“There is a zero percent chance it gets worse next year,” an Eastern Conference executive told me earlier this summer when the inevitable So… What about Wiggins? question came up. Everyone that follows the Timberwolves knows how it works: Andrew Wiggins questions infiltrate every Wolves-centric conversation there is. It always comes back to him. In Wolves history, there has never been a more tired topic of conversation. The level of annoyance that comes with The Andrew Wiggins Question is matched only by the importance of finding an answer.
When a player uses one-quarter of a team’s offensive possessions while also taking up one-quarter of the team’s salary cap, they’re important. Really, it’s that simple. And Wiggins, who will earn 25.2% of the 2019-20 salary cap ($27.5 million), while also hauling around an individual usage rate of 25.3%, meets the criteria.
Being that critical of a variable, “a zero percent chance” of things getting worse this year won’t cut it. No, it can’t get worse — or even plateau — because if the Wolves are ever to make anything out of the next five years of Karl-Anthony Towns they need to get so much more out of the 25% of the acreage that Wiggins Island has been consuming. Facing this reality, it is both an interesting and informative data point that new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas did not choose to immediately cut bait with Wiggins this past summer.
Very generally, there were three paths Rosas could have taken: 1. Deem cutting bait with Wiggins is a necessary evil, and accept the reality that a mini treasure chest of assets is going out the door with him (so as to make the acquisition of Wiggins’ $122 million remaining on his contract palatable); 2. Deem that there are redeemable characteristics that still remain in Wiggins’ game that would make selling him at an all-time low a bad business proposition; 3. A fusion of options “1.” and “2.” — deeming that moving on from Wiggins is eventually going to be necessary, while also acknowledging that there is still time to recoup value.
The reason “there is a zero percent chance it gets worse next year” is because Rosas didn’t cut bait. By committing to Wiggins this year, the Wolves are committing to changing his impact on the game. With that will come a commitment to putting Wiggins in situations that lead to failure less often. Even if on an individual basis Wiggins hasn’t improved his skillset or mentality at all (unlikely), Rosas and Ryan Saunders can rearrange the chessboard in a way that creates a floor for the production of the 24-year-old.
And, not to get carried away but… that Wiggins leap occurring is not a zero percent proposition, either. No matter what, last year isn’t happening again. If Andrew Wiggins’ shot chart continues to look like a deforestation crisis, something has gone terribly wrong.
Downhill Offensive Creation
There isn’t a scout or coach out there who would suggest a better way to get Wiggins going than to put him in downhill action. This is because the best way to get the most out of a big, athletic wing is to put them in a position where they can gather a head of steam and begin burning toward the rim. For a player like Wiggins, who stands 6’8″ and takes long strides (that are actually very fast when he hits his full-gate), downhill action can be a dynamic weapon.
Thus far in his career, though, Wiggins in these downhill situations has been a multi-faceted problem. In simple isolation situations, Wiggins does often begin to gaining momentum toward the rim. But if the defender stays in front of him, Wiggins will stop short and pull-up from mid-range. This is detrimental because he does not hit those pull-ups at an effective clip. Last season, Wiggins only made 33.9% of his jumpers from 8 to 16 feet. As an adjustment, the option for getting him to go downhill all the way is to attempt to clear that defender with a ball-screen. Another problem here, though, is that Wiggins has struggled to effectively operate as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. According to Synergy Sports, Wiggins’ pick-and-roll efficiency has precipitously gotten worse the last four seasons: 0.85 points per possession in 2015-16; 0.83 PPP in 2016-17; 0.80 PPP in 2017-18; and a team-worst 0.74 PPP in 2018-19. To me, this indicates that he has lost confidence in this facet of his game more than it suggests he is categorically awful at it.
Numbers aside, in these downhill situations, there have been flashes that suggest Wiggins can deliver more than he has previously promised. Particularly in the second half of last season, it became more frequent that he would reject that nasty habit of stopping short in isolation. And particularly with Ryan Saunders at the helm, there were lightbulb moments where Wiggins would get all the way to the rim in pick-and-roll actions, and he even began sprinkling in some nifty over-the-shoulder passes when Towns would pop following the screen. It really is there on tape, even if it hasn’t been consistent. He’s a 6’8″ athletic freak with a 7’0″ wingspan. And because of that, working downhill has to become Wiggins’ greatest strength, even if it is just currently a fond reverie of something he used to have in his bag.
