Often so hesitant to praise individuals, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau opened his postgame news conference Wednesday night determined to note Andrew Wiggins’ improved play beyond his specialty, scoring.
“I meant to mention last game, Andrew is really doing a lot of things out there for us,” he said.
And it’s showing in the standings. Wednesday’s 104-88 victory over Oklahoma City was the Wolves’ 10th in their past 13 games.
Once mired in a shooting slump that often left him invisible less than a month ago, Wiggins since then has provided many of the things — rebounding, defensive activity, playmaking — for which Thibodeau called for when Wiggins’ shot didn’t fall.
And now that it is, he’s doing more of everything.
His 25 points in Monday’s resounding victory over Cleveland was the 10th time he has led his team in scoring, but the first time since a Dec. 1 game at Oklahoma City.
His defense Wednesday against Oklahoma City limited Thunder star Paul George to 13 points on 5-for-14 shooting after he scored 36 points against Wiggins the last time the two teams played.
His scoring was efficient, too: He played through contact and finished plays, making more shots (eight) than he missed (seven) on a 19-point night.
Wiggins has done so after he started season strong when Butler deferred offensively to both him and Karl-Anthony Towns, then faded when Butler stepped forth and asserted himself starting in December.
“He was amazing tonight,” Towns told reporters after Wednesday’s game. “Wigs is getting better every single day. What he brings to this team is I think underappreciated, especially by you guys. We know what we have with Wigs on our team. … I think he gets a lot of backlash that’s not worthy of him. He does a lot of great things that don’t always show up on the stat sheet, and that’s why he’s so vital to our team.”
To be sure, Wiggins has done more of those things recently as he has grown more comfortable playing alongside such a dominant player and personality as Butler.
Thibodeau’s constant urging that Wiggins do more than score probably hasn’t hurt, either, for a max-contract player starting next season whose many gifts gleam when he is motivated.
“I’m just trying,” Wiggins said. “We hear him every day. Even when you’re doing it, you still hear it. Even when you do it right, you still hear him, wanting you to do it even better than you did.”
It might be only a matter of time before Wiggins deciphers exactly how he fits next to Butler, but in the meantime social media and the airwaves have been thick with frustration while Timberwolves fans and observers wait for all that potential to be fulfilled.
“This team is a lot different from it was last year and last year’s team was a lot different from the year before that,” Thibodeau said. “So it’s how quickly can you adapt? Anytime you add talented players, sacrifices have to be made if you want to win. You have to prioritize the team. The thing about Andrew and Karl is, they’re so young [both 22]. They’re going to get a lot better.”
Last week, Wiggins tied a career high with three blocked shots in a victory over New Orleans, a game in which he also had eight rebounds. Three games before that, he set a season-high with nine rebounds; the Wolves are 13-4 this season when he has five or more.
“He adds so much to our team,” Thibodeau said. “He’s such a gifted scorer. That part is obvious. But it’s all the other things he’s capable of doing. He can play great when he doesn’t shoot the ball well and everybody has nights when they don’t shoot the ball great. But what else can you do? There’s defense, rebounding the ball, getting out on the break, making plays for other people.
“He had three blocked shots the other night. His activity overall has been great. It just makes the game easier for everyone.”
Wiggins has shot 40.4 percent (21-52) from three-point range the past 11 games after he shot 17.1 percent (6-35) the nine games before that. The turnabout occurred during a game at Phoenix just before Christmas after he consulted with personal skills coach Drew Hanlen and continued to study film of his shooting stroke and shot selection.
“My shot was a little flat, I had to get my legs into it and get a little arc into my shot,” Wiggins said. “When I’m in a slump, I just shoot until I’m not in it anymore. That’s basically what I do.”
Now his shot has returned, and he seems to have heeded Thibodeau’s call to do more than score.
“The one thing about Andrew is he’s a talent, but he’s not selfish,” veteran teammate Taj Gibson said. “He’s not always, ‘Look at me, give me the ball, I want to score.’ He can score 20 or more any given night, but he understands team concept.
“But late in the game, when we need a big bucket or someone to hit the game winner, it’s either him or Jimmy. So we’ve got a lot of confidence in him and he knows that.”