Timberwolves

The Best Could Be Yet to Come for Andrew Wiggins and the Minnesota Timberwolves

David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers have always been the story with Andrew Wiggins. The highs, the lows, and the lingering aftertaste of how much did those 20 points even help?

But the numbers are not the story this season. At a minimum, Wiggins’ productivity spike is not the only story — and, quite frankly, that’s what makes the change that is occurring particularly intriguing. Yes, Wiggins is posting career highs in many counting stats, including his typically empty assists and rebounds columns, while also stacking up favorably in efficiency numbers.

But there is more to all of this.

It is absolutely no coincidence that Wiggins’ positive ascension has come in lockstep with the full-on facelift that is taking place in Minnesota, from Gersson Rosas to Ryan Saunders and throughout the entire organization. Of the people I’ve come to know that work within the organization, from marketing to content production, the vast majority of them are carrying a similar sentiment these days: There has never been a better time to work for the Timberwolves. More meaningfully though, that positive vibe is permeating throughout the actual basketball roster as well, from Gorgui Dieng (the longest-tenured Wolf) to Jeff Teague (a Jimmy Butler foot soldier and 11-year NBA vet). You can probably see where I’m going with this: This positive juju extends to Wiggins.

Now in his sixth year in the league, Wiggins has a coach that he relates with, and that coach has a system that Wiggins’ game relates with. He also has a new array of teammates who believe in him within this system, and Wiggins believes that playing with those teammates in this way will lead to wins. That holistic change, more than any metric found on Basketball-Reference, is the most noteworthy story of the first ten games of the Minnesota Timberwolves season, in my opinion.

David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m just going off what he talks about,” said Ryan Saunders of Wiggins at practice the morning after Wiggins dropped 40 against Golden State. “And Andrew would say, if you asked him, he would say he didn’t win us three games — he was just a big part of winning three games.”

After this comment from Saunders, Wiggins went on to be a big part of the Wolves pushing the Denver game to overtime on Sunday (in a loss), and he was definitively a big part of winning on Monday evening against Detroit.

Wiggins and Saunders might not say it, but I will: The 6-4 Timberwolves are 2-8 this season without this Wiggins. Including Monday in Detroit, Wiggins has now put together performances in four victories this season (Brooklyn, Miami, Golden State and Detroit) that the Wolves definitely lose without him. Given his position and skill set, there is no one on the roster who could have duplicated what Wiggins brought to the team in those games, particularly during crunch time.

“He’s just playing well,” said Karl-Anthony Towns. “He’s finally feeling comfortable and he’s getting his chance to do a lot of great things. When Andrew is able to feel comfortable on the court, that’s when you see these kinds of games.”

The Wiggins surge has been particularly meaningful since Towns’ scuffle with Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. By the ridiculously high standard Towns’ level of play had set before his suspension, the Wolves’ best player has been a bit off. While Wiggins has put together a stat line of 29.0 points, 4.8 assists and 4.2 rebounds on 40.5% shooting from 3 and 58.8% true-shooting in the six games since the Philadelphia mess, Towns has been the less efficient player of the two, averaging 23.8 points, 4.5 assists, 12.8 rebounds, 31.6% shooting from 3 and 55.7% true-shooting. The Wolves have actually been getting outscored with Towns on the floor since the suspension, and they have outscored opponents by 2.1 points per 100 possessions with Wiggins on the floor.

“That’s the scary thing,” says Saunders. “Karl, he missed a couple of games, missed a few days, he’s out of a little bit of a rhythm, where he’s got to get himself back into that game kind of mode.”

Saunders is right, that is the scary thing. The question permeating from Wiggins’ recent performance is various iterations of: Is this just a blip from Wiggins? I feel it’s worth asserting a different question: What do the Wolves look like once KAT gets back rolling, too?

Because there is a coach in place that appears to work well with Wiggins and Towns, a system that appears to maximize Wiggins and Towns, and a group of teammates committed to insulating Wiggins and Towns, to me, the better questions center around asking where can this can go.

