At shootaround before the Timberwolves’ final preseason game in Milwaukee, Andrew Wiggins and Josh Okogie were firing up halfcourt shots, seeing who could best the other. Wiggins made one, but Okogie answered. Wiggins went back for another shot and banked it in again. Okogie missed his next one, and Wiggins prevailed. As he walked over to the bench area, Wiggins flashed his recognizable wide smile.
That smile never disappears permanently, but Wiggins admitted he wasn’t having as much fun last season he did in other years.
“I would say I’m enjoying it more than I did last year,” Wiggins said. “Last year it was kind of on the rough side. But the joy has always been there. I’ve never been on the court not wanting to play.”
Is he happier because Jimmy Butler is gone? You might recall Wiggins’ brother Nick tweeted “Hallelujah” upon learning of Butler’s trade request last season. Or perhaps it’s because Tom Thibodeau is gone and Wiggins may thrive in another style of play. No on both fronts, Wiggins said.
“I liked playing with Jimmy. He wasn’t a selfish player. If anything, he made the whole team better,” Wiggins said. “Even Thibs, I had a great year with Thibs. He brought out the best. He went about things a certain way, but no one can say Thibs wasn’t a good coach. He was a hell of a coach. So the effort was there. The joy for the game was there, too.
“I feel like it was more on the personal side where it happened, but I feel like it’s back to normal.”
The Wolves are hoping Wiggins is in the right frame of mind entering a pivotal year, his sixth and perhaps the most important of his career. There’s no glossing over Wiggins’ underperformance.
President Gersson Rosas made it clear the Wolves need more from Wiggins, while conceding the team hasn’t always provided the necessary support to help him thrive.
Wiggins now has that support, with a new front office that is taking a cutting-edge approach to player development and a coach, Ryan Saunders, who shares a good relationship with him.
“We’ve had big life moments,” Saunders said. “The guy was at my wedding. He let me know when he was going to be a father. There’s things that connect you on a deeper level than just being there for somebody on the basketball court.”
But the pressing question for fans is, can all this translate to improvement in games?
The Wolves and Saunders are attempting to remodel Wiggins’ game to make it more analytically sound, which was needed for someone who took the 11th-most midrange jump shots per game (4.4) and only hit 34.7% of them. Will he be able to adapt his game and become a more efficient player who attempts to drive or shoots a three instead of settling for a midrange shot?
“It’s going to be a process,” Saunders said. “I really hope that people don’t overreact every time they do see him shoot a midrange jump shot because there still will be situations where he may have to. But we are committed to our philosophy of high-efficiency shots.
“With that though, it takes time to change your thought process, change your habits and Andrew, he’s been all in.”
Wiggins, a career 33% three-point shooter, has been open to the changes, even if old habits can be hard to break. NBA.com does not have shot chart data for the preseason, but Wiggins shot 33% from three-point range with 3.8 of his 11.4 shots coming from there.
“I’ve been trying to put forth that effort to shoot more threes,” Wiggins said. “I feel like against Indiana [on Tuesday] I went back to mid-range shots too much. I just got to keep thinking about it, working on it, shooting more threes. … It’s not easy. I’ve been playing the other way all my life. It’s all habits, but if I do it long enough, it’ll switch.”
That’s not to say he’s sworn off mid-range shots completely. As Saunders said, there may be times when he has to shoot them because they’re open.
“If the shot’s there I’m going to take it, you know what I’m saying?” Wiggins said. “At the end of the day I’m a basketball player. I’m going to try and shoot more threes than mid-range or long twos or whatever. But if someone gives you a shot, you’re a basketball player, you got to make reads and play.”
Later that night in Milwaukee, Wiggins started the game 1-for-10 and it can be trying in situations like that to keep faith in what the Wolves are selling, but Wiggins said his relationship with Saunders is helping him buy in to the program.
The social media criticism began pouring in, which Wiggins usually lets slide, no matter if people are criticizing his shot selection or his demeanor.
Both are popular talking points when it comes to Wiggins and will be again should nothing change in his game.
“There’s a perception of me out there that my effort is not there, but that’s just he said, she said,” Wiggins said. “A person says something, everyone believes it. But they’re not there in the early mornings or when I work out. I don’t really pay too much attention to it.”
Perhaps Wiggins will get some folks to change their tunes. It’s a big ask, but if ever it was going to happen, this would seem like the time.