The excellent author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a resonant expression in which he warns against crossing a river that is, on average, 4 feet deep.
I’ll probably bungle the deepest logic behind the phrase, but the takeaway is that we shouldn’t mistake averages for consistent results. Try to walk across a river that’s, on average, 4 feet deep and it might be up to your ankles in some spots. In others, it might be over your head – and you’ll drown.
As a devout reader of Taleb’s books and a longtime watcher of Timberwolves basketball, I’d like to try out this metaphor: Andrew Wiggins a river that is, on average, 4 feet deep.
Every NBA player has some variance in his scoring output, but Wiggins’ seems more disparate than most. Most notably this season: Wiggins had a 40-point game and a 0-point game, both in which he was seemingly the same person with the same skill set. That’s a 20-point average, but a tough way to get there.
With Wiggins, though, it’s not just a matter of output. It’s a question of input, and it has been for a long time. Interim head coach Ryan Saunders — the beneficiary of Wiggins’ 40 point, 10-rebound game in his coaching debut — was the latest to tackle the question of getting more from Wiggins after the Wolves’ fifth-year wing had just 10 points in almost 35 minutes of a one-point loss to Denver on Saturday.
“We’d love to have more from him … than what we had tonight,” Saunders said. “We’ll look forward to that next time.”
I had a chance to ask Saunders and Wiggins more about that Tuesday after practice, and to be fair, Saunders wasn’t issuing a rebuke of Wiggins. He was responding to a specific question, and I’ll share some of what they both said in a moment.
But the quote in and of itself speaks to Wiggins’ inconsistency — and the knowledge that Wiggins could, indeed, look and produce like an entirely different player Tuesday at Memphis.
It also makes Saunders only the latest in a long line of coaches (and media members … and fans) to address the question of getting more from Wiggins.
Even as far back as his one season in college at Kansas, Wiggins was gaining a reputation — fair or not — for being too passive.
He’s had four head coaches with the Wolves, all of whom have seemingly tried different tactics to unlock his potential more consistently.
It started with Ryan’s dad, Flip, in Wiggins’ rookie season. Flip acquired Wiggins for Kevin Love and coached him in 2014-15. After Wiggins won rookie of the year that season, Flip recalled a game in December of that season in which he got after Wiggins postgame in the locker room in front of the whole team. “I challenged him after the game that we needed more from him,” Flip said at the time. “His teammates needed more.”
After Flip’s untimely death shortly before the 2015-16 season, Sam Mitchell had Wiggins for a season. He referred on multiple occasions to Wiggins looking “tired” but generally seemed to support him. The support went so far that in a 2017 podcast – after Wiggins’ first year under Tom Thibodeau – Mitchell lit into critics who said Wiggins was lazy and said he thinks Wiggins will play in “7-10 all-star games.”
But even Mitchell said this: “I get mad at people. You don’t average 23 points a game in the NBAas a 22-year-old player being lazy. Even if he is lazy, he’s so talented, he can average 23 a game. What happens when that light bulb comes on?”
Thibodeau’s approach in his 2.5 seasons with Wiggins was one of general praise in media sessions, to the point that it almost felt like a man insisting a house wasn’t on fire when we could all see flames.
In a postseason interview after 2017-18, Thibs said he had high hopes for getting more from Wiggins this season. ““The big thing with this summer, it won’t be clouded,” Thibodeau said in April. “Last summer, he had his contract that probably took something away from him.”
Wiggins averaged 17.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists last season. At the time Thibodeau was fired this year, Wiggins was averaging 17.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
And that brings us to Ryan Saunders, a holdover from several staffs close enough with Wiggins that the player was at the coach’s wedding.
Wiggins’ overall numbers (19.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and effort have trended upward in 12 games under Saunders, but they’ve still veered into that 4 feet of water average territory. There was the 40-point game, the 35-point game … and four games of 12 points or less.
So I asked Saunders about “wanting more,” and what he meant.
“I think it was just in terms of that game. Andrew has had great games for us. He has. It’s a long season, and we know every game isn’t going to be a perfect game. But wanting more can mean a lot of things,” Saunders said. “Like I want him to have 40 points a night. That would be great. But it’s not always going to happen. So I’m always going to want more. But I think the biggest thing for anybody in the NBA, especially young players, is just being consistent every night and doing the little things even when you’re not able to score.”
I mentioned that a lot of coaches have had similar messages for Wiggins and wondered if Saunders’ message might carry extra weight because of their relationship.
“I don’t know. That’s probably a question for him. But by no means was I trying to say that Andrew was at all …” Saunders said, shifting his line of thought. “I answered a question. I’m saying that we always want guys to do more and we always want to expect more from people.”
Wiggins talked after practice, so I did ask him about words from Saunders carrying extra weight.
“For sure, for sure,” he said. “Because I value his opinion and what he has to say.”
So what’s the key to being more consistent?
“Just staying with it through the ups and downs,” Wiggins said. “Simple as that.”