You can measure Andrew Wiggins’ growth from draft prospect whose intensity NBA scouts doubted to a Timberwolves rookie season now aimed squarely toward stardom strictly by the numbers: The season’s first half reduced to 10-game chunks details progress in such things as fouls drawn, scoring average and shooting percentages, player efficiency rating.
But it’s probably more powerfully told anecdotally, in the company he’s starting to keep.
The latest occasion came Saturday at Target Center, where for the second and final time against Cleveland this season he dueled the game’s greatest player and delivered a career-high 33-point performance that beckoned LeBron James to reminisce.
“I remember when I was a rookie,” James said, “and I played against T-Mac on Christmas Day. I played against Kobe, I played against A.I. and all those guys that were shattering the league at the time. I remember how I got up to play those guys, so I know what he was feeling.”
Back then, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson were the gold standards by whom a superstar-in-waiting rookie judged himself.
Now, James himself is the measurement and Wiggins is the rookie who has elevated his game twice against a two-time NBA champion and four-time MVP, not to mention a Cavaliers team that drafted him last summer and traded him merely a month later.
The first time around on Dec. 23, Wiggins delivered 27 points in Cleveland, a game that in retrospect taught him just what could be if he truly applies himself every night.
The second time around last week, he outplayed James and everybody else for three quarters and provided a performance that was trumped only when James won the game by scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter alone.
“He showed he’s got potential to be a superstar in this league,” Wolves coach Flip Saunders said that night. “He rises to the moment. What happens a lot of times is LeBron James will take it over when it needed to be. That’s what the great players do.”
And that’s the future Saunders envisions for a player whom he made the centerpiece of last summer’s blockbuster trade that sent three-time All-Star Kevin Love to the Cavaliers.
Growing up fast
NBA scouts questioned Wiggins’ will and temperament when they debated last summer whether he or Jabari Parker was the draft’s top pick. His one uneven season at Kansas created concern about a player whose athleticism made him a YouTube sensation at age 13.
But the Wolves’ perfect storm of a season and that first game against James two days before Christmas accelerated development of a player Cleveland deemed had talent and upside worthy of a No. 1 pick.
Injured Wolves veterans Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic forced Wiggins to grow up fast during their two-month absence. From the start, he became the designated defender entrusted to guard mostly by himself the opponent’s best perimeter player, everyone from James and Carmelo Anthony to James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Those injuries forced Wiggins to accept scoring and playmaking roles for which he probably wasn’t ready.
“We’ve put the ball in his hands,” Saunders said. “Everything that has happened from his perspective and management’s perspective, you couldn’t ask for a better script. He has been thrust into doing a lot of different things. He has had to play out of the box. He had a big question mark last year at Kansas: Could he sustain things? Look, the guy is sustaining things.”
There are still nights such as Wednesday, when he scored two points through three quarters, then scored four important points in the final seven minutes of a comeback 102-101 victory over Miami.
You can attribute such a game to Saunders’ simple explanation — “He’s 19” — or maybe his adjustment to a changed pecking order now that Martin, Pekovic and Rubio have all returned. The proverbial rookie wall always is a convenient excuse if you so choose, too.
“I hope I’ve busted through it,” said Wiggins, who turns 20 on Feb. 23. “I do know what you’re talking about. I feel tired all the time. I’ve just got to push through it. Once the game starts, you’re good. You’re playing the game you love. You can never be too tired for that.”
Wiggins acknowledges his season veered with that December game in Cleveland, which came at the same time a coach told him something that stuck in his head.
“Great players play great every night,” said Wiggins, the son of former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins. “I want to be a great player.”
A different breed
Saunders says he sees that in Wiggins because of the time he spends studying game video daily, because of the same even temperament that once raised scouts’ concerns. Wiggins also has a rare ability to energize himself when more is asked of him defensively rather than have such demands sap his game.
“He’s different along those lines,” Saunders said. “When you think he should be tired, he’s not, and when you think he should have energy, he’s tired. He tries to keep you guessing. He comes to work. He wants to get better. He’s a student of the game. That’s why he has a chance to be special.”
Teammates see it, too, in a player they have nicknamed “Sleepy” because of his favorite pastime.
“He’s growing,” veteran guard Mo Williams said. “Rookies usually hit a wall right now, but he’s hitting his stride. I’m not going to give him a lot of credit yet because I want him to continue to grow. There are a lot of strides he still can make, but it is progress absolutely.”
Wolves opponents stuck their most physical perimeter defender on Wiggins after Shabazz Muhammad injured his groin last month. Saunders countered by moving Thaddeus Young to small forward at times to draw that defender away from Wiggins onto Young.
“Every team plays me physical,” Wiggins said. “I can’t tell no more. I think I’ve done pretty good.”
Wiggins came to the bench Monday at Dallas complaining to Saunders that he was fouled repeatedly around the basket, without any calls.
“That’s part of being a rookie,” Saunders said. “I told him, ‘In two years, you’ll get every call.’ Right now, it’s going to take some time. You have to build a reputation. But what I liked is, he kept going.”
In the meantime, Wiggins is growing more talkative, both among his teammates and working referees.
“Shoot, I’m just trying to attack the rim and trying to give them a reason for giving me a call,” Wiggins said. “They either give it to me or they don’t.”
In Wiggins, Saunders foresees a “monster” who will weigh 15 pounds more in two years’ time.
“He’s a great talent,” James said. “He has a very good feel for the game. That’s good to see. He’s very calm. He played the game the right way. Did he make many mistakes? I don’t know, but as a rookie you expect that. He has grown each month this season. They got a good piece.”