; forgiving and forgetting typically comes easy. You can tell a reckoning is happening by evaluating the tone on NBA Twitter, where Wiggins’s absolution is already well underway. It’s underway in Vegas, too: Wiggins currently has the third-best odds (plus-1400) of winning the Most Improved Player award. (It’d be a strange feat for MIP to go to a player who’s already on a max contract—as past winners like Pascal Siakam, Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and CJ McCollum secured the bag following their award-winning season.) It would be the ultimate Wiggins move for his leap—if this is really it, this time—to come all at once, catching us off guard and spinning us around.
An earlier version of this piece misstated how Minnesota acquired Wiggins and mistakenly suggested he’s yet to make his playoff debut.