The Timberwolves’ traveling floor mats can light up a room. The team goes nowhere without them, and their energy-drink shade of neon green instantly catches your eyes as you enter their locker room. Each mat spans about four lockers in length and has these phrases written in blue text: “Innovative,” “Family Oriented,” “Championship Driven,” and “Player-Centric.”
Speaking over the phone a few days after the Wolves’ December 8 road matchup against the Lakers, Gersson Rosas repeats the phrases unprompted. He calls them the four cornerstones he wanted to establish for the franchise after he left the Rockets in May to become Minnesota’s president of basketball operations.
As the Wolves got ready in the visiting locker room of Staples Center last week, Andrew Wiggins laced up his shoes right over the words “Player-Centric.” Minnesota has had extreme ups and downs already this season; it began 7-4 and is currently in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. But there have been enough positives to feel like this is the start of something new. And nothing represents that change—and the franchise’s new emphasis on forging a player-friendly environment—more than Wiggins.
Rosas was on the ground floor of the Wiggins hype. As a member of the Rockets’ front office when Wiggins was still in high school, Rosas watched the teenager dominate the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland two years in a row. “I’ve always had that high level opinion of him, but obviously he’s had some struggles throughout his career,” Rosas says. “He’s had some highs and some lows.”
It’s been five years since a 19-year-old Wiggins entered the league with all the hype of a top overall pick and won Rookie of the Year. But since then, he’s struggled to find his footing, and prior to this season had been seen as a ball-stopper who, in a different situation, may have already been on a second or third team.
A self-proclaimed glass-half-full kind of person, Rosas said he came to Minnesota wanting to focus on the positives—namely, his belief that a player as skilled as Wiggins could thrive within a better system. After years of the franchise refusing to fully cater to Karl-Anthony Towns and his unique skill set, Rosas wanted the Wolves offense to center on the franchise’s other former no. 1 draft pick, play fast, and adopt the Rockets’ efficient shooting practices. So far, Towns is having a career season, the Wolves are fourth in the league in pace, and the team is taking about 10 more 3s per game than last season. Wiggins’s penchant for ill-advised long 2s and an individualistic style of play made his fit in this new context questionable. But Rosas and head coach Ryan Saunders were determined to make it work—by making it clear to Wiggins what he needed to change, and investing in him on and off the court.
In his first meeting with Wiggins this offseason, Rosas told the 24-year-old that he remembered the potential Wiggins had shown in those Portland tournaments, and that he wanted to see that potential come to fruition in Minnesota. “When we had those conversations with him, the feedback was always, ‘Hey, I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to be successful here,’” Rosas said of Wiggins, who is in the second year of the five-year maximum extension he signed in the fall of 2017. “When he gave that commitment, it opened the door for us to not only invest in him and support him, but also let him know that we were going to push him.”
Pushing Wiggins began by putting an increased emphasis on efficiency. Over his first five years in the league, many had written Wiggins off. And for good reason. Wiggins had become a black hole on offense, holding on to the ball too long and taking ill-advised shots. His high scoring numbers felt empty.
But this season started off on a different note. From the jump, Saunders noticed that Wiggins was looking for his teammates more often, making smarter passes, and focusing more on his effective field goal percentage—something they had discussed before the start of the season. Whereas about a third of Wiggins’s shots last season came from the midrange (10 feet from the basket to the 3-point line), this season, less than 20 percent of his shots are coming from that space. He’s diverted more of his attempts to the paint, and now, nearly a third of his shots are coming from beyond the 3-point line.
“I think last year, he second-guessed his shots a lot,” point guard Jeff Teague says. “But this year he’s very confident in his play.”
The Wolves weren’t just looking to improve Wiggins’s numbers, though. They also wanted to explore different ways of using him on the court, which meant taking risks—like experimenting with the idea of Point Wiggins. When Teague sat out a few games earlier this season with an illness, the Wolves took the chance to see what Wiggins could do in the role of lead ball handler. What may have seemed like a response to their poor point guard depth was actually something the Wolves had prepped for this summer. Rosas and Saunders had Wiggins study All-Stars who had thrived in a system like the one they wanted to build. That meant watching film of James Harden, who revolutionized the Rockets offense after they handed him the ball and simply said, “Go.”
“Part of that is the same message with Andrew,” Rosas says. “The way we’re playing our style, we’re putting our trust in him [and saying], ‘Hey, lead us as a playmaker, get the ball where it needs to go. We need you to score. The ball is in your hands so make those decisions and you and Karl work together to help us be as successful as we can be.’”