For the first time in, well, forever, there is an infrastructure in place that could facilitate sustainability from Andrew Wiggins. That’s worth acknowledging, and it’s something I’m personally betting on from what I’ve been able to witness. I’ll put my name on it. I think this is real and only the beginning for Wiggins and the Wolves.

But, to be fair, any hypothesis that not only assumes sustainable change from Wiggins but also presumes continued growth, well, that requires anecdotal evidence. So let’s dig into that.

DownHill Wiggins

The most meaningful adjustment Wiggins has made this season comes from a renewed commitment to getting downhill in attack mode toward the rim.

The fact that he is taking midrange shots with less than half of the frequency with which he did during the first five years of his career is meaningful (more on that in a bit). But to also repurpose those shots into looks with a specific intention is the reason for any sort of real optimism. For the first time since his sophomore season, more than half of Wiggins’ field goal attempts are coming from the lane. Probably not coincidentally, Wiggins’ second-year in the league was also his most efficient scoring season of his career. Remember this kid?

As a 20-year-old that season, Wiggins was drawing fouls on a ridiculously high volume of his isolation plays — 17.5% of them, to be exact, per Synergy. One reason Wiggins’ effectiveness could grow this season is that his foul rate almost has to increase from where it has been through ten games; he has only drawn a foul on 3.5% of the possessions he has been isolated on a defender this year. A similar lack of foul-drawing has been present in the heavy volume of pick-and-rolls Wiggins is running this season. Simply put, Wiggins is getting to the line way less this season than he ever has before. That almost has to tick up. And if it does, that will lead to even greater production.

Floor spacing

Saunders, with the assistance of his offensive coordinator Pablo Prigioni, has installed a five-out offensive scheme that serves as the team’s baseline. Occasionally, they will roll Towns into the post, but the thrust of the system is to put pressure on opposing defenses in transition — the Wolves are fourth in the league in pace of play — and then by slowing down into a five players on the perimeter construct when the defense does properly transition back.

Wiggins is having success in the latter, slowed-down portion of the scheme. He’s feasting on a two-man game with Towns, finding himself catching a couple of these feeds every game.

Note how spaced the floor is around this action. There’s just no real help unless the defense abandons a spot-up shooter. Easy money. Side note: I would guess part of the reason Wiggins isn’t getting to the line as much as he traditionally does is that there just aren’t defenders there to foul him.

The bet on continued growth here comes from Wiggins not yet feeling totally comfortable with the pace of play, and the potential that could manifest once he does eventually feel that out. Saunders often talks about Wiggins needing to break habits in relation to rejecting the midrange game from his shot arsenal, but there are also pace habits to be broken for Wiggins. Under Sam Mitchell, in Wiggins’ second season in the league, the Wolves played at the 11th-slowest pace in the league. His next two years in the league were played under Tom Thibodeau, where the Wolves played with the eighth-slowest pace in the league both seasons. Wiggins has been classically conditioned throughout his career to play at a slower pace, and this has, therefore, been a bit of an adjustment for him.

The learning process of this shift is showing up in Wiggins’ underwhelming effectiveness when playing in transition. For the first time since Synergy began tracking play type data in 2015, Wiggins is producing under 1.00 points per possession while playing in transition.

Much like his lack of foul-drawing early in the season, this seems like an area of his game where it would be a safe bet to see a progression towards his norm. For so many years, Wiggins has been using his combination of height, speed and leaping ability to create jump-shooting space for himself, often in the midrange. Really, that skill set is best utilized in a pace-based environment, one that feasts on transition opportunities. If that is to come, another jump in production should follow.

Shot selection

The idea that Wiggins needed to change his shot selection tendencies was not novel. After five years of only a moderate progression toward a modern shot mix, though, the idea that Wiggins would buy-in to this type of shift was novel. He just wasn’t really changing. During the Thibodeau regime, and even once Saunders took over for the second half of last year, the refrain from Wiggins on his poor shooting nights when pressed on it the locker room postgame was common: “I like my shot,” he would say with that Wiggins shrug. Time and again, at least publicly, he would dismiss the logic of deviating from his midrange heavy diet, and would assert that getting to the midrange was what “got him going.”

That script has totally flipped.

