That the announcement was almost an afterthought spoke volumes.
Yes, Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins is the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, an honor officially bestowed on the Target Center main court on Thursday. Wiggins wore a tuxedo and a smile, accompanied by Flip Saunders, coach and Wolves president of basketball operations, and General Manager Milt Newton.
Wiggins was the runaway winner of the award — in his true laconic style, he yawned not once, but twice during the presentation — garnering 110 out of 130 first-place votes. But the reason the announcement turned into such a yawner was what Wiggins accomplished in his first season after being acquired from Cleveland in the Kevin Love trade last summer.
Wiggins went from painfully shy to quietly confident, from a rookie whose intensity was initially questioned to a consistent force down the stretch. For a team that hopes he’ll be a part of a bright future, Wiggins became a brilliant part of its present.
“He was our leader,” Saunders said. “The face of the franchise.”
It wasn’t just that Wiggins led rookies in scoring (16.9), minutes (36.2), field goals (6.1) and free-throw attempts (5.7) per game.
Consider: In the final 15 games of the season, his scoring jumped to 22.4 points per game. Down the stretch of the season, only Houston’s James Harden got to the free-throw line more. And on a team beset by injuries, Wiggins often drew the other team’s best defender while frequently being asked to guard the other team’s best offensive player.
That is a lot to put on any rookie’s shoulders, let alone one who was 19 years old when the season started, a veteran of only one season of college basketball at Kansas.
But Wiggins flourished. And much of his success was due, he said, to a couple watershed moments.
The first came Dec. 6 in Houston when, after Wiggins scored six points on 3-for-13 shooting with just one rebound, Saunders went after him in the locker room in front of the team.
Wiggins’ version: “He killed me,” the rookie said. “He’d got me before, but that was like, a whole different level. All my teammates were like, ‘Oh, man.’ It was harsh, but I needed it.”
Saunders’ version: “I challenged him after the game that we needed more from him,” he said. “His teammates needed more. From that time on, we never had to worry about him.”
Eight games later, the Wolves played in Cleveland. For Wiggins — drafted first overall by the Cavaliers just months before — it was a chance at closure.
He responded with 27 points against the team that drafted him and packaged him in the Love trade.
“I was nervous,” Wiggins said of facing the Cavs and star LeBron James. “That’s the best in the league, the first time I played against him. Especially after everything that happened. … But once the jump ball went up, I hit my first shot. I just felt great. I felt good.”
As Newton said, Wiggins played his best against the best. Witness his 30-point average in two games vs. Cleveland or that he scored nearly 22 points a game against Houston and Harden.
And now more will be expected.
Wiggins is still decompressing from his 82-game trek. But he plans on a busy summer. He will work with the Canadian national team and said he plans to play both in the Pan Am Games and FIBA Americas tournament.
He will work with a trainer in Los Angeles to get stronger and improve his skills.
“I shot the ball well, from the three-point line, at the beginning of the year, middle of the year, too,” Wiggins said. “And then I felt my legs got tired or something. I have to work on the consistency of my shot, ball-handling. Just being a student of the game. Learning more. My [basketball] IQ, getting it higher.”
Wiggins, the first Wolves player — and first Canadian — to win Rookie of the Year, thanked his family, his coaches, his teammates, his owner. He thanked Minnesota fans and those in Canada.
He spoke with a poise that showed much of his growth has come off the court, too.
His next goal?
“Have a better season,” he said. “Make the playoffs.”