The Minnesota Timberwolves Are Still Waiting On Andrew Wiggins
Minnesota shooting guard and former No. 1 NBA Draft pick Andrew Wiggins figures to improve on his currently below-average production, but will he become a superstar or the next DeMar Derozan?
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Before Andrew Wiggins ever came into the NBA, it appeared the league's bottom dwellers were competing to see who could tank the hardest for the chance to draft him. The Cleveland Cavaliers ended up winning that contest—but after LeBron James came home, the Cavs sent Wiggins to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Love.
Superficially, that trade appears to have worked out well for the Timberwolves. As a 19-year old, Wiggins led all rookies in scoring with an average of 16.9 points per game. And since scoring tends to dominate player evaluation in the NBA, it's not surprising he was named Rookie of the Year.
After 34 games this season, Wiggins has increased his scoring average to 20.4 ppg, a mark that ranks No. 18 in the league. Before a game in December, New York forward Carmelo Anthony said: "Wiggins actually got a lot better, more confident, more comfortable out there." Meanwhile, Knicks teammate Arron Afflalo added: " "He's very talented. He's got a good mid-range game. He's very athletic, so I have my hands full."
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So far, so good. Wiggins isn't old enough to legally drink. NBA players don't typically peak until they are 26 years of age. If Wiggins can impress the veteran likes of Anthony and Afflalo right now, and he has a half-decade to keep improving, then he's surely destined to be a superstar. Isn't he?
Wiggins is an elite athlete. He could become an elite NBA player. But he's not there yet. In fact, his production on the floor this season—beyond volume scoring—ranks below average in two of the four areas that early basketball statistical analysis leader Dean Oliver identified as most important for winning games:
* Effective field goal percentage: Wiggins, 44.9 percent; average NBA shooting guard, 48.8 percent
* Turnover percentage: Wiggins 10.3; average shooting guard, 12.5
* Rebounds per 48 minutes: Wiggins 5.2; average shooting guard: 5.4
* Free throw attempts per 48 minutes: Wiggins 10.4, average shooting guard 5.2
The good news? Wiggins has a knack for getting to the free throw line. The bad news? He only shoots 73 percent from the stripe, well below the NBA shooting guard average 80.4 percent. Relative to that same positional average, Wiggins also posts fewer assists and steals.
So far in his career, Wiggins basically has been good at taking shots, and not so good at getting those shots to go in the basket. That's not a basketball crime—if it were, we'd have to send Kobe Bryant to SuperMax detention—but it's also not a formula for consistently winning games. According to my Wins Produced metric, which is rooted in Oliver's four key factors, Wiggins is only producing 0.027 wins per 48 minutes this season. That's well below the average NBA player's 0.100 mark.
Right now—and that's the key term—Wiggins is not a very good player. In fact, he was statistically better as a rookie with respect to rebounds, assists and steals. (Sorry, Melo). You could even argue that his game has slightly regressed.
That said, Wiggins is only 20 years old. Young players typically get better! As I've noted before, a typical NBA player sees his wins production per 48 minutes (WP48) improve by 0.065 from the age of 20 until his peak at 26.
If Wiggins follows this curve from what he's doing right now, his WP48 will improve to 0.092. That's still below average. Ruh-roh. However, if we take his better rookie season as a baseline, his WP48 at 26 wil be 0.153. That's above average.
It also makes Wiggins the next ... DeMar DeRozan.
This year–at the age of 26–DeRozan, a Toronto shooting guard, is producing 0.153 wins per 48 minutes. Like Wiggins, DeRozan is not very good at shooting. He isn't outstanding at rebounding or getting steals. But he is good–and does this sound familiar?–at getting to the free throw line. He's also an adequate passer.
DeRozan is a fine player. A borderline All-Star. He's not, however, the kind of franchise-altering talent worth tanking for. And it took him six seasons to get this point. The Timberwolves expect much more eventual production out of Wiggins—heck, the league expects more—and while everyone waits, Wiggins may end up getting paid like a superstar, regardless.
Pay in the NBA is driven by scoring totals. Wiggins likely will keep shooting, and scoring, regardless of his efficiency. Which means he has a very good chance of becoming a maximum salary player. Currently, a 7-year league veteran needs to produce about 10 wins per season to justify a max salary. For Wiggins to become that productive, he'll have to do more than just take lots of shots.
Grab more rebounds. Generate more steals. Follow DeRozan's example, and become a better passer. Or just become much better at putting the ball in the basket. Wiggins could do all of those things, some of those things, or none of those things. The typical NBA player's statistical development curve suggests he'll get better, but never as good as hoped for. The Timberwolves are counting on Wiggins being atypical, and in a good way.
That's hardly a sure thing, regardless of pre-draft hype. But in Minnesota's defense, it's also not a completely foolish bet. Some players—like Kevin Durant and LeBron James–start their careers offering very little, and then suddenly become immensely productive. Other players–like top picks Andrew Bargnani and Glenn Robinson–also start off offering little, and never really progress.
There are no guarantees. Right now, we know this: Wiggins is below average at almost everything, and therefore not very good—but because he takes lots of shots and scores points, some people think otherwise. Going forward, what will really matter is if Wiggins understands this. Does he believe he's already a good NBA player? Does he think volume scoring should be both his calling card and meal ticket? Or does he grasp that he has to improve across the board to become truly special—that even if he ends up paid like a superstar, he could end up less like Durant than Robinson, filling up the points portion of the box score for a team that doesn't win as often as fans would like?
Minnesota is waiting on the answer.