Minnesota's Wiggins a reserved, cerebral superstar in the making
MINNEAPOLIS -- Andrew Wiggins stands in the middle of the Target Center hallway, metallic-gold headphones around his neck, backpack hanging over both shoulders, dark, 19-year-old pupils gazing mundanely toward the arena's player entrance and exit area.
A pair of players from local professional soccer team Minnesota United FC present him a gray, personalized "WIGGINS" jersey, No. 22 included, and welcome him to the Twin Cities. Wiggins thanks them, smiles, holds up the jersey for a quick photo, then lets the distance return to his eyes.
"You much of a soccer fan?" he's asked.
"I play a lot of FIFA," Wiggins grins for a moment. Then he retreats, reassuming a blank stare.
For an outsider, that's the extent of most interchanges with a kid heralded as one of basketball's next superheroes. There are layers to be peeled back here, a facade he's grown used to flipping on and off since he became a teenager. In the public eye, he tends to keep the walls erected and reserves his emotions, intentions and quirkiness for those he allows inside them.
"I just talk when I need to talk," Wiggins says, shortly before boarding a Milwaukee-bound plane for the Timberwolves' second-to-last preseason game. "I'm more one of the people that'll really observe what's going on."
It's an overarching personality trait that dates back to the quiet, cerebral Wiggins' toddler days. When his father, Mitchell Wiggins, left the NBA for professional basketball in Greece, his youngest son wouldn't bumble around in the stands like most 2-year-olds would when dad brought him to practice.
He'd sit and watch.
Less than two decades later, Wiggins can't afford to abandon his observatory habits. "He hasn't learned what he can do and what he can't do," fellow Wolves small forward Corey Brewer said.
Ranked as a top prospect since early on in high school, drafted first overall out of Kansas and traded to Minnesota for a top-10 NBA player in Kevin Love, Wiggins has all the physical gifts necessary for transcendence. The pedigree is there, too.
And despite his demeanor, there's more to this 6-foot-8, 194-pound specimen than a robotic, disengaged teenager who'd be a sophomore in college if not for his amazing talents and upside. Wiggins is by all accounts a devoted brother and son, an affable teammate and a hardworking, willing learner.
Yet if there's one knock on Wiggins in his professional career's infancy, it's his penchant for passivity. Shortchanging pesky reporters' swipes at a meaningful sound bite is one thing, but taking a backseat to a system when a game dictates he take over is another.
"Your greatest strength," said coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, who engineered the blockbuster deal that landed Wiggins in the Twin Cities, "can be your greatest weakness if you can't contain it."
If that sounds familiar, it's because Saunders used to tell another young phenom that all the time.
Future MVP Kevin Garnett.
There's a reason Wiggins' inner circle is confined mainly to family members, fellow players and coaches. Since he could walk and talk, his closest relationships revolved around the game, and the game revolved around those relationships.
Wiggins, his brothers Mitch and Nick -- both college stars themselves at NAIA Division II Southeastern University and Wichita State, respectively -- and later his three sisters spent most of their summer childhood days on the concrete courts of Glen Shields Park, about a five-minute walk from the family's Vaughan, Ontario home. Wiggins would pretend he was either Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony, taking on his older brothers and occasionally his 6-4 dad.
A standout shooting guard at Florida State who bounced from Chicago to Houston to Philadelphia during a six-season NBA career interrupted twice due to substance abuse, Mitchell Wiggins married Seminoles track star Marita Payne after the two met in college. Originally born in Barbados, Marita Wiggins represented Canada at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and holds Canadian records in the 200-meter and 400-meter dashes.
So even before he became a star, Andrew Wiggins was no stranger to stardom.
"They've been through what (I'm going) through right now," Wiggins said. "Whenever I need any words of advice or experience things, they always tell me, because they've been through it, they've done it. It's always good to have them."
"Maple Jordan" has grown used to attention, sometimes to the point of it appearing to be a nuisance. Making LeBron James jump out of his chair with a dunk at the four-time NBA MVP's skills academy, outplaying fellow 2014 blue-chipper Julius Randle at the 2012 Nike Peach Jam and dominating with Canadian AAU club CIA Bounce and national schedule-playing Huntington (W. Va.) Prep had the media swarming him and analysts rating him above the rest well before he set foot in Lawrence, Kan. Wiggins could've had an offer from every major-college coach in the country had he been more willing to communicate with them. Instead, and unsurprisingly, Wiggins played his recruitment close to the vest, eventually picking Kansas over Florida State, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Why? Partly because his brother Nick was just 160 miles away in Wichita.
