Since the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the Wolves have played exactly 300 games — 299 with Wiggins in the starting lineup.
When he receives his 300th start of his career Thursday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, Wiggins may be tallying the most impressive, and meaningful statistic of his career.
That is not meant to be a shot at his offensive efficiency (a career eFG of 48.1 percent), nor is it a shot at his defense (bottom-10 amongst small forwards in DRPM each season of his career). It is a legitimate accolade, particularly given the context of the rest of his draft class.
2014 Draft Class
The list of injuries from the top-half of the ’14 lottery is ridiculous:
- Joel Embiid — with an array of back, foot and knee injuries — is just now having his first healthy season after missing all but 31 games from 2014-17.
- Dante Exum is on season-long IR for the second time in his career after injuring his shoulder this preseason.
- Julius Randle missed his entire rookie season with a broken leg.
- Aaron Gordon broke his foot as a rookie and has missed time with eight other injuries since that foot fracture in 2014.
- Marcus Smart — the healthiest of the lot — has missed time with knee and ankle injuries each season of his career. Just this week Smart suffered a hand laceration after “swiping at” a picture frame in his hotel. The cut will sideline him for multiple weeks.
And then there is Jabari Parker, who has torn his ACL twice since entering the league. Parker, who went one pick after Wiggins, has just finished his rehabilitation from the second tear. He will make his season debut Feb. 2, the day after the Bucks play in Minnesota.
Slow and Steady Progression For Wiggins
Wiggins has not had to deal with injuries and from this, he has been gifted plenty of time to learn. Yes, Wiggins’ improvements have been slow — but they are happening.
Sure, the Wolves fourth-year wing still falls back into bad isolation habits on offense and disinterest on defense from time to time, but those lapses are nowhere near as prevalent as they once were.
As a rookie, mid-range isolations were his game; the 3-point shot was an afterthought.
Over time, he has begun to shed the instinct of immediately making a move that leads to a pull-up 2. That progression has come to a head this season.
While operating on the perimeter, Wiggins appears to be thinking more. He is beginning to play with an awareness of where his feet are set. This not only leads to fewer mid-range shots but better angles for receiving passes that derive spot-up 3s.
In only 54 games this season, Wiggins has already attempted 104 more 3s than he did his entire rookie season.
Improving the effectiveness of his offensive game does not just come from removing mid-range shots; it comes from not having them be Option 1.
As a rookie, if he wasn’t driving, Wiggins would constantly be searching for space to fire a mid-ranger.
He plays stronger now.
Wiggins isn’t afraid to sacrifice space for situations where he has a physical edge. The mid-range is still his preference but he no longer needs a head of steam (a drive) to feel comfortable mixing it up in the paint.
This development should not be lauded for expedition, but strides towards becoming a player that effectively uses the physical gifts and talent that made him the first overall pick are good news.
Time on the floor is to thank.
The Value of Stability
It is these improvements coupled with Wiggins’ still largely untapped physical potential that led Tom Thibodeau and the Wolves front office to invest heavily ($148 million) this past offseason. Other than Embiid, Wiggins was the only player to receive a rookie contract extension when the 2014 class became eligible.
Every other team — including Philadelphia who gambled on Embiid anyway — had literally not seen enough from their draft pick to invest.
Most notably: Milwaukee with Parker.
Because the Bucks could not stomach the idea of extending Parker while recovering from a second knee surgery, they find themselves in a purgatory of sorts. Parker is set to become a restricted free agent at season’s end; this allows his services to be bid on by the NBA market at large. His impending free agency — inspired by injury — muddles a lot for the Bucks.
This season, even with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s surge, Milwaukee has struggled to find an effective identity. They were a team who was projected in Vegas to win the same amount of games as the Wolves yet found themselves at 23-22 on Jan. 22 — six games behind the Wolves — when they fired Jason Kidd. Had Parker been healthy, maybe things would have been different.
Stability is a powerful tool in the NBA.
The league’s most successful clubs travel smooth seas. Teams like Golden State and Toronto feature rosters with cores still intact from five years ago. Just as the Bostons and San Antonios of the league feature unfaltering front offices and coaches that have effectively implemented a culture that transcends their roster’s construction.
The micro, player-centric manifestation of this stability is found in durability — something Wiggins has proven to have in spades.
In ways, Wiggins — despite his foils — has served as one of the franchise’s great stabilizers. Through this, Minnesota is beginning to trend away from those teams that were once in the 2014 lottery and towards the league’s more stable franchises.
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