Timberwolves Player Profiles: Andrew Wiggins

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves preseason is here. Additional player profiles below. 

Over the first three seasons of his career, Andrew Wiggins was the alpha.

As a rookie, he scored nearly 17 points per game on suboptimal efficiency while struggling to fill other facets of the stat sheet. But it didn’t matter; he was just a teenager who showed enough flashes on both sides of the ball to warrant his acquisition.

Over his next two campaigns, Wiggins improved as a high-volume scorer. He raised his points per game to nearly 24 in 2016-17 while improving his true-shooting percentage to a more respectable – albeit still below average – 54 percent. Regardless, he struggled to bolster his rebounding, passing and defensive prowess; in the absence of a more all-around game, Wiggins’ ability to score was overshadowed by shortcomings.

Then, the Wolves traded for Jimmy Butler: a bigger, stronger, better version of Wiggins’ present self. In theory, the two are talented enough to coexist in a truly positive way. But last season, in practice, Wiggins struggled to adapt in a new, peripheral role – his output diminished as a result.

Let’s dig into his player preview.

Statistical Profile

  • Wiggins finished the season with career-lows in points per game, offensive rebounds per game, free throw attempts per game, free throw percentage, assist rate, true shooting percentage and player efficiency rating.
  • As a percentage of points scored, Wiggins scored more from beyond the arc and less from the mid-range than he has during any other season of his career
  • Connected on 28 of 65 corner 3-point shots (43.1 percent)
  • Finished at a 68 percent clip from within the restricted area – the third highest mark on the Wolves (Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns)

Role on the Wolves

Outside of Wiggins’ rookie year, the 2017-18 season saw him average career-lows in points per game, free-throw attempts per game, field-goal percentage, true-shooting percentage, assist percentage and player efficiency rating (PER). Statistically, Wiggins regressed.

But while a hierarchal roster transition seemed to negatively impact his counting stats, he still managed to evolve other areas of his game.

Due to inconsistent effort and execution, Wiggins’ concerning defensive numbers persisted; he ranked 83rd of 87 qualified small forwards by ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM). Nonetheless, flashes of success on that end of the floor were far more common than in previous seasons. Spouts of transition hustle, second effort plays and lock-down perimeter containment were sufficiently frequent to raise his Defensive Box Plus/Minus and Defensive Win Share numbers to career high levels.

On the other side of the ball, Wiggins reshuffled his shot selection, to an extent, in an encouraging direction. As a percentage of points scored, a career-high portion of Wiggins production (23.1 percent) came from beyond the arc last season, and a career low (16.7 percent) was derived from the inefficient mid-range zone, per nba.com/stats.

But it wasn’t enough for the 23-year-old to effectively fulfill his tertiary responsibilities on the new-look Wolves. When imagining a successful team’s third option, a number of characteristics come to mind. Most notably: the ability to catch-and-shoot, a desire to make plays by moving off the ball and a capacity to focus on defense while other stars exert their energy on the offensive end.

These are three areas in which Wiggins has enjoyed varying success, but will need to improve on to provide maximum value within his role.

In 2017-18, of Wiggins’ 4.1 3-point attempts per night, 3.2 came via catch-and-shoot opportunities. And though he converted on a higher mark (35.4 percent) in these situations than he did from beyond the arc overall (33.1 percent), he only bested Gorgui Dieng, Derrick Rose and Gibson among Wolves rotation players. Of 130 forwards around the NBA that attempted at least one catch-and-shoot 3 in 40 or more appearances last season, Wiggins ranked 83rd by 3-point percentage.

Moreover, as an attacking off-ball threat, Wiggins’ quantity of production does not match its exceptional quality. Among 60 players who registered more than 82 offensive possessions as a cutter, Wiggins ranked sixth by field-goal percentage in that play type; he only trailed LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis and DeAndre Jordan. Nonetheless, he averaged fewer possessions as a cutter (1.1 per game) than all but two players that rank in the top 50 by field-goal percentage in those situations.

Given his role behind Butler and Towns, Wiggins is spending far less time with the ball in his hands. Embracing his success off the ball would go a long way in making up for some of the production he lost a season ago.

Attacking the basket in this fashion will also provide additional opportunities to get to the free throw line – a characteristic that defined Wiggins’ success early in his career. After averaging at least 5.7 free-throw attempts per game – and as many as seven – before last season, Wiggins only got to the line 3.8 times on average in 2017-18. Whether he shoots 65, 75 or 85 percent from the charity stripe, getting those freebies will bolster his efficiency and help his team.

On a Timberwolves team that faces the challenge of climbing out of NBA purgatory and into title contention, Wiggins’ play has drawn the ire of many. Still, there are few stars that can match his unique combination of athleticism and touch. While he projects to fill a largely similar role to the one he did last season, major development from Wiggins – at long last – may be the Wolves clearest route to taking another step forward.

Film Clipboard

It was impossible to the watch the 2018 playoffs and not become swept up in the performance of Jayson Tatum. The 20-year-old was a dynamic threat from the perimeter with chops to take his man off-the-dribble while remaining unafraid to finish at the rim. The play that headlined this ascension was, of course, Tatum’s dunk on LeBron James in the Conference Finals.

