NBA Season Preview: Andrew Wiggins is the key to everything

Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images /

A lot is being expected of the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. Some are projecting the Wolves to go from the 13th-best team in the Western Conference to a team that pushes for 50 wins and makes the playoffs. That would be banking on a lot of internal improvement considering they have an average age of just 26.5 and their projected rotation has an average age of 24.3 per ESPN’s Kevin Pelton.

To be fair, there are legitimate reasons to think Minnesota will get better quickly. They have Karl-Anthony Towns who is almost universality considered the best young player in the NBA, and for good reason. His skill set on both ends screams ‘transcendent player’ and it’s not a stretch to imagine him as the best player in the league in five years, with several MVP awards in his future. Minnesota is also now coached by Tom Thibodeau, who has flaws and maybe burns out players, but is also a really, really good coach whose style and ability seems well suited to maximize what this team has in terms of personnel.

And then there’s Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota’s third-year wing who is still finding his place in the league. When the Wolves acquired him in deal that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland, he represented a franchise reboot; dealing Love meant transitioning to a full-on rebuild and Wiggins was better than any other starting block they could have hoped to acquire at that point. When Minnesota added Wiggins, he was made the centerpiece of their roster and he was offered a chance to blossom in a way he would have never been able to in Cleveland. 

Understandably, the Wolves’ plans changed when they were able to get Towns atop of the 2015 Draft. With Towns in the fold, the pressure for Wiggins to be at the center of everything no longer exists. While he remains integral to how good the Wolves can actually be and he still probably needs to be become very, very good for his team to reach its max potential, the franchise doesn’t revolve around him as much as it would if someone like Jahil Okafor or Emmanuel Mudiay was his running mate.

But for this year, for the Wolves to be the best version of themselves, a lot of the pressure is on Wiggins. He will be tasked with defending the opposition’s best perimeter scorer — carrying the primary responsibility for slowing down James Harden in the Rockets’ new faster offense, trying to handle LeBron James in the open floor, and tracking Kevin Durant amongst the other countless problems the Warriors present.

As part of that role, Wiggins’ play is key to Thibodeau installing his style of defense this season. A year ago the Wolves’ defense was the league’s third-worst and aside from Thibs’ coaching, not much else has changed. Wiggins is already a plus defender, even if he isn’t always locked in against lesser players. Aside from Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn, Minnesota doesn’t have another good defender on the perimeter and Thibs is going to have to build Zach LaVine’s defensive acumen from the ground up. If and when Wiggins is playing with LaVine and Kris Dunn, he’s the one player with the skill and experience to keep Towns from protecting the rim all on his own.

Schematically, it’s not hard to envision Wiggins taking on the Jimmy Butler/Luol Deng role from Thibs’ days with the Bulls — his job will be to make everyone else’s assignments easier. When someone like LeBron or Durant dribbles at him, Wiggins will have to become good at denying middle penetration and forcing jump shots. He’ll also be essential in the Wolves being able to push people to the corners on initial attacks on the pick-and-roll.

Last year, Wiggins averaged just one steal a game (one of the reasons overall defensive metrics don’t rate him highly) but the potential for him to start nabbing more passes is there. Even when he’s on ball against someone of Durant’ caliber, he is long, aware and quick enough to sit in help and recover when the ball swings back his way. When he gets in the right spot, he creates fast break opportunities for his team:

Even when he’s far off the ball, Wiggins leverages open space incredibly well. While some of his success is athleticism, he is already smart enough to know how to pick the right moment to jump the passing lane and recover if/when the ball ends up on his area of the court. For someone still learning and about to take on a highly complex scheme, his instincts will make the transition smoother:

On offense, Wiggins still has some room to grow. Partly due to the old-school schemes Sam Mitchell ran, Wiggins has to grow into what it means to be a wing in the modern NBA. For his career, he’s only a 30.4 percent three-point shooter on two attempts per game. Especially if Rubio remains the starting point guard — but even if Dunn emerges — Minnesota is going to need his shooting. Thibs’ Bulls, even as they faded, at least had some three-point shooting. If Towns is the lead option, Wiggins has to be able to shoot and keep the lane from being consistently clogged up.

The good news is that his shot doesn’t look bad necessarily and Wiggins seems comfortable taking threes despite Sam Mitchell often putting him the phantom zone to spot up for long-twos. Even when he comes off the ball and dribbles into a three, his motion generally look fluid. With practice, he should be able to make defenses pay for giving him these type of openings:

There’s also potential for Wiggins to become better with the ball in his hands and take some of the pressure off Rubio to initiate everything. He isn’t capable of reading defenses at a high level right now — he averaged just 2.1 assists per 36 minutes last year — but his explosive first step can get him into the lane and create chances for others by virtue of teams not wanting him to give him an easy two points on a dunk:

Most importantly, Wiggins could find a lot of success in Thibs’ offense as a slasher around Towns post-ups. Inevitably, teams are going to double Towns on the block and it’s not hard to imagine Wiggins getting two or three dunks a game simply because defenses are too focused on Towns.

It may not matter right now when they aren’t competing for titles, but the Wiggins/Towns partnership needs to be based on the two working in unison. In most cases, because Towns is the best player on the Wolves whenever he’s playing, that means Wiggins needs to do whatever he can to compliment Towns. If that’s spotting up, it means spotting up. If it means running a pick and roll, it means running and roll. The trick, for at least now while the pressure is off, is finding what works without limiting Wiggins’ opportunities to develop.

Someday soon, there is a good chance the Wolves will be one the league’s best teams. This season will go a long way in getting Wiggins ready for that moment.