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.
|1st positive 2-way effort|
|Player||Draft Pick||Season||Career Year|
|Jaren Jackson Sr.||–||1998-99||10|
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.
|1st +1 RAPTOR effort|
|Player||Draft Pick||Season||Career year|
|Jaren Jackson Sr.||–||1998-99||10|
|Luc Mbah a Moute||37||2016-17||9|
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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