Timberwolves

'He's Getting More Mature': Andrew Wiggins is Changing Everything

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS — Andrew Wiggins finding his way is the single best thing that could have happened to the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. Karl-Anthony Towns converting 3-point attempts at his typically elite rate, now at a near-Steph Curry volume is, of course, a welcome development. So is the cultural patchwork Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas have applied to the holes in the locker room’s foundation that Jimmy Butler took a pickaxe to. And tallying a 10-10 record through the first quarter of the season also makes for tasty expectation-exceeding gravy. But nothing is bigger than the evolution of the play, the production and the persona of Wiggins.

Any NBA fan with a television or the internet is aware by now that the player who attempted over 1,000 midrange attempts in the first five years of his career has drastically changed his shot selection this season. And those with a slightly keener eye (or a box score) have noticed that he’s also distributing the basketball at a career-best rate. But what doesn’t seem to grab traction is the different way Wiggins appears to be carrying himself this season. Maybe that is because growth between the lines on a basketball court is easier to measure than growth between the ears.

But some of the change in Wiggins the person is obvious. There is a clear heightened level of engagement from the 24-year-old. Put more bluntly: Wiggins looks like he cares.

Take this play in the first quarter of a mid-November game against the Utah Jazz. As Wiggins jumps out to switch onto Mike Conley, he gets assessed his second ticky-tack foul call of the first five minutes of the game. Knowing that a second foul will mean he’s headed to the bench for the rest of the quarter, Wiggins reacts. Now, for many players that’s business as usual. But for the Andrew Wiggins onlookers have come to know over the first 14,000 minutes of his career, well, this was new.

That mouth agape, hands-to-the-sky look is the opposite of the apathetic demeanor Wiggins had (rightfully) been labeled with throughout the first five years of his career. Instead, this incredulous behavior is illustrative of someone who cares. More meaningful: This emotional bubble up was not an isolated incident; Wiggins has been outwardly emotional all season, and not only in situations that pertain to him on an individual basis. Incidents that hinder the odds of winning seem to, now, meaningfully tick him off.

A week after Wiggins’s wing-flapping against Utah, the Wolves were scrapping to stay over-.500 on the road in San Antonio. Midway through the third quarter of that game, Towns picked up a very questionable offensive foul on what would have been a momentum-shifting dunk over DeMar DeRozan.

After the whistle Towns began peppering the referee up and down the sideline, eventually receiving a technical foul for his antics. But Towns was not the most incredulous Timberwolf at that moment. From the Wolves bench, this was Wiggins’s response to the play:

Towns and Wiggins are a funky juxtaposition for many reasons. Perhaps for no reason more than the emotions they exude on the floor. With KAT, it has often felt like the team would benefit from him taking a few more deep breaths, detaching his mind from the things in the game not going his way. And if he could only breathe that fire into Wiggins, well, then there would be balance in the world.

On Wednesday night in Dallas, the tables turned. After persistently attacking the rim in the fourth quarter, Wiggins just wasn’t getting the whistles the Wolves so badly needed to keep up with the Mavericks’ scorching 3-point shooting. The emotion ratcheted up to Peak Wiggins levels as his hands to the sky look was replaced with an outward emotional explosion as he walked over to the bench. It happened to be Towns who stepped in to calm Wiggins down.

“I liked that,” Ryan Saunders said of Wiggins’s charisma. “I like to see a care factor with it.”

It’s fair to say that there might not be anyone in the Timberwolves organization who knows Wiggins better than Saunders. Since the now-head coach joined the Wolves staff as an assistant in Wiggins’s rookie season, the two have been tight. The 33-year-old coach has always been a Wiggins Acolyte. But even Saunders acknowledges this multi-faceted evolution of Wiggins the person is granular and hard to identify specifically.

“I will say I do see a difference in him this year. It’s hard to put an exact thumb on where that is,” said Saunders. “His interactions, his communication, his approach.”