Rosas started off his tenure by empowering Wiggins with words, and now he and Saunders are doing it with the ball. So far it’s paying dividends. As Robert Covington puts it, Wiggins “is definitely more confident this season. There’s no doubt about that.” And what once seemed like a bold gamble given Wiggins’s ball-hog reputation has set the stage for Wiggins to show off the ballhandling and distribution skills he worked on this summer in Los Angeles.
“I tell my staff, not only with Andrew, but with all our guys, ‘We’re not going to fail you. We’re going to invest in you, we’re going to give you every opportunity to be successful,’” Rosas says. “The rest is on you.”
Despite the team’s recent string of losses, the process is trending upward. The Wolves’ most-used lineup this season, which features Wiggins as the de facto point guard, has a net rating of 12.8. And when Wiggins is off the floor, the Wolves post a minus-7.8 net rating. It’s fair to wonder, however, how much of this investment is also just a product of circumstance. Had the Wolves signed D’Angelo Russell this summer like they wanted to, Wiggins may not have had this kind of opportunity.
But for all that’s changed in Minnesota over the past year, Wiggins’s biggest advantage is his long-standing relationship with Saunders. When Wiggins was a rookie in 2014-15, Saunders was an assistant coach, working under his father, Flip, who was then Minnesota’s head coach and president of basketball operations. Through the years, Wiggins and Ryan have been through plenty of highs and lows together, including the births of their children and Flip’s death due to Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the fall of 2015.
“That was the person I would talk to a lot when I had problems or questions,” Wiggins said of Ryan Saunders. “I talked to him a lot, so having him as the head coach now, it’s just made it really comfortable.”
Multiple players cited Saunders’s interpersonal skills as a reason for their improved play this season. Towns also traces Wiggins’s renewed confidence back to Saunders, who took over as interim head coach after Tom Thibodeau was fired in January and was officially elevated to the permanent position by Rosas in late May. “When he has confidence in his head coach and he knows his head coach has all the confidence in him, it makes it that much easier to do what’s asked, not only out of effort and it’s his job, but he’s doing it out of love,” Towns said.
Even when Teague was healthy enough to play, Saunders stuck with Wiggins. His message—one he repeated after the team’s loss to the Lakers—was that Wiggins would continue in his new role as the starting point guard.
“We’re better when he’s able to get downhill, make passes, get to the paint, and play along the perimeter,” Saunders said. Second-year player Josh Okogie added: “I like it because when [Wiggins] gets the rebound now, he’s not looking for someone to push it to. He can push it himself on the break.”
Overall, Wiggins’s usage rate is up, his turnover rate is down, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.73—by far the highest of his career. His assist rate has also jumped up 6 percentage points from last season, though at 16.6, it’s still subpar compared with most above-average ball handlers’ in the league.
It’s a good reminder that Wiggins still has plenty of room for growth. For every smart play or 34-point performance—like the one he had in a loss to the Clippers last Friday—there are still the ill-advised jumpers and tunnel-vision drives to the rim. Rosas cites a game against the Warriors earlier this season where Wiggins reverted to old habits and Saunders benched him. Wiggins eventually came back into the game and scored 18 points between the fourth quarter and overtime to finish with 40 in the team’s 125-119 win.
Wiggins’s improvement comes with a caveat: No matter how well he plays, he’ll probably never reach the level his max contract suggests he should. Because of this dissonance, the Wolves could capitalize on Wiggins’s value being at its peak and trade him ahead of the February 7 deadline to create more financial flexibility. Or Minnesota could target a more traditional point guard to take over ballhandling duties—the team has been linked to Chris Paul, Russell, and others in trade rumors.
But Rosas is invested in building the right team around Towns, whom he calls “potentially the best big of this current generation.” And a huge part of that is finding players who are on the same timeline as the 24-year-old All-Star. Though it may feel like Wiggins has been in the NBA for a decade, he’s only eight months older than Towns. Despite everything that’s happened in his career, Wiggins has always had potential; why can’t Minnesota be the team that taps into it?
The Wolves, now 10-15, may be a game out of eighth place in the West, but Rosas doesn’t want to skip any steps. That’s why winning streaks and losing streaks matter far less than the buy-in he’s gotten from the likes of Towns and Wiggins.
“What we’re building here is a sustainable model, and we knew this year was going to be like this,” Rosas says. “This isn’t L.A. with the Lakers, where there’s 16 championship banners. There’s nothing there and we want to be that group that’s the first group to do that here. We believe in this system—the history of the system speaks for itself and it’s just the ability to execute that vision not only now but into the future.”