The Warriors are betting they can turn Andrew Wiggins into something more than he’s been. What did we learn about that process from his first game?
Human beings have a tendency to want to fix people. Whether it’s in their personal relationships or their favorite basketball team, they often believe that they are brought into that person’s life to rescue them from the path that they’re on.
This is true of Warriors and many basketball fans alike when it comes to Andrew Wiggins. The truth is, we’re six years into his NBA career and still having the same conversations about him. Wiggins has had four NBA coaches prior to Steve Kerr who have all failed to unlock him.
We’re far enough along into Wiggins’ story where it’s time to accept the reality that he’s mostly the player he’s going to be. That’s not a knock because, after 5.5 years of covering Wiggins’ career in-person, I can say that he does bring valuable skills to the table. It wouldn’t be worth expending energy on Wiggins’ future if he didn’t have the talent and physical tools, to begin with.
Wiggins’ first game as a Warrior was a success no matter how you look at it. He put up 24 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, and 5 steals, a good game for him in any context. The fact that he shot 8-for-12 from the field, including 3-for-4 from deep is excellent.
What we saw from Wiggins in his Warriors debut was the beginning of a template for how to and not to use him. Everything Wiggins did in that game showed that you aren’t changing him but you can successfully manage him.
Keeping Wiggins engaged
One of the biggest knocks on Wiggins is that his engagement wanes through the course of a game. There have been questions surrounding Wiggins’ effort since his rookie season and it’s evident when he gets himself up for a game.
There were several instances of Wiggins standing alone in a corner in the first quarter of his debut and while Wiggins did have three shots and a steal, you don’t want him still for too long. It will be good for the Warriors to use him as a screener or facilitator during plays. Even if his job is to grab rebounds and kick it back out to the perimeter, he can do that.
Finding ways to keep Wiggins involved will be especially important when Steph Curry and Klay Thompson return because touches will become more scarce. When Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler ascended in Minnesota, Wiggins played the worst season of his career to that point. Since Wiggins has three more years and nearly $100 million left on his deal, the Warriors would be wise to build good habits in him now.
Wiggins needs to show that he can be self-motivated. Just like Butler or a bevy of coaches couldn’t motivate him in Minnesota, Wiggins shouldn’t need Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, or Steve Kerr to get him ready to play every night. Wiggins has been in the NBA long enough to know he has to be the one to get himself up to play for every game, not just the big ones.
Wiggins has a variety of offensive tools
Too often in Wiggins’ career, he has had a negative impact on his team’s offense, despite impressive scoring totals. He’s been inefficient, as evidenced by his career 47.1 effective field goal percentage, and has had poor shot selection up to this season. Sure, he’s a former 23 points per game scorer but that hasn’t told the whole story. Few NBA teams would have started and played Wiggins more than 35 minutes a night with his production.
Yet, because the Timberwolves played Wiggins through those early years, he improved at things like passing and ball-handling. When Wiggins came into the league, he couldn’t do much of either outside of barreling into the paint to draw fouls.
Wiggins has become better at finding open teammates because he can draw a defense. He may not “wow” anyone with his passing but he’s improved at setting up teammates with better looks. Wiggins is averaging career highs in both assists (3.7 per game) and assist percentage (5.0 percent).
There’s also a variety of ways that Wiggins can score too.
Here, Wiggins runs right to the corner for the open 3-pointer. This is a shot that he’s shot over 40 percent for much of his career but has strangely struggled with this season.
Wiggins takes the dribble hand-off as his teammate screens him for the open 3-pointer. Less can be more when it comes to limiting how much Wiggins has to create for himself. This was a simple-yet-effective play that led to a good shot.
There’s also the curious case of Wiggins’ disappearing free throw attempts. Wiggins was tied for the seventh-most free throw attempts per game in 2016, his second NBA season. Since then, he’s averaged 6.6, 3.8, and 4.1 free throws per game. This season, he’s back to averaging five per game.
What made Wiggins so good at getting to the line early in his career was leveraging his physical and finishing abilities at the rim to draw contact. For seemingly no reason, he’s gone away from this and the more he gets to the rim, the better he can cover his inefficient shooting. Wiggins took nine free throws in his Warriors debut and Kerr would be wise to get him as many free throws as he can going forward.
Wiggins probably won’t help a defense
When Wiggins came out of Kansas, defense was supposed to be his calling card while his offense developed. The inverse has proven true, struggling on defense while focusing more on scoring.
At 6-foot-8 with a good wingspan and athleticism, there’s no reason Wiggins shouldn’t be a good defender. He has the tools but hasn’t been able to consistently use them to his benefit. We saw some examples of which aspects of playing defense he struggles with and which ones he does well with.
The nice thing about Wiggins is that the isn’t afraid to guard the opponent’s best wing player. Against LeBron James in this clip, however, Wiggins gets caught misplaying the LeBron-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll.
Yet, when Wiggins has James one-on-one, he is able to defend multiple counter moves successfully without fouling. James still makes the bucket but Wiggins doesn’t let him have it easy and doesn’t give up the 3-point play chance.
Because of Wiggins’ aforementioned wingspan, careless passes are susceptible to becoming fastbreak points, as was the case here.
Coaches in Minnesota would say that Wiggins’ teams struggled defensively once they got through the first rotation and had to read and react. In one-on-one situations, Wiggins’ size and athleticism are challenging because he does understand the proper techniques. He just struggles when he has to adjust to things on the fly.
A team can probably build a good defense with Wiggins on the floor if they have the right personnel. For 15 games in Towns’ absence, the Wolves had the NBA’s third-best defense with Wiggins playing over 30 minutes a night. Maybe it was the scheme or the presence of a player like Robert Covington or both. Whatever it was showed that it may be possible for the Warriors to repeat success.
Which Wiggins will the Warriors get?
How Wiggins fares in Golden State is likely up to him, as it has been all along. We saw how he can get to the rim and make corner 3’s on Saturday night but we also saw those long 2-pointers too. It’s clear that Wiggins can help the Warriors but they’ll need to put him in situations where his bad habits are least harmful.
This includes when Thompson and Curry return. What will he do when touches are more scarce again? Will he vanish into the corner or will he continue to do those positive things he is capable of to help his team thrive? Whether he does this is a real question because that didn’t happen last time he played with two stars.
While the Warriors may not be able to fix Wiggins, it will be easy to root for him. Wiggins is a likable guy who is fun to watch when he’s at his best. It’s when he seems disengaged and falling into bad habits that it becomes frustrating because he’s shown he can be a positive contributor.