“I feel good in the system,” Wiggins said on Saturday. “Obviously they don’t want me taking the midrange shot.

“That’s the way the NBA is going. Getting more threes up, everyone from one to five can shoot threes now. So I trust in it. And, so far, it’s been working out for the most part.”

He isn’t taking the midrange shot, and, for the most part, it has been working out. Again, only 15.9% of Wiggins’ total shot mix this year has been comprised of midrange jumpers after 33.4% of his shots in his first five years came from that same range, per NBA.com.

The “it’s working out for the most part” portion of that answer is interesting, though. It’s a definite step in the right direction that he is taking the shots that carry a higher expected value, but it’s not like they’re going down at a ridiculously high rate. So far this season, Wiggins’ true-shooting percentage (55.6%) is exactly in line with what the league average in that metric was last season. I think what he was getting at is that he should be making more shots — from every range — if he has, in fact, optimized his shot chart.

Maybe it’s a leap to assume Wiggins is all of a sudden an above league average shooter. But if it is true that this system is going to continue to gift Wiggins clean looks at the rim, then he only needs to be just OK from the midrange and from 3. Beyond the arc this year, he’s shot 33.8, a notch below the league average of 35.0%. But Wiggins has shot over 35% from 3 before (2016-17). Is it impossible that happens again?

(Related: It’s worth noting that Wiggins missed his first 13 attempts from deep this year. If he had made even four of those first 13 (good for 30.8%), then his overall 3-point percentage this season would be exactly 40%.)

While the midrange is almost certainly going to remain a fraction of his overall shot selection, it’s not going to go away completely. Because of this, adding production in the midrange during the final 72 games over what he has done during the first 10 games would be somewhat meaningful. He’s made a solid-by-his-standards 39.4% of the midrange shots he’s taken thus far. But he has made over 40% in the midrange before (2017-18, when he hit 43.8% of his midrange attempts). Again: Is it impossible that happens again?

There are two schools of thinking here: 1. By shooting fewer total midrange shots, the ones he is taking are going to be of the more difficult variety, thus less effective in the aggregate; 2. By shooting fewer total midrange shots, the ones he is taking are only going to be of the clean variety, this improving his effectiveness in the aggregate.

In having gone back to watch Wiggins’ 33 midrange jump shots he’s attempted this season there is a clear trend: his old, patented pivot into turnaround fadeaway is definitely happening less. Only four of his 33 attempts were turnaround fadeaways. Shots like this one:

Instead, the majority of the attempts have been stepbacks into deep 2s after the lane has been cut off.

The rest have been floaters from the shorter depths of the midrange.

The jury is probably still out on whether or not the broader decrease in total midrange volume will help or hurt his overall effectiveness from that range. But it is a fact that not all midrange shots are created equal. It is possible that the remaining piece of Wiggins’ shot mix pie — the midrange — is made up of better looks than he was previously getting from there. I was encouraged by what I saw in those 33 looks. (Decide for yourself. Here’s the video of all 33 midrange attempts Wiggins has taken thus far.)

Andrew Wiggins has flashed like this before, and it proved to not sustain. Everyone knows that. But context is important.

The reality is that he’s actually flashed brighter before. In the 15 games he played during March of his sophomore season, Wiggins averaged 19.7 points, 3.7 boards and 2.5 assists a night while shooting over 40% from deep. Now, on one hand, you can take that as proof of this early season success being fake news. Or, you can look at it differently.

After that hot run in March of 2016, Wiggins played seven more games for Sam Mitchell in April before that season ended — on sustained efficiency, by the way. But then Mitchell was fired and replaced by Tom Thibodeau a few months later. What Wiggins would have become had there been continuity is unknown.

What is known is that he has that continuity now. Better yet, he’s playing in a system that appears to better fit for him, and he’s playing for a coach who seems to understand how to coach him. He’s also now flanked by the grown-up version of Towns, and not the baby version of Towns from the Mitchell days. And that system while alongside Towns, accentuated by a better shot portfolio, is the closest thing to a recipe for success that Wiggins has had in years. It’s not crazy at all to think this is only the beginning for Andrew Wiggins. It’s very possible that the best is yet to come.

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