After rapid improvement, Wolves believe Wiggins is just hitting stride
At some point during Andrew Wiggins’ demonstrative, season-high 31-point night Saturday at Denver, an official who shall remain anonymous hopped in Flip Saunders’ ear.
"’Boy, Wiggins,’" the Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations recounts him saying. "’How much he’s improved in a month is almost astonishing.’"
Even the referees are starting to notice.
Basketball’s next ballyhooed prodigy, who appeared to underachieve during one season at Kansas, has done the opposite so far in his rookie NBA campaign. Today, he looks like the league’s top rookie.
"My confidence level is high," Wiggins said in typical, to-the-point fashion. "I’ve been playing pretty good."
But it wasn’t long ago Wiggins looked like the same talented yet often passive kid who both dazzled and disappointed during his time in Lawrence, Kan. The lapses in aggression that dotted an otherwise pristine scouting report have become fewer and further between.
Which is why Wiggins leads all rookies in scoring and is the Western Conference’s only rookie of the month (handed out twice) so far this season.
"He just continues to get better and amaze and do everything," said Saunders, who worked the deal that brought Wiggins, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick, to the Twin Cities.
Said injured point guard Ricky Rubio in an interview with Wolves Radio: "I think he’s adapting to the league faster than I thought. Everybody knew he was a great player, but we didn’t know he was going to have this big impact right away."
Back when Rubio was running the point with Wiggins on the wing, the latter looked the part of a 19-year-old being put in his place. But splice the numbers any way possible, and his improvement has been swift and stark.
Saunders says he sees it daily.
— In his first 15 games, Wiggins averaged 11.6 points on 40.1-percent shooting (44 percent from 3-point range), 3.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game. His numbers in 25 games since then: 17.2 points, 44-percent shooting (37.3 from 3), 4.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.0 steals per game.
— Even after recording just 12 in Monday’s loss at Charlotte, Wiggins is scoring 20.7 points on 48.6-percent shooting (107-for-220) in his past 14 games.
— As recently as Dec. 10, Wiggins had a player efficiency rating of 8.67. Since then, he’s raised it to 12.86 (2.14 below the league average).
— Wiggins currently leads all rookies in scoring (15.0 points per game) and minutes (32.9 per game). He ranks fifth in rebounding (4.2 per game), seventh in assists (1.8) and third in steals (1.1).
Saturday at Denver, he scored 31 points on 17 field-goal attempts and added nine rebounds, four assists and three blocks. That rendered Wiggins the first teenager to tally 31-plus points, nine or more rebounds and four or more assists since LeBron James. Wiggins had a similar stat line on New Year’s Day — 27 points, nine boards, four steals and two helpers. And against James and the Cavaliers — the team that traded him and Anthony Bennett in the Kevin Love deal — on Dec. 23, Wiggins scored 27, one of 14 20-plus-point outings this season.
But as is the case with most potential superstars, metrics are only part of the picture.
"I think the way he approaches the game is the way everybody should approach," said Rubio, who hopes to return soon from a severely sprained ankle. "He’s a professional. He’s starting to learn that."
With Rubio and two other starters going down this season, Wiggins hasn’t had a choice. The Toronto-area native said this summer he looked forward to playing a central role rather than waiting in the wings behind James, and injuries to Rubio and shooting guard Kevin Martin granted Wiggins his wish.
Wiggins also routinely guards opposing teams’ top scoring option, a task he’s been charged with since the season’s outset.
He’s put special emphasis on taking care of his body — staying hydrated, eating right, working with Minnesota’s athletic training staff. That’s all big-boy stuff for a youngster who can’t yet get into bars and likes to sit at home and play FIFA in his downtime.
"It’s just him getting comfortable and really comfortable with our system and the offense," forward Robbie Hummel said. "As you see him become more so, I think he’ll be better and better."
How much better? The nickname "Maple Jordan" isn’t going anywhere. Nor are the comparisons to LeBron.
"I hate to do those type of things," Saunders said when asked to project Wiggins’ long-term ceiling. "A lot of people are projecting how good he’s going to be. I’d say right now, he’s probably ahead of what anybody anticipated what he’d be, considering how he played at Kansas."
Besides, there’s still work to be done. If Wiggins is to fulfill the massive expectations heaped upon him, the first half of his first season will someday be just another footnote.
"I’m not going to give him a lot of credit," veteran point guard Mo Williams said, "because I want him to continue to grow.
"Usually, rookies kind of run into a wall right now, but he’s hitting his stride."
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