It’s undeniable that Saunders and many others in the organization have guided Wiggins to this new sense of self. So much of the change, though, had to be something Wiggins took on individually. He had to look inward. For Wiggins to change, or to grow as Saunders puts it, the sixth-year player who had largely only played one brand of basketball throughout his career would have to question what got him here. He’d need to question what made him the first overall pick, what earned him a max contract, and what has come to define him a basketball player. The change happening in Wiggins is such a surprise because it required him to question who he was. And as a human, that’s hard to do.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Many basketball players feel the style in which they play the game with is a reflection of their personality. And as that pertains to Wiggins, his game has long been arrogant. With superior physical tools to pretty much anyone he has ever hooped against, his game always carried an ethos that said I don’t need to try hard to beat you. Wiggins’s midrange game, like his interactions with teammates, refs and the media, had always been non-confrontational. His historical lack of consistent effectiveness without meaningful strides toward adjustment was emblematic of a basketball superiority complex.

The underwhelming aggregation of his results didn’t seem to matter much to him. Wiggins played basketball and carried himself in a way that suggested he felt that what he was doing was enough. His teammates only seemed to further confuse this. Amongst his peers, Wiggins has always been revered as a scorer. He’s a guy who has “averaged a dub” in the league, as so many of his teammates have reminded me over the years, speaking of Wiggins’s “impressive” 20 points per game scoring averages. At least in part, as a result of their support, Wiggins always seemed relatively content with the results. That was the scary thing: he didn’t seem to feel like he needed to change.

But that was then. Through a series of what Saunders and Rosas call “difficult conversations,” Wiggins appears to have acknowledged the truth that scoring a dub doesn’t necessarily lead to Ws. The evolution of his game on the floor is proof that he has bought into the notion that it was time to find a new identity. And better yet, there has now been a public acknowledgment that what he was previously doing was ineffective.

“I feel like I made that midrange shot more consistently my first couple years in the league. And for the last couple of years, I haven’t,” Wiggins said matter of factly after a Wolves shootaround in Atlanta last week. “So I feel like the model of play Ryan has told me to play, I feel like that’s helped me. I feel a lot more comfortable. I feel confident in it.”

Confidence was never the problem for Wiggins; confidence in the right things was. In that conversation with Wiggins on the visitor’s side bench in Atlanta, everything was a little more grown-up. His knees were wrapped in ice, his hair was trimmed tight into a sleek fade, and his answers were real.

“He’s getting more mature,” says Gorgui Dieng, the only Timberwolves player who has been on the roster since Wiggins was drafted. “He knows the opportunity he has right now. He was so down last year, and this year he’s just got a chance to play well.”

***

Everyone who has interacted with Wiggins over the course of his career sees this change to be just as meaningful as his adjusted shot selection, myself included. In my opinion, the personal evolution we are witnessing is the number one reason to believe that this is not another Wiggins Blip. It’s the reason this is unlikely to simply be another tease.

Wiggins has never been a rude interviewee. But he has always been short, unimaginative and, well, kinda boring in those settings. He’d take leading questions and go nowhere with them. Definitely, definitely — has always been a staple beginning to a Wiggins non-answer. His unwillingness to expand on what could change made it only natural to question if he knew how to change.

And that was his prerogative. There’s nothing in the league’s bylaws that requires a player to be a good quote. The only responsibility Wiggins ever had was to answer the questions. Which he would do — again, just not in any sort of meaningful way. It’s been interesting to note this change and to acknowledge that the shift began before the results started rolling in. Wiggins was changing as a person even before his game did. From Media Day and throughout what was a rough preseason for Wiggins, that difference has been palpable.

As Saunders put it, the differences in Andrew are hard to put a thumb on. But there are a few more things I’ve seen Wiggins put his thumbprint on.

This is a little Zapruder Film-y, but I’ve noticed Wiggins using his hands a lot more when he speaks — both to the referees and to us in the media. His media interactions in previous years were kind of like his defense on the court — lethargic, with his hands down on his sides. Now, though, there’s far more eye contact in his responses, with his previously stoic demeanor having been replaced by a propensity to add a bit of sign language to his discourse.