In watching that dunk, I couldn’t help but think I’ve seen Andrew Wiggins do that before. Maybe not on LeBron, but the action of coming off a pindown screen with the big overpursuing is something Wiggins has taken advantage of numerous times in his career. There is a similar poetry to Tatum’s side step around Thompson coupled with size and athleticism that is also quintessentially Wiggins.

Here is 20-year-old Wiggins:

A wiry athlete at 6-foot-8, 200 pounds, Tatum physically mirrors Wiggins and so does his play-style. Both are Kobe-truthers and their games — notably in the midrange —  are emblematic of such.

Many Wiggins critics struggle with his frequency to shoot from this range. And rightfully so, Wiggins has never converted more than 38 percent of his deep 2s in any season of his career. This leads to an outcry of “less midrange!” from the fanbase.

However, in an interesting juxtaposition, Wiggins only slightly outpaced Tatum in frequency from that range last season — 29 percent of Tatum’s field goal attempts were 2-point shots from greater than ten feet last season while Wiggins shot 33 percent of his shots from that range. Their 3-point frequency was also in line with each other: Tatum 29 percent, Wiggins 26 percent.

The difference between the two players was not shot selection it was efficiency.

This could simply mean Tatum is a better shooter/scorer than Wiggins but it is likely also a product of the different systems the two players have played in. The argument for Wiggins is that the Wolves system does less to help him, often leading to shots with a higher level of difficulty than Tatum’s.

Here, Wiggins finds himself in a similar situation to where Tatum was prior to the dunk on LeBron.

While Wiggins still converts the bucket, the level of difficulty is also higher. There is a difference in this play between what Gibson does (nothing) and what Al Horford did to free to Tatum.

This is but one example of how the Boston system puts Tatum in situations to succeed. Another issue is that while the system may do less, Wiggins too often obliges to the request of just go to work, Andrew.

Shots in isolation have come to define Wiggins. While ineffective, it is where he clearly looks to be most comfortable. Again, this definition could also be a product of the systems that amplify the volume of isolation possessions.

Wiggins has never played in a system predicated on ball movement. Not only under Tom Thibodeau but also Sam Mitchell and Flip Saunders, the Wolves have relied heavily on moving the ball through ball-screen action rather than simply moving it via a pass. Last season, the Wolves were 23rd in the league in passes per game and have never been higher than 22nd in any of Wiggins’ four seasons, per NBA.com/stats. Tatum lived in a different system. While Kyrie Irving was often there to isolate, the Celtics were still 12th in passes per game last season.

In an isolation-heavy offense in Minnesota — led by Butler and Jeff Teague — even when Wiggins is not isolating himself his duties are often limited to spotting up on the perimeter, as illustrated by his 1.1 possessions as a cutter per game.

Spot-ups aren’t a bad thing but they are often driven up in effectiveness by multiple movements of the ball. Many players find a better rhythm when the ball is being swung. We’ve seen this with Wiggins when he is playing with teammates more keen on ball-movement.

Here, Jamal Crawford and Tyus Jones are in for Butler and Teague. There is a poetic movement that ends with an in rhythm, open look for Wiggins.

It’s not as if the Wolves never effectively swing the ball when Butler and Teague are out there — both actually see the floor well. But movement without the tendency to dribble like Butler and Teague have can be more seamless.

To go along with his bizarre tepidness to attack last season, playing with Butler and Teague did at times drive down Wiggins’ effectiveness through too often simply asking him to create. With a better flow to the offense, Wiggins can be a dynamic weapon. With his combination of elite quickness coupled with size, Wiggins can be elite off-ball on offense. While his cutting frequency is low, Wiggins has the skill set of an elite cutter.

Here, Wiggins blows by the slow-footed Kyle Anderson with a split-second baseline cut. Few players can create this much space in that little time.

But Wiggins is a starter for the Wolves and that means lots of time on the floor with Butler and Teague. Even is his minutes are staggered from Butler’s more this season, he is going to need to find ways to effectively acclimate himself. This will likely come down to Wiggins’ decision-making — which is not on Butler or Teague.

While the volume of Tatum from midrange may have mirrored Wiggins’, watching Tatum play it did not feel as if he was as comfortable settling for these shots as Wiggins was. Often times, Wiggins appeared to prefer them; simply rising up when he is on the move in the midrange.

Tatum is more inclined to use a head fake in these ranges. Again, given his size and athleticism, this can free up room to get to the cup. This helps boost Tatum’s effectiveness from both the midrange and at the basket.

It is unlikely that Wiggins’ volume from the middle of the floor ever drastically drops, but adding a willingness to hesitate more often — like Tatum — could lean to cleaner looks. A diversification of ways to score is almost always a good thing. And Wiggins has it in him. A few times last season, he seemed to almost accidentally hesitate and those were some of his most-dynamic drives. In those spots, you could see shades of Tatum.

Tatum shot a ridiculous 43.4 percent from 3 during the regular season last year on 3.6 attempts per-36 minutes. Wiggins shot 4.1 attempts per-36 minutes but at a clip of 33.1 percent. For Wiggins, if that number does not drastically change he is going to need to find other ways to positively affect the offensive end of the floor.

For Tatum, that was found by playing in a system that puts him in better spots, a diversified package of ways to score, and better decision-making. There is a reason Tatum put himself on the map in last season’s playoffs despite only converting 32.4 percent of his 3s in 19 postseason games.

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