By the time he finished up his one year as a Jayhawk -- averaging 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals and a block per game -- unregulated hype, daily media requests and Wiggins were all close acquaintances, whether he liked it or not.
"You get used to it," Wiggins said. "Or I kind of got used to it. College was a big stage for me, especially going to Kansas because they treat their basketball players like rock stars. It's a huge, huge basketball school, so that kind of prepared me for the spotlight the NBA brings."
But he's not nearly as comfortable in it as he is around his family or, most notably, on the basketball court itself. Wiggins' attention-grabbing black-and-white, flower-patterned suit he wore to the NBA Draft and his efficacious reaction to being introduced at the Minnesota State Fair offered precious glimpses into that side of Wiggins -- the one that'll grin from ear-to-ear after knocking down a jumper in practice or get up in front of his teammates and rap Tupac's "Dear Momma," as he did at Rounders Sports Bar in Mankato, Minn., during training camp.
"With me, he's been open Since Day 1," fellow first-round pick Zach LaVine said. "Other than that, he opens up to some dudes on the team, but I feel like until you really get to know him, he's going to stay, not in his shell, but he's going to stay quiet and sit back.
"But he's a funny dude once you get to know him."
LaVine and Wiggins went through much of the pre-draft process together. They're also the same age after declaring for the draft as early as possible. Power forward Anthony Bennett, a Toronto native and CIA Bounce product like Wiggins, is another close companion.
Wiggins has taken well to the rest of his teammates, too, including a host of veterans intent on playing a part in his progression.
"He's a great player, and the most important thing, he wants to learn," point guard Ricky Rubio said. "He's willing to learn, and he always listening. That's great for a young guy. I think he knows how to get there."
But family remains the most integral part of Wiggins' comfort zone. For that reason, his parents and sisters moved from Canada to Minneapolis. The two youngest girls are attending high school at Hopkins.
"It's never fun to just be by yourself in a place you haven't lived before," Wiggins said. "You don't know anybody."
Before an in-bound play during Wednesday night's season opener at Memphis, Grizzlies guard Vince Carter gave Wiggins a nice, solid forearm to the chest. The 17-year NBA veteran, once the face of hoops in Canada during his time with the Raptors, had greeted him with some words of encouragement before tip-off. But this time, Carter's silent message was more stern.
This isn't going to be easy.
Not that he necessarily needed it, but Wiggins received further proof when lockdown defender Tony Allen held him to six points on 2-of-5 shooting in Wiggins' NBA debut, a four-point Wolves defeat. It was one game, hardly an effective window into the next 81 of his rookie season, but it spoke to the No. 1 criticism Wiggins has heard the past year.
That he needs to be more assertive.
"His greatest strength is that he is very much a team player, and he wants to play within a system," Saunders said. "He's got to know when he's got to step out of the box a little bit and when he's got to stay in the box. That comes with experience and time and us nurturing (him) along those lines."
Kansas coach Bill Self brought it up at points last season. Scouts and draft gurus harped on it all winter and into the summer.
"To reach his full potential, NBA teams will want to see Wiggins become more aggressive with the way he approaches the game," Wiggins' Draft Express profile reads. "He has somewhat of a laid-back demeanor on the floor, which can be seen in the way he finishes around the basket at times, his tendency for shying away from contact, and his propensity for settling for long jumpers. He looks reluctant at times to just explode down the lane and dunk on people, which his physical tools suggest he should be able to much more frequently than he does. Part of that might have to do with his youth, lack of experience and strength."
Brewer has seen Wiggins come a long way already in practice. It's when the stands are full that he must progress, however.
"He's in the NBA now," said Brewer, now in his eighth NBA season. "He's at the highest level. He has to be aggressive. If he's not, guys are going to beat him up."
Before he can become the franchise's next cornerstone Saunders brought him on to be, Wiggins will surely take his lumps. And when it comes to his off-court demeanor, he may never grow into the unofficial team spokesman some superstars become. Then again, he might. He's 19, far from a finished product in terms of ability and persona.
And when it comes to cultivating both, a bit of measured patience should actually work in Wiggins' favor.
"I'm young," Wiggins says, suddenly willing to offer some introspection. "I'm not going to know everything or get something right on the first day. I've still got a lot of time. I'm only 19. I've got a lot of time to grow and grow up mentally and physically."
Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter