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Andrew Wiggins Isn’t An Albatross Anymore

It was never supposed to take this long for Andrew Wiggins to become a valuable NBA player. Wiggins was the consensus No. 1 ranked prospect in his high school class, and he remained at the top even after he reclassified and went to college a year early. Before his sole season at Kansas even began, he was widely considered the eventual No. 1 overall pick, having drawn comparisons to LeBron James and Tracy McGrady and even being bestowed with the nickname “Maple Jordan.”

Pre-draft scouting reports raved about Wiggins’s defensive potential and otherworldly athleticism, often noting that the only thing standing between the explosive Canadian wing and eventual stardom was the development of a so-called killer instinct as a scorer, as the majority of his offensive production in college came on transition opportunities rather than in the half-court. Wiggins would be a plus defender right away, the theory went, allowing him time to work on his offensive game and grow into the star he would almost surely become.

Of course, that’s not how things worked out. Early in his rookie season, our own Neil Paine wrote that Wiggins’s statistical profile suggested a prospect who would end up closer in class to journeyman swingman James Posey than a superstar like LeBron — and Paine’s assessment ended up being prescient.

Wiggins was considerably better on offense than defense through his first few NBA seasons, and the one thing people were most concerned about — the ability to create his own shot — was arguably his only high-level skill. Wiggins was an extremely poor rebounder for his size and position, he rarely created opportunities for his teammates, he did not shoot efficiently from anywhere other than the immediate area around the rim, and he was routinely criticized for poor effort.

That criticism grew to the point that, before agreeing to offer Wiggins a five-year, $148 million maximum contract extension in 2017, Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor wanted to meet with Wiggins to impress upon him that “there are some things that I need out of him, and that is the commitment to be a better player than you are today.” When the Wolves handed Wiggins that max extension anyway, it quickly became viewed as an albatross and one of the small handful of worst contracts in the NBA.

Then Wiggins was traded, along with a protected first-round pick and a second-round pick, to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for D’Angelo Russell, Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman. Ever since the trade — and this year in particular — Wiggins has been slowly but surely turning himself into a positive-value player. He’s still not the superstar he was billed as during his days as a prospect, but he’s become a valuable, two-way contributor to one of the best teams in the NBA.

Still only 26 years old, Wiggins is in the midst of his best NBA season by just about every measure. He’s averaging 18.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 30.9 minutes a night. Those are modest numbers, but the context surrounding them matters. Wiggins is shooting a career-best 53.7 percent on 2-point shots, as well as a career-best 40.8 percent on threes while taking more than five of them per contest. The result is a career-best 59.0 percent true shooting percentage that is 6 percent better than the league’s average mark, making this the first time in his career that he’s added points with his shooting relative to what a league-average player would have produced. He’s not nearly his team’s top offensive option, but he’s carrying an above-average usage rate and scoring at a better-than-average clip. That’s extremely valuable, especially for a team as dependent on a supernova scoring option as the Warriors are on Stephen Curry.

Crucially, Wiggins is also coming closer than ever to fulfilling the defensive potential so many saw in him as a prospect. Among 192 players who have played 500 or more minutes this season, Wiggins has defended the 11th-toughest slate of opponents, according to the Bball-Index Matchup Difficulty metric. He has done quite well in those matchups, finally tapping into the size-length-strength-athleticism combination that made him such an appealing prospect in the first place. He’s garnering some early All-Defense buzz and has proven himself a key cog in what has so far been the NBA’s best defense by several points per 100 possessions.

Put all of this together and, in his eighth NBA season, Wiggins is finally painted as an above-average contributor by all-in-one metrics like Box Plus-Minus and win shares per 48 minutes. He also has a positive overall rating from RAPTOR for just the second time in his career and a positive rating on both offense and defense for the first time ever.

How rare is it for a player to take this long to develop into a net positive on both ends of the floor? There are 3,484 players who have played at least one minute in the NBA since 1985,1 according to our historical RAPTOR database. Of those players, only 556 recorded at least one season with a positive RAPTOR rating on both sides of the ball while playing at least 1,000 minutes per 82 team games. Among that group of 556, just 502 did not post that first two-way positive season until at least their eighth year in the league.

The list runs the gamut of player archetypes. There are guards, wings and bigs, primary ball-handlers and defensive stoppers, three-and-D guys and enforcers. There are 20 former lottery picks, eight former top-5 picks and (including Wiggins) three former No. 1 overall picks, while there are also 10 second-round picks and six players who went undrafted.

Their value on both sides took a while to develop

NBA players* whose first season of positive RAPTOR ratings on both offense and defense came in their eighth year or later, since 1985

1st positive 2-way effort
Player Draft Pick Season Career Year
JaVale McGee 18 2021-22 14
Zach Randolph 19 2014-15 14
P.J. Brown 29 2003-04 11
Sam Cassell 24 2003-04 11
Keyon Dooling 10 2010-11 11
Danny Ferry 2 2000-01 11
Al Harrington 25 2008-09 11
Alec Burks 12 2020-21 10
Derek Fisher 24 2005-06 10
Jaren Jackson Sr. 1998-99 10
Antawn Jamison 4 2007-08 10
Shaun Livingston 4 2013-14 10
Anthony Parker 21 2006-07 10
Otis Thorpe 9 1993-94 10
Al-Farouq Aminu 8 2018-19 9
Chris Andersen 2009-10 9
Jud Buechler 38 1998-99 9
Dewayne Dedmon 2021-22 9
Taj Gibson 26 2017-18 9
Lucious Harris 28 2001-02 9
Fred Hoiberg 52 2003-04 9
Zydrunas Ilgauskas 20 2005-06 9
Anthony Johnson 39 2005-06 9
Popeye Jones 41 2001-02 9
Enes Kanter 3 2019-20 9
Corey Maggette 13 2007-08 9
Troy Murphy 14 2009-10 9
Charles Oakley 9 1993-94 9
J.J. Redick 11 2014-15 9
Joe Smith 1 2003-04 9
Marreese Speights 16 2016-17 9
Will Barton 40 2019-20 8
Nick Collison 12 2011-12 8
Erick Dampier 10 2003-04 8
Monta Ellis 40 2012-13 8
Michael Finley 21 2002-03 8
Justin Holiday 2019-20 8
Eddie House 37 2007-08 8
Kris Humphries 14 2011-12 8
Kyrie Irving 1 2018-19 8
Avery Johnson 1995-96 8
Steve Kerr 50 1995-96 8
George McCloud 7 1996-97 8
Dikembe Mutombo 4 1998-99 8
John Salmons 26 2009-10 8
Luis Scola 55 2014-15 8
Ish Smith 2017-18 8
P.J. Tucker 35 2013-14 8
David West 18 2010-11 8
Andrew Wiggins 1 2021-22 8

*Includes players with a minimum of 1,000 minutes per 82 team games.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Similarly, this is the first time that Wiggins’s total RAPTOR rating exceeds +1, meaning that he’s adding more than 1 point per 100 possessions to his team’s scoring margin when he’s on the floor. Shifting to this criteria allows us to capture players whose contributions leaned toward one end of the court rather than the other but still were large enough to make them clear-cut positives.

Again, there are only 50 players3 who have taken until their eighth NBA season or later to post their first total RAPTOR rating of +1 or better. The list is slightly different than the one above, but it also contains a wide cross-section of player archetypes, including 18 lottery picks and six former top-5 selections, though Wiggins is the only former No. 1 overall pick to qualify.

Their total contributions took a while to develop

NBA players* whose first season exceeding a total RAPTOR rating of +1 came in their eighth year or later, since 1985

1st +1 RAPTOR effort
Player Draft Pick Season Career year
Jim Jackson 4 2003-04 12
JaVale McGee 18 2019-20 12
Zaza Pachulia 42 2014-15 12
Marvin Williams 2 2015-16 11
Alec Burks 12 2020-21 10
Kris Humphries 14 2013-14 10
Jaren Jackson Sr. 1998-99 10
Shaun Livingston 4 2013-14 10
Jamal Mashburn 4 2002-03 10
Anthony Parker 21 2006-07 10
Chuck Person 4 1995-96 10
Tim Thomas 7 2006-07 10
Chris Andersen 2009-10 9
J.J. Barea 2014-15 9
Harrison Barnes 7 2020-21 9
Jud Buechler 38 1998-99 9
DeMar DeRozan 9 2017-18 9
Howard Eisley 30 2002-03 9
Lucious Harris 28 2001-02 9
Anthony Johnson 39 2005-06 9
Popeye Jones 41 2001-02 9
Luc Mbah a Moute 37 2016-17 9
Joel Przybilla 9 2008-09 9
Zach Randolph 19 2009-10 9
J.J. Redick 11 2014-15 9
Gerald Wilkins 47 1993-94 9
Will Barton 40 2019-20 8
Andray Blatche 49 2012-13 8
Michael Cage 14 1991-92 8
Dell Curry 15 1993-94 8
Erick Dampier 10 2003-04 8
Ricky Davis 21 2005-06 8
Wayne Ellington 28 2016-17 8
Justin Holiday 2019-20 8
Eddie House 37 2007-08 8
Jarrett Jack 22 2012-13 8
Steve Kerr 50 1995-96 8
Troy Murphy 14 2008-09 8
Charles Oakley 9 1992-93 8
Greg Ostertag 28 2002-03 8
John Salmons 26 2009-10 8
Ish Smith 2017-18 8
Garrett Temple 2016-17 8
P.J. Tucker 35 2013-14 8
Nikola Vučević 16 2018-19 8
Martell Webster 6 2012-13 8
David West 18 2010-11 8
Andrew Wiggins 1 2021-22 8
Eric Williams 14 2002-03 8
Jayson Williams 21 1997-98 8

*Includes players with a minimum of 1,000 minutes per 82 team games.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Notably, Wiggins’s coach (Steve Kerr) appears on both lists, while one of his predecessors at small forward for the Warriors (Harrison Barnes) appears on the latter. Barnes was subjected to a similar volume of early career criticism4 as Wiggins was, though that criticism was more about not living up to expectations than being a negative on-court force. Still, it took quite a while for Barnes to maximize himself within the complementary, three-and-D-style role he’s played since the moment he stepped on the court in the NBA, just as it took Wiggins a while to settle into that role at all.

Not every player is meant to be the top dog on his team — not even every player who was the consensus top prospect in his class and seemingly ticketed for that role from a young age. That Wiggins was hyped up as a LeBron, McGrady, Durant-style prospect is not necessarily his fault, but the hype — along with his outsized contract — surely influenced our collective perception of him over the years.

Freed from the responsibility and pressure of carrying the team on either end of the floor, Wiggins is instead doing his best to maximize the skills he does have and to fit in as a core piece of a team whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He’s not a generational player, but after all this time, he’s finally a good one. And that’s worth celebrating.

Neil Paine contributed research.

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Footnotes

  1. This covers the entirety of the lottery era.

  2. Including Wiggins.

  3. Out of 703 with at least one +1 season wherein they played at least 1,000 minutes per 82 team games.

  4. Albeit in a vastly different team context.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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