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How Andrew Wiggins thrived in his role with the Warriors

A blatantly large contract notwithstanding, Wiggins is a fine complementary piece who can help the core with their championship aspirations.

Phoenix Suns v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

When it comes to Andrew Wiggins, there are two facts pertaining to him that must be acknowledged.

The first: The massive contract the Golden State Warriors inherited as a result of trading away D’Angelo Russell, Jacob Evans, and Omari Spellman for Wiggins and a couple of picks (one that turned into Jonathan Kuminga) will continue to hamper the team’s cap flexibility for years to come. Such a contract will pay Wiggins approximately $31.6 million this upcoming season, an All-Star-level investment for a player who hasn’t touted All-Star-level production.

What Wiggins produced last season for the Warriors, however, brings us to the second fact: Wiggins had perhaps the best season of his career in terms of value and impact. Raw averages of 18.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.4 assists don’t paint the entire picture of his contributions on both ends of the floor, and the fact that Wiggins — despite far from being the kind of elite and transcendent two-way behemoth he virtually replaced in Kevin Durant — was a serviceable wing who played his role to the best of his capabilities.

Even more amazing than his better-than-expected impact was his durability and availability. He played and started in 71 out of 72 games last season; the only game he missed was a non-bearing game against the New Orleans Pelicans, where the Warriors opted rest to their starters.

Even if Wiggins is — to call a spade a spade — considerably overpaid, being “serviceable” could be enough for a Warriors team trying to regain its former status as a Western Conference powerhouse. A common hypothesis for Wiggins failing to live up to his top-billing status is that he was hastily thrust into a franchise-player role he wasn’t ready to fulfill. The pressures that came with such expectations turned him into an “empty-stats” factory, one whose numbers filled up the stat sheet in every category save for the most important one: wins.

With the Warriors, there was no burden of being the main man, nor was Wiggins forced into a face-of-the-franchise role he wasn’t tailored to play. The removal of such pressures seemed like it lifted a heavy weight from his shoulders, allowing him to become a secondary contributor who could complement the team’s main pieces without having to be thrust into a spotlight.

Relative offensive improvement

As aforementioned, Wiggins’ raw averages last season did not represent his best statistical season. Failing to average at least 20 points a game — as he last did during the 2019-20 season — may have played a part in the Warriors falling short of a playoff berth.

Being suddenly thrust into a secondary-scorer role due to the abrupt absence of Klay Thompson wasn’t in the script. It may be unfair to compare Wiggins to Thompson, whose pre-injury version was unquestionably the superior player. But the fact of the matter is that Wiggins — whose career 52.7% True Shooting (TS) pales in comparison to Thompson’s career 57.5% TS — wasn’t capable, and perhaps never will be capable, of providing ample scoring relief directly behind Stephen Curry.

Comparing Wiggins’ 2020-21 season relative to his own career trends, however, provides a glimpse at the kind of player he may be better suited as when Thompson eventually reclaims his mantle as the Warriors’ secondary offensive star.

Career-highs were set across several of Wiggins’ metrics. His scoring was at its most efficient, setting a career mark in terms of True Shooting (56.8%). His overall field goal percentage of 47.7%, two-point percentage of 52.9%, and three-point percentage of 38.0% were career bests, all of which contributed to an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 54.3% — unquestionably making 2020-21 the best shooting season of his career.

The uptick in Wiggins’ three-point shooting coincided with an overall decrease in the degree of difficulty of his looks. While Wiggins touted occasional proficiency with pull-up threes, the majority of his three-point shooting diet came in the form of catch-and-shoot jumpers, which consisted approximately 75% of his total attempts from beyond the arc — a 17-percentage-point increase from his catch-and-shoot diet in 2019-20.

It was a fairly common sight for Wiggins to park himself just behind the line, serving as a kick-out target for the likes of Curry, whose gravity served to attract low-man help from the weak side or force defenders to help one pass away from the strong-side corner. Wiggins is no Thompson in terms of catch-and-shoot artistry, but he punished defenses just enough to extract a pound of flesh.

Wiggins was generally decisive and assertive off the catch, with little to-no hesitation. His course of attack was predicated on how far away the closest defender was; if there was too much ground for a defender’s close-out to cover, he touted a quick trigger finger. On “open” (closest defender 4-6 feet away) and “wide open” (closest defender 6 or more feet away) threes, Wiggins shot a combined 39.7%.

Should a defender close the gap quickly, however, Wiggins was able to attack hard close-outs aggressively. He used defenders’ close-out momentum against them, attacking their lead foot and using a combination of burst and long strides to blow by.

