Basketball fame — and fortune — came to Wiggins at a young age

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2014 - 11:55 PM

The new face of the Timberwolves is used to attention.

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Andrew Wiggins played tic-tac-toe with Emma, a patient at Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota, on Wednesday. Four new team members plus the mascot Crunch visited patients at the hospital Wednesday

Photo: JERRY HOLT Star Tribune,

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He is only 19 years old, but already the new face of the Timberwolves franchise possesses his own personal assistant, a $12 million-plus shoe contract before he ever signed to play in the NBA and, judging by the enthusiastic welcome he received last week at the Minnesota State Fair, quite a following.

A child of the YouTube age, Andrew Wiggins arrives in Minnesota just as Kevin Love leaves. His fame, generated since age 13 by highlight-reel dunks archived from AAU jamborees, prep games and one collegiate season at Kansas, precedes him.

Wiggins hasn’t played a single game or even practiced yet, but his first week in Minnesota suggests the No. 1 pick in June’s long-awaited NBA draft is about to become the public pulse for an organization that has reframed its future by trading away a superstar.

Wiggins flashed an easy smile and mostly seemed to be a young man of few words, whether he was socializing with corporate partners and big-spending season-ticket members at an exclusive downtown Minneapolis rooftop reception, leading the way for the four newest Wolves at a very public news conference on the fairgrounds or donning sunglasses in unity with a patient at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital.

“I don’t think I’m quiet,” he said. “People say that about me. I just speak when I want to, when I choose to speak. I think I grew out of my shell a while ago.”

That will happen organically when you’ve been something of an Internet sensation — discovered by a worldwide basketball audience coming out of Canada, of all places — since you were in middle school.

Go to YouTube and you’ll find a 39-second snippet of him — entitled “Best 13 Year Old in the Nation” — that has been viewed 4.7 million times.

While there, you’ll also find footage of him playing with a North Carolina prep school at Augsburg College before about 1,500 fans in a December 2009 holiday prep tournament against Hopkins and Henry Sibley high schools.

He stood 6-6 as an eighth-grader then and clearly was the star of a show well before anyone commonly called the Toronto-born-and-raised prospect “Maple Jordan.”

“He was the best eighth-grader I’d ever seen,” said then-Henry Sibley coach Tom Dasovich, who is now at Minnetonka. “I remember specifically thinking that must have been something like how LeBron James looked as an eighth-grader.”

Parental role models

Nearly all grown up five years later, Wiggins walked the State Fairgrounds last week accompanied by a security detail that included a handful of police officers and dozens of fans — mostly young ones — who followed behind while anyone in the group’s path wondered what all the commotion was about.

One teenage fan wore a Kevin Love jersey he had transformed with black marker and duct tape from 42 to a No. 22 Wiggins jersey.

The shuffling entourage stopped only when Wiggins did, pausing to watch him ride the midway’s spinning “Tornado” with his three sisters or lose his first shooting contest as a Timberwolf, by way of water pistol at the shooting gallery.

Those who approached seeking a hands-on experience or photo opportunity instead were handed by Wiggins a trading card, one of 1,000 printed by the team for its newest players in advance. Wiggins signed 250 of them the night before, all of those cards long gone by the time he left the State Fair after he rode down the giant slide, ate stuff on a stick and made that midway side trip among the masses.

“That’s my life,” he said simply the next day, downplaying the crowd he often attracts. “People like to be around me.”

The son of a former NBA player and a two-time Olympic-sprint silver medalist, Wiggins received from parents Mitchell and Marita Payne-Wiggins the genetics that have made him a prospect talked about for years and worthy of centerpiece status in a trade for a three-time All-Star: At 6-8, he possesses a 7-foot wingspan and a startling 44-inch vertical leap that might only be third best on his own team (possibly surpassed by Zach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III).

From his parents, he also received plenty of preparation about how to live life illuminated by the bright stage lights.

“They’ve always given me their wisdom and advice for what’s next to come,” said Wiggins, who was accompanied by his parents and his three sisters but not two older basketball-playing brothers on his welcoming trip in Minnesota last week. “They keep me levelheaded and make sure I always stay motivated.”

Driven to succeed

A season spent playing big-time basketball at Kansas didn’t hurt, either.

“Schools like Kansas, UNC, Duke, all those big schools, they treat their basketball players like rock stars,” Wiggins said. “It really prepared me for times like this. It translates.”

Still, he is about to make a leap forward that, despite all the preparation in the world, he can only imagine.

His lone season at Kansas included a 41-point performance against West Virginia in March but enough uneven moments in a system beside other talented players to temper talk that he’s the best prospect to enter the NBA since that guy named LeBron.

That season led some NBA scouts to question Wiggins’ motor and assertiveness. The man who traded for him, Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, sees it differently, suggesting Wiggins proved in that season that he’s willing to be unselfish — “Not just a one-man show,” Saunders said — and part of a team concept, traits Wiggins will need playing with other acclaimed players in the NBA.

Saunders noted he received a text from Wiggins the day the trade was completed, a short and sweet one because Wiggins had just completed a lengthy training session and was about to head into another one.

“He wants to be great,” Saunders said.

Rock show coming?

Saunders acknowledges it will take time and patience from all parties involved and has been careful to include fellow newcomers Anthony Bennett, Thaddeus Young and LaVine fairly equally in all welcoming promotions this past week.

That didn’t stop the team’s sales staff from wearing wigs — wig, Wiggins, get it? — at work the day the trade was announced. The Wolves held an all-staff meeting two days later in the Target Center arena during which the lights were darkened and a flashy highlight-reel video featuring the four newest players was played on the big overhead scoreboard.

Wolves Vice President of Sales and Service Ryan Tanke called it a “rock show” atmosphere and a “new age” for a team that just had traded away its best player and former face of the franchise. The team sold more than 300 full season tickets last week, more than it did the week Ricky Rubio arrived in 2011, and its website last week received record traffic for visits and page views. Its total season-ticket revenue has surpassed all of last season’s.

“It was a celebration, definitively a celebration,” he said of a welcome that is centered upon the No. 1 overall pick.

His future in doubt almost since he was drafted No. 1 overall by Cleveland, Wiggins now finally knows where he’ll call home for what he calls a “very, very long time,” even if a certain segment of Toronto Raptors fans already are fitting him for a jersey some years down the road.

Wiggins’ college coach, Bill Self, made some news in the weeks before the trade was announced when he said Wiggins wanted the trade even if it meant he wouldn’t play with James because he’d be “forced to be something.”

“Not my exact words, but we had the same idea,” Wiggins said. “I wanted to go to a place where I’m pushed to do a lot and become a special piece for the team. It’ll help me reach my potential. … I said I wanted to play for a team that wanted me, and now I’m here and I feel nothing but love.”

And through it all, Wiggins walks like a man out for a stroll in the park, like he has done this almost all his life.

At age 19, given his YouTube notoriety, that’s not far off.

“I’m always comfortable,” he said. “I like it. I like to take on challenges. I’m prepared. I know I’m ready.”



 

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