To be fair, Andrew Wiggins doesn’t really need a launching pad. Omer Asik, Rudy Gobert and the many other big men he’s brutalized around the rim can attest to that.
He already has plenty of hops, as well as springy legs and smooth athleticism in his athletic bursts to the basket.
But all the same, Wiggins’ official coronation on Thursday as the NBA‘s 2014-15 Rookie of the Year is going to serve as a tremendous building block in what’s already looking like the career of a future superstar.
Wiggins is bringing the most prestigious award for a first-year player to the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the first time in franchise history. Out of the many great young players who have suited up for the Minnesota Timberwolves, not a single one has earned Rookie of the Year.
The closest the state has come in the last 50 years was in 1967-68, when Mel Daniels won the ABA’s inaugural Rookie of the Year award for the Minnesota Muskies shortly before he was traded to the Indiana Pacers. And if Wiggins’ career trajectory is anything like his, head coach/president of basketball operations Flip Saunders and the rest of the front office will be awfully pleased to have another Hall of Famer in their midst.
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But Daniels obviously isn’t the only ROY winner to go on and achieve great success. Most modern selections have as well.
In fact, since Steve Francis and Elton Brand tied for the award in 2000, there’s rarely been a winner who hasn’t gone on to find more success at the sport’s highest level. Mike Miller (2001) has never earned an All-Star berth but has had a long career filled with plenty of important roles on high-quality teams. Emeka Okafor (2005) threw up double-doubles until he left Charlotte, despite also failing to earn an All-Star selection.
But beyond that, who are the true letdowns?
Sure, Tyreke Evans (2010) has declined since his historic first season as a professional, but he’s still a unique swingman capable of filling many roles. Michael Carter-Williams (2014) has plenty of time to prove himself. Brandon Roy (2007) only washed out because of his problematic knees and was looking like the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade at shooting guard before his quick fall from grace.
Typically, Rookie of the Year means great things for a player’s future, and it’s hard not to feel that way about Wiggins. Nothing is guaranteed, but it seems almost certain that he’s destined to follow in the footsteps of players like Pau Gasol (2002), LeBron James (2004), Chris Paul(2006), Kevin Durant (2008), Blake Griffin (2011) and Kyrie Irving(2012).
A Stellar Second Half
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Sometimes, winning an award like this can distract from the truth. But in this case, it’s only emphasizing the burgeoning excellence of Wiggins.
He didn’t back his way into the honor, using a strong start to the season to make up for running into the proverbial rookie wall. He didn’t win despite the presence of inordinately weak competition; Jabari Parker and Julius Randle may have gone down with injuries, but Nikola Mirotic, Elfrid Payton and Nerlens Noel gave him nice second-half runs for the award.
No, Wiggins truly improved throughout his first professional season. His mentality shifted toward the end of the year, and he started to realize his true capabilities.
On the surface, this wing player’s numbers don’t look all that special. Sure, he averaged 16.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists, but he did so with a player efficiency rating of just 13.9, slightly below the league-average mark of 15. It’s not difficult to make a case that his gaudy scoring totals were due more to opportunity on a young roster than anything else, especially given his lackluster percentages.
After all, it was his soaring level of efficiency that made Wiggins so much better. Instead of settling for contested pull-up jumpers from mid-range zones, he attacked the basket with ferocity. His average number of free-throw attempts skyrocketed, and so too did his overall level of play.
Before the All-Star festivities, Wiggins took 4.5 shots per game from the charity stripe. During the second half of the season, that number rose all the way to 7.9. And from March 19 through the end of the season, the Rookie of the Year took an even 10 free-throw attempts per contest.
“He can make something happen out of nothing,” Saunders recently told Derek Wetmore of 1500ESPN.com. “He got to the free-throw line in the last two months second to [James] Harden in the league. He scored at a high level, he attacked the basket, so the way the game is that athleticism, you have to have something to hold on to that.”