Check out this response after Wiggins was asked about he saw while taking over point guard duties in Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier’s absence:

“He’s not a social person,” was Dieng’s response when I asked about this interpersonal communication change I’ve been noticing in Wiggins. “He’s really got to know you to talk to you. That’s who he is.”

That personality trait coupled with results that have underwhelmed the Timberwolves fanbase over the years has led to a messy player-to-fan relationship. By many, Wiggins is almost treated like a field goal kicker in football. Fans (and media) nod along when he gets the job done but are quick to eviscerate him when his game misses the mark. This isn’t necessarily uncommon in what can be a crude professional sports world. It is, however, really bizarre to have a player on a maximum contract — who is probably a top-three player on the team — to have this sort of discourse with a fanbase.

I asked Wiggins if he’s felt more of a connection to the fans in this season of resurrection for him.

“Not really,” was his response. “For me, I just come in and do my job. You know what I’m sayin’? I don’t look for no love or praise or nothing. Your whole life is going to be like this (making a rolling waves on the water gesture with his hands). You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. So I just stay level-headed.”

If this individual and team success does continue, it will be interesting to see how that relationship evolves with Timberwolves fans. Wiggins has heard the criticism, and he’s heard his name on the trade rumor mill.

It’s ironic, though, that the player so many clamored for on that rumor mill, D’Angelo Russell, is basically who Wiggins has become. Moved to a lead guard role, Wiggins has been a player who can spearhead a pick-and-roll with Towns and fill in the scoring and distribution around the otherworldly big man talent. Hasn’t Wiggins played the first quarter of the season at a level that would make him an All-Star in the Eastern Conference? You know, like Russell last season.

The ugly truth of the whole D’Angelo Russell pursuit this summer was that Russell probably wasn’t a true second star on a championship contender. Wiggins may not be either. But here’s the rub: To have acquired Russell this summer, the Wolves would have likely been required to attach additional outgoing assets to land his services. If the Wolves would have put together the Russell-KAT pairing, they would most likely be somewhere close to where they are today with what they’ve gotten from the Wiggins-KAT pairing. The difference would be that they would have been out future draft picks and perhaps out a few young players on the current roster (maybe Josh Okogie or Jarrett Culver). Now, though, the Wolves still have those assets in the coffer to either internally develop a third star or to go out and acquire one on the market. That would have been far harder to do had they moved any of those assets to acquire Russell.

A bigger picture concern does percolate even in that rosy assessment. If the Wolves do eventually land another star next to Towns and Wiggins, can Wiggins handle a third fiddle role? It certainly didn’t work with Jimmy Butler.

“I’ve always thought it looked like he didn’t like to be second fiddle,” said Napier when I asked what the difference he has seen to be in Wiggins to be this year now that he’s on the inside. “I tell him all the time, now that I know him more, ‘this is your team, this is your role, you have to go to make this team win.'”

Answering that fiddle question is on the horizon for Wiggins and the Wolves. In time, another star could (and probably will) enter the fold. Even with Towns and Wiggins both on max deals, the Wolves will be able to finagle cap space in the summer of 2021 when the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Anthony Davis can become unrestricted free agents. Or perhaps more realistically one of Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday or Blake Griffin.

But that’s miles down the road. For now, things are feeling pretty good in Minnesota. The Wolves, like Wiggins, are finding themselves through a new style of play and a new way of carrying themselves. They’re also doing a fair amount of winning along the way. All of that matters, and it seems to really matter as it pertains to Wiggins.

“I think you’ve got to put both together,” said Dieng of Wiggins’s new shot selection coupled with his newfound sense of self. “I think the way you play can also dictate the type of mood you’re going to have. And I think sometimes you don’t play well if you’re pissed off at yourself. The shots don’t go in and you’re mad. I think the fact that we’re winning and that everyone around here is happy, that has changed his attitude.”

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