Last Friday evening was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ preseason home opener.
This meant two things: It was the fanbase’s first look at the 2018-19 squad, while also being Andrew Wiggins’ first game at Target Center playing on his maximum contract that kicks in this season. Had Wiggins gone off and dropped 40 points while picking up a few “effort” steals and blocks, it wouldn’t have removed the Jimmy Butler cloud the lurks over the Timberwolves franchise, but it would have brought some welcomed light.
He did not impress.
Wiggins, who will make $25.5 million this season and $147.7 million in total over the next five, compiled stats that matched his apathetic aesthetics: four points, one rebound and one assist in 28 minutes of action.
When asked if he was disappointed with the way Wiggins looked, Tom Thibodeau admitted the picture was not a pretty one.
“When you play like we’re playing, no one looks good,” is how Thibodeau put it.
These missing in action moments are nothing new for Wiggins whose most consistent trait throughout his four-year career thus far has been a propensity to disappear. Considering the implications of his new contract, if this most-recent trend trickles into the beginning of the season, it will be his most egregious disappearing act yet.
For now, it’s just preseason but accumulating just one assist in 101 minutes of action is something close to inexcusable.
Andrew Wiggins’ 2018-19 Preseason Numbers
It’s hard to even nail down what is most concerning about the data here. Thibodeau tried in a conversation with local media this past Saturday.
“It’s all of the above,” Thibodeau said in regards to Wiggins’ lack of production in what has been a consistent public prodding from Thibodeau almost begging for more from his young swingman. “The thing is I want him to utilize his athleticism. And it has to translate into things.”
Given Wiggins’ size (6-foot-8 height), length (7-foot wingspan) and athleticism (44-inch vertical), the low rebounding numbers have always been a particularly bizarre missing thing.
Early on in his career, when Wiggins was playing alongside Ricky Rubio — an elite rebounder for his position — there was a fair argument to be made that Wiggins eschewing some rebounding duties in an effort to get out on the break may have been his best utilization.
However, with Jeff Teague in place of Rubio and the Wolves grading out as the 25th-best defensive rebounding team in the league last season — per NBA.com/stats — it seems fair to ask more of Wiggins on the boards.
“The rebounding [for Wiggins] is critical,” said Thibodeau. “Sometimes I think the toughest fast breaks to stop are the ones in which the guards and wings rebound the ball and bust out with it.
“The more he can do that, especially with the way teams shoot 3s [with] so many long rebounds, that can trigger an easy scoring opportunity for you. We want him to utilize it in that way but overall he’s an incredible athlete. It just has to translate into things.”
It sounds like Thibodeau has ditched the strategy Wiggins may have been using alongside Rubio while acknowledging that production has not changed. This isn’t Thibodeau’s only gripe. Using “things” — plural — implies that there are numerous adjustments Wiggins needs to make to shift what has limited his production.
At Tuesday’s practice, Wiggins expressed what believes some of those “things” are.
Acknowledging Faults and Receiving the Wrong Guidance
To Wiggins’ credit, he has gone on the record numerous times since last season ended admitting that he does need to do “more.”
“I feel like last year wasn’t really a good year for me,” Wiggins shared on Tuesday. “But this year I’ve got to do more in every aspect of the game. Defensively, offensively just try and do more.”
When asked if the new salary comes with more expectations, his response was telling: “I feel like I have to do a lot more than I did last year regardless.”
It’s time for a change and Wiggins appears to know it. What is unclear is if he knows how to do “more.”
History suggests the things Wiggins often opts to pursue to get going — so as to do more — are not always the most optimal for the team. Time and again, when Wiggins has a slow start to a game, he digs back into his bag of inefficient tricks; pursuing contested mid-range shots that he has never been able to convert at an effective rate.
He admits to increasing the volume of shots intentionally in an effort to “catch a rhythm.” The cross to bear with that truly special athleticism is that he can get those shots whenever he wants. And because he wants to see the ball go through the net to get going, he just keeps shooting.
Seemingly blurred by his elite athletic ability, Wiggins does not seem to understand the steep price the Wolves pay — as a team — will he searches for that rhythm.
The most glaring example came last year in the self-proclaimed worst season of his career. Wiggins was the most prolific shooter on the team while also being the least effective of those consistently in the rotation.
2017-18 Shooting Volume vs. Efficiency
|Player||FG Attempts per Game||True Shooting Percentage|
This pattern is, of course, going to be a problem if it continues.
He has to change.
It is not enough to simply acknowledge one’s faults; changing the process of how the fault spawned also needs to be examined. Unfortunately, his process for correction appears to be flawed.
“I watched film to see where my spots are on the floor and where I got most of my shots. And then just got up shots from there,” Wiggins said Tuesday when asked how he can produce more this season.
“Staying aggressive, finishing around the rim, free throws,” he listed. “I feel like I left a lot of points on the board.”
Yes, it’s good that he’s working; any process that departs from what has led to his preseason production will be a positive development. But pursuing “points left on the board” will be problematic, particularly is the process to do so comes from increasing the volume of the things he does, at best, only OK.
Finding the “more” and the “things” that actually help to raise the tide of the entire team is what is actually critical for him to change. Continuing down this path almost certainly precludes him from ever approaching becoming the player he is now being paid to be.
This not just on Wiggins, however. The issue is that Thibodeau seems to believe that these adjustments in the process are going to happen through some sort of osmosis that comes from surrounding Wiggins with veteran presences.
“When you look at veteran players, they’ve been through wars, so I think that gives them an understanding of all the little things they do matter and how important that is,” Thibodeau said after Tuesday’s practice when asked about the mentality of his young players — namely Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. “There has to be a will, a determination, a perseverance, and a mental toughness to get through it.”
Yes, that mental engagement needs to happen for Wiggins, but so does a piecemeal plan for change. It’s not too late to break Wiggins down so as to build him back up into a weapon that produces in a way that leads to team-wide success. He’s 23 years old and under contract for the next five years; again, there’s still time.
What appears unlikely to work is simply investing in the veteran thing worked with Jimmy in Chicago. Or another common refrain: Wiggins played well during his rookie year when he shared the floor (briefly) with Tayshaun Prince. The odds of those strategies cutting it is growing slimmer by the day.
Continue down this path and a classical conditioning will cement him into becoming the player you have to constantly ask more of. It appears that in Wiggins’ case, the rope and freedom he is being given are actually cinder blocks that hold him down; preventing him from reaching what is still an enticing ceiling.
Wiggins needs to evolve into something else; that is the thing he needs to do. Thibodeau and, before that, the Minnesota cocoon he has lived in for four years have done him no favors in this growing process.
And now, four years in, the evidence is mounting that he appears to not know how to breakout of this on his own. It is time for a change. Otherwise, the $148 million man will be the next dark cloud rolling in after the Butler storm passes.