And when Wiggins wasn’t creating a poster at the expense of an opponent, he was still attacking with ferocity. Now his method has been validated by a prestigious award, which will only reinforce his new style of play—as if he wasn’t already aware that it was going to be so effective.
But he’s not without flaws.
“Wiggins right now is a little bit like Rudy Gay, a massively skilled scorer whose gifts don’t help teammates,” Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote about the Minnesota standout while picking him for the award he’d go on to win. “He’s not a good enough shooter to suck defenders toward him and space the floor. He’s learning NBA-level passing, and he has taken only the first tentative steps toward developing an off-the-dribble game.”
He’s clearly not a perfect player at this stage of his career. No first-year standout is, even LeBron James upon entering the league.
But the key here is that Wiggins made a major adjustment—again, his average number of attempts from the stripe more than doubled from before the All-Star break to the stretch run—and reaped the rewards. We don’t know if he would have fallen behind another first-year standout in the voting if he hadn’t, but that’s irrelevant.
He did change his game for the better, and the results were palpable. That type of validation isn’t easy to come by on a 16-win team, which not only offers hope for further individual improvement, but also promotes belief that he’s going to help the T-Wolves expedite their rebuild going forward.
Leader of a Team on the Rise
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The next step doesn’t involve just standing out as an one-man show.
Minnesota has been down that road before with a franchise player, and it would certainly prefer that Wiggins be more Garnett than Kevin Love in that department. To be fair, it was tough for the latter to win games when the front office failed to surround him with much complementary talent. But nevertheless, his inability to advance past the 82nd game of any season will forever be a black mark on his resume with the Wolves.
That can’t happen with Wiggins. There’s always an inordinate amount of pressure accompanying a No. 1 selection in the draft, but despite his quiet demeanor, it’s magnified for this former Kansas standout—and not just because he was viewed as a franchise-changing prospect.
Love is with the Cleveland Cavaliers not only because he wanted a change in scenery before his contract expired, but because Saunders decided it was better to pull the plug on the squad that had remained mired in mediocrity for years. As a result, Wiggins, the key part of the return for the power forward’s services, has to be viewed as even more of a savior—a player who can lift this franchise higher than the All-Star he replaced ever did.
And to his credit, the 20-year-old has a goal that matches his status. According to Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Golliver:
Asked where he wants to be at this time next year, Wiggins said, without hesitation: “In the playoffs.” That’s the correct mentality, even if it’s an exceedingly unlikely goal given the Timberwolves’ youth and the inertia that has built up over 11 straight lottery trips. To get this ship going the right direction, Saunders will need to think deeply about which of his existing pieces (Nikola Pekovic? Kevin Martin? Rubio?) make sense around Wiggins. He will also certainly need to reassess the importance of the three-pointer to the success of a Wiggins-led offense.
It’s a difficult proposition for such a young roster and may prove to be an unfair measuring stick. But fair or not, that’s the one that will be used from this point forward, especially now that Wiggins has one of the NBA’s more prestigious awards on his resume.
Given the strength of the Western Conference, which doesn’t figure to change anytime soon, there won’t be any shame in leading the T-Wolves to their 12th consecutive lottery finish—for one more year, at least. They just have to make sure they’re much closer to the playoffs than they were this season, as they finished at the very bottom of the NBA standings.
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Year 1 was about proving that he belongs, and Wiggins did that quite well by making adjustments to his own game and becoming the first former Jayhawk to win Rookie of the Year since Wilt Chamberlain did back in 1960. Entering the league as a prospect known more for his defense than his offense, he’s already served as the T-Wolves’ primary stopper on most nights, never looking afraid of even the toughest assignments.
Now, Year 2 is about using his skills to improve his team. That involves getting better as a distributor, creating more opportunities within the flow of the offense, spacing out the court with a solid three-point stroke and, perhaps most importantly, serving as an unquestioned leader night in and night out. Plus, his work off the ball will only improve on the point-preventing end.
It doesn’t matter that he won’t be able to celebrate a victory with a beer until February. Wiggins is no longer just part of the NBA’s future.
He’s now a big part of the present as well.