Nylon Calculus: Maybe Andrew Wiggins should be emulating Kawhi Leonard

Jan 17, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) blocks a shot attempt by Minnesota Timberwolves small forward Andrew Wiggins (22) during the second half at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 122- 114. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 17, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) blocks a shot attempt by Minnesota Timberwolves small forward Andrew Wiggins (22) during the second half at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 122- 114. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

When I previously explored the ceiling of players like Andrew Wiggins, I talked a lot about the offensive side of the ball. As shown in that link, for high volume-scoring wings there is typically a correlation between both scoring efficiency and assist percentage with overall impact, with the stronger correlation associated with assist percentage as a surrogate box score stat for offense generation. Thus, the concluding argument was that for Wiggins to become an elite impact player, creating more team offense and/or increasing his scoring efficiency were two potential paths to improvement.

However, there was a 23-year old big wing in 2015 that averaged 26.6 points per 100 possessions on reasonable (but not outstanding) 56.7 true shooting percentage but with only a 13 percent assist rate. Per the article linked above, the expectation would be that a player like this wouldn’t have a huge impact. But on the contrary, Kawhi Leonard in 2015 measured out with the ninth highest PI-RAPM score among starters in the NBA, and just a year later he was the runner-up in the MVP vote. Both the accolades and the stats agree that Leonard was already transitioning in 2015 to one of the best players in the NBA. How did he make his larger-than-anticipated impact? With his defense.

The defensive side of the ball isn’t nearly as glamorous as offense, especially for a wing, but it is still very important and can change the outcome of games. In fact, the rise of the hyper-offense wings in the post-Jordan era has led to a rise in the number of “defensive stopper” wings whose entire purpose on the court is to make life difficult on their opposite number.

Read More: How do you define a basketball unicorn?

In Leonard’s case, he has earned his two Defensive Player of the Year awards by finishing seventh in the NBA in PI-DRAPM in 2015 and fourth in 2016. So while Leonard’s offense (even once his scoring volume and efficiency went way up in 2016 and his overall offensive stats increased this season) hasn’t been as influential as the offense-creators of the league like Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James or even point-forward Draymond Green over the last couple of years, his great defense raised his overall impact up into that peer group.

This avenue, strong defense, could in some ways be a more realistic path to high-impact for Wiggins than his becoming a hyper-efficient scorer or team-offense generator. He’s never really shown the proclivity for those things at any level of his basketball career, and even though improvement is still a possibility for a 21-year old those don’t seem like natural gifts for him.

On the other hand, Wiggins was considered a strong prospect on defense when he entered the league. His combination of length, lateral speed and explosive leaping ability had people dropping names like Scottie Pippen as upside comps on defense. He has not come close to reaching that potential, though, perhaps in large part because he has been tabbed as the go-to man on offense since his rookie season and has not seemed to put as much effort into the other side of the ball. But in light of questions about the upside of his current offensive approach, let’s explore what type of impact he might be able to make if he maximized on the other side of the ball.

Defense on the wing

As mentioned previously, Matt Johnson compiled single-season PI RAPM studies from 1998 thru 2012 in one spreadsheet (studies from either Jeremias Engelmann or Across The Court). He normalized and scaled each study using standard deviations from a multi-year APM study to create a dataset of single-season RAPM scores that are comparable on a single scale across seasons. If we sort this data according to the five highest-scoring seasons for each player in scaled/normalized Defensive RAPM (DRAPMsn), these are the 10 best defensive wings during that time period:

figure-1-kawhi_defensive_wings_1998_2012 /

As a reference, the top-12 defensive scores using this method belong to centers and power forwards, led by Dikembe Mutombo (+7), Kevin Garnett (+6.5) and Tim Duncan (+6.2). Battier is 13th on the list, World Peace 17th, and Allen 20th overall. So the best defensive wings don’t have nearly the impact of the best defensive big men, but they still clearly affect the scoring margins of the game in a significant way.

For the sake of comparison to the methods used in the big wings offense article, let’s see how these defensive stalwarts’ impact on that side of the ball (as measured via DRAPM, 15-year RAPM study by Jeremias Englemann projects onto their overall impact on the same statistical scale used in that article (WOWYr, 60-year study by Ben Taylor).

figure-2-kawhi_wing_wowyr_vs_drapm_labeled /

A few observations. First, there is a very clear (and expected) positive correlation for these wings between their defensive and overall impacts, even though different statistical approaches were used. Second, there are a few clear outliers to the slope of the correlation (e.g. Ginobili’s WOWYr is higher than his DRAPM would suggest, while Christie and Allen have lower overall WOWYr than their DRAPM would suggest).

Without further computation, these outliers would make intuitive sense based upon what we know of these players, as Ginobili was an excellent offensive player (high-efficiency scoring and good team-offense creation for his position) while Christie and Allen were not. Thus, the theory that Ginobili’s offense makes his overall impact higher than defense alone while Christie’s and Allen’s lack of offensive ability could actually lower their overall impact is one that is at least surface believable.

The table below shows the WOWYr for every wing in the study.

figure-3-table_bigwings_wowyr_12centered /

Putting all of the wings from these two articles onto one impact-scale (as measure by WOWYr) is interesting. While the primarily defense guys (highlighted in yellow in this table) aren’t represented at the GOAT impact level with LeBron and Jordan, they are well represented and interspersed with the other high-volume scoring wings on the list. This suggests strongly that, to the extent of the accuracy of this WOWYr study, elite defense is just as valid of a method for wings to make an impact as elite scoring/offense. It could also support the theory that Jordan and LeBron separate themselves further from the other wings by being proficient in all three areas (high volume scoring efficiency, team-offense creation & defense) examined so far, while the others aren’t as well-rounded.

In the last article on big wings, evidence was presented that for high volume-scoring wings, high scoring efficiency and/or the ability to create team offense on-ball were two methods to increase overall impact. Here, evidence is presented for a third method to elite impact: strong defense. Young, currently limited high-scorers on the wing like Andrew Wiggins would be best served to diversify their game with improvements in at least one of these areas. Wiggins has improved as a scorer and ball-handler in his first two off-seasons in the NBA, but has not yet shown a great deal of improvement in the two offensive areas nor in overall defense.

And to be very clear, Wiggins also has not shown any type of defensive proclivity on the level of the defensive wings discussed here at any point since he’s been in the NBA. He has the tools, but too often his defensive effort has left people making comments and videos like this. However, Wiggins is part of a young core in Minnesota that includes a transcendent young center in Karl-Anthony Towns and a surprisingly strong shooter-scorer in Zach Lavine at the shooting guard slot. Add in that the high-scoring point guard has become almost a prerequisite to contend in today’s NBA, and it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Wiggins could someday soon find himself no longer the primary offensive option for the Wolves. That may, in fact, be the best use of his particular skill set. Plus, he’s playing on a Tom Thibodeau-led defense which means there is lots of defensive upside for the team as well as for Wiggins as an individual.

Next: Nylon Calculus: Brook Lopez is finding his inner unicorn

In other words, while Wiggins was dubbed Maple Jordan in high school and was drafted with visions of the next Kobe Bryant, at this point it seems like he would be best served if he emulated and put his energy into becoming more like the next Kawhi Leonard.