Situational 3-point Shooting
When his mechanics are tight, Wiggins does have a pretty jumper. But that’s the catch: his mechanics are volatile. For weeks at a time, Wiggins will lose his way and begin floating the ball toward the rim, like a darts player just trying to hit the board. Of the 30 months of NBA basketball Wiggins has played in his five-year career (excluding Octobers), Wiggins has shot below 30% from 3-point range in eight of those months. But he’s also had seven months where he has shot over 37.5% from deep. In those good months, Wiggins confidently stepped up to the dartboard and ripped off the same mechanics time and again.
But those mental lapses that seem to lead to the volatility are largely out of the coaching staff’s control. What does fit in the staff’s per view, though, is the situations they put Wiggins in. It’s never been his job, but it is interesting to think about how Wiggins’ perception would be different if he had been asked to be a lower usage 3-and-D type of player for the majority of his career. Think about it: What do we perceive effective 3-and-D players to be? Typically, those players are committed to a specific defensive assignment and on offense are relegated to their most effective shooting position. Wiggins does have the physical measurables to be a player who, when focused, can handle a defensive duty. And as an offensive player, Wiggins has always been a great 3-point shooter from the corners. People forget that Wiggins is a career 42.6% shooter from the corners, and that he hit 47.4%(!) of his corner-3s last season.
So many of the questions that surround Wiggins’ greatest strength of attacking the rim come back to one thing: poor ball-handling. The frequency with which Wiggins loses control of the ball when attacking the rim informs his habit of stopping short for a pull-up mid-range jumper. Burned into his memory bank are the occurrences of mishandling his attack dribble or being stripped of the ball once he gathers. A high dribble point (often as high as his sternum) and what appears to be weak hands make him susceptible for turning over the ball. According to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, Wiggins has turned the ball over on over 7% of his drives in his career. And it’s a turnover rate that is not improving — last season, Wiggins turned the ball over on 7.2% of his driving actions.
If he can lower his dribble point and make adjustments to better protect the ball, Wiggins would become a more dynamic driver. As a rookie, Wiggins drew a foul on over 15% drives (an elite rate for a wing). But that was before he began to lose confidence in his handle and thus his ability to get all the way to the rim. Last season, that foul rate on drives dropped all the way down to a pedestrian 9.7%. Confidence is critical to every part of Wiggins’ game, and a lack of confidence in his ball-handling is the snowball before it rolls down the hill.
In his career, Andrew Wiggins has 6510 field goal attempts. Of those shots, 1104 of them have been 2-pointers from 8-to-16 feet, and another 1439 of them have been 2-pointers from 16 feet to just inside the 3-point arc. Together that is 2543 mid-range jumpers that he has collectively hit at a rate of 35.3%. That is the equivalent of the value of a 23.5% 3-point shot. The Timberwolves had one player who shot worse than 23.5% from 3 last season. (It was Mitch Creek, who shot one 3 and missed it.) The Wolves as an entire team actually made 25% of their 3-point attempts from 30 to 40 feet from the hoop last season. So, if Wiggins’ mid-range jumper is only nominally more effective than a near half-court heave, he probably shouldn’t be taking many of those. But he does.
As mentioned in the strengths section above, Wiggins’ propensity to reject downhill action in favor of stopping short for a mid-range pull-up is just a nasty habit. Sure, those half-court heave stats are a bit hyperbolic. I acknowledge that it is painting by my own numbers to ignore that Wiggins has so often been volunteered as tribute to be the Wolves player who gets to take shots when the shot clock is expiring. In his career, 8.6% of Wiggins’ total field goal attempts (562) have come with under four seconds remaining on the shot clock. And to separately dismiss the fact that field goal attempts are not counted when a player is fouled is an irresponsible course of action when looking at Wiggins’ shot mix. Nearly one-fifth of Wiggins’ total points scored have come from the free-throw line in his career.
But true shooting percentage accounts for 2-point, 3-point and free throw percentage. And Wiggins, well, he was one of two players to play over 2100 minutes last season while tallying a true shooting percentage under 50%. The other was rookie Kevin Knox, arguably the worst volume-shooter in the history of the NBA.