Wiggins proving himself to be a quick-learning student

It didn't take long for Andrew Wiggins (center) to learn from a defensive mistake Saturday as he had his best game as a pro Wednesday night, including playing tough defense on the Nets' Joe Johnson.

Adam Hunger/Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — In the end, Flip Saunders’ unfulfilled wish might have aided Andrew Wiggins in the long run.

Saunders still contends Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler traveled before his spinning, on-the-floor pirouette and rise into Wiggins’ airborne body at the end of the Timberwolves’ loss Saturday. The move allowed Butler to sink a pair of free throws and Chicago to escape with a one-point victory.

"I could’ve changed the outcome of the game, so it’s a good learning experience for me," Wiggins said afterward. "It hurt, but the good thing about the NBA, I’ve got another game in a couple days."

And by Wednesday night, Wiggins had moved on to the next one. After showing in his first three outings glimpses of the brilliance that earned the Toronto native acclaim as basketball’s top prospect and the nickname "Maple Jordan," Wiggins put forth his most complete showing of the year with 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting, four rebounds, an assist and a steal. He also guarded Nets scoring machine Joe Johnson, this time limiting him in the late moments instead of putting him on the foul stripe.

If the first week of the season is any indication, it will take Wiggins time to get this whole NBA thing figured out — perhaps more time than Rookie of the Year favorite Jabari Parker, for example, whom Milwaukee drafted second overall this year.

But once Wiggins gets it, watch out.

"There is growing pains," said Saunders, Minnesota’s coach and president of basketball operations. "Listen, part of development, it’s just coming out and letting a guy play. It’s not just coming out and having the guy shoot jump shots at practice."

Which is part of why Wiggins has started all four of the Wolves’ games to date. At Memphis, he got a taste of elite-level defense in being guarded by Tony Allen all night. Wiggins cracked out of his shell a little more in Minnesota’s home opener, helping turn the tide against Detroit with a strong third quarter. Against Chicago, he was playing well enough that Saunders left him in down the stretch.

Then came Wednesday. Earlier in the week, Saunders had questioned Wiggins’ want-to, a criticism that’s followed him since his one season at Kansas.

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"When he comes out of the game, he comes out of the game for lack of effort," Saunders said. "Everyone knows when he was at Kansas, people thought that he floated at times. So our assistants on the bench, if we see him float, we’re going to take him out. He’s not playing hard, we’re going to take him out."

So Wiggins brought it from the outset. He scored seven points on 3-of-5 shooting in the first quarter alone.

Wiggins’ defensive ability is already evident. Even against Johnson, who scored 22 points at the Barclays Center, Wiggins was rarely caught out of position and forced the wily veteran to hit tough shots over his long, outstretched arms.

Wiggins is 19 years old and weighs 194 pounds. Once he adds some muscle, he’ll be even tougher to score against.

"It’s going to be a long season," Wiggins said, "so I’ve just got to grind through it."

On offense, Wiggins’ dry effort spells have caused him to lag in transition. The Wolves staff and front office would like to see him be part of more fast breaks and continue to develop his jump shot; through four games, he’s 16-for-36 from the floor and 2-for-4 from 3-point range.

But the Wolves will remain patient. After all, while wins are nice, this season is as much about developing Wiggins and the rest of the club’s young core as it is anything else.

And the early tests continue with the rest of Minnesota’s six-game road trip, which stops in Florida on Friday and Saturday for games against Orlando and Miami.

"I haven’t been on the road this long," Wiggins said. "I’ve played a lot of away games, but I’m looking forward to it. It should be a good challenge for us."

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