Once Wiggins managed to get two feet into the paint, his rim attack would typically take the form of one of two shot types. If Wiggins couldn’t get past rotating help defenders, he would settle for a floater or a runner. Per Synergy, Wiggins had a success rate of nearly 42% on floaters, while scoring 0.855 points per possession (PPP) — placing him in the 51st percentile.

Compare those numbers to whenever Wiggins decided to aggressively attack the cup in the half-court: a success rate of 60% while scoring 1.261 PPP — 72nd percentile. Overall, Wiggins was an effective finisher around the rim: among 97 players with at least 200 shot attempts at the rim last season, he ranked 31st in rim field goal percentage (67.7%), despite being at the bottom half of that list in terms of frequency (73rd).

Wiggins generally avoided hard contact at the rim, preferring to skirt around verticality contests and block attempts through stride creativity, unique finishing angles, off-beat jumps, and by simply using his agility to get to the rim before any sort of challenge could properly materialize.

Such an aversion to contact could explain why Wiggins averaged 3.4 free-throw attempts and had a free throw attempt rate (FTr) of .225 last season — both of which were career low marks.

While generally not considered an astute passer or a significant playmaking presence, Wiggins did flash some passing chops on drives. His ability to stay controlled on his downhill excursions allowed him to see openings created by his penetration. Similar to how he benefited from Curry’s gravity, Wiggins used his own pull to create openings on the perimeter and subsequently kicking out to open shooters.

Occasional openings were also created in the paint. Once Wiggins blew past his man at the point of attack, forced rotation from help defenders allowed him to drop passes off to bigs in the dunker spot.

Wiggins’ pass percentage out of drives last season (36.1%) is a significant uptick from his percentage back in 2017-18 (26.0%). Such a 10-percentage-point increase over the years is a testament to Wiggins’ continuing evolution as a passer and his willingness to diversify his offensive portfolio toward a playmaking inclination, a fact made even more impressive by his unchanging turnover percentage (6.9% in 2017-18, 6.7% in 2020-21) over the same period.

Defensive impact

A renewed commitment on the defensive end was an enduring hallmark last season for Wiggins. Arguably more so than his offensive exploits, the noticeable uptick in his effort and hustle was highly appreciated within the organization as well as throughout the fandom.

The consensus on Wiggins’ defense before he found his way to the Warriors was that he had all the tools to become serviceable at the very least and borderline elite at the most. But in an environment where a considerable amount of offensive load was placed upon him, Wiggins mostly disappointed as a wing stopper, whose physical and athletic gifts were nullified by a lack of verve.

You can attribute several causes as to why Wiggins suddenly transformed into a capable defender: a change in team culture, being surrounded by teammates and a coaching staff who can properly hold him accountable, a renewed self-commitment to working harder and doing much better — or all of the above.

Wiggins’ defensive counting stats don’t portray him as anything special: 0.9 steals and 1.0 block per game. A glance at some advanced defensive metrics will net the same conclusion: FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR (+0.5), BBall Index’s defensive LEBRON (+1.25), and Dunks and Threes’ defensive EPM (+0.5) all consider him largely a neutral to a slightly positive defender.

But neutral to a slight positive is still a considerable improvement from being a negative. The film can attest to Wiggins’ energy, effort, and overall mindset as an impactful wing defender. His relatively reduced offensive load allowed Wiggins to moonlight as a defensive specialist, tasked with limiting the opposing team’s most proficient wing/perimeter scorer.

He flashed an ability to keep up with speed, using his footwork, hip fluidity, and length to cut off driving lanes at the point of attack. His physical profile and athleticism allowed him to blend in seamlessly within the Warriors’ switch-heavy scheme. While he was largely disadvantaged on switches against larger and stronger frontcourt players, he was able to survive brief mismatch periods, enough for help to come over or to occasionally discourage shot attempts.

Screen navigation was also something Wiggins had little trouble with. He was cognizant of how to approach screens, either going over while minimizing hard contact, or shooting gaps and recovering toward his assignment in a timely manner. Whenever going over screens, he trailed behind ball-handlers and leveraged his length to contest shots or even outright deflect them.

An interesting subplot to monitor for this upcoming season will be the question of whether Wiggins’ commitment and effectiveness on the defensive end is something he will be able to carry over, or if it’s a one-off occurrence that he won’t be able to sustain.

The possibility is high that Wiggins’ responsibilities on defense will be increased, especially with Kelly Oubre Jr. and Kent Bazemore both leaving the team. Whatever your thoughts about Oubre and Bazemore may be, both of them provided the kind of in-your-face, pesky, 94-feet brand of defense that hugely contributed toward the Warriors’ 5th-ranked defensive rating.

An increased load on defense may translate to lesser defensive effectiveness, as well as affecting Wiggins’ offense. Thompson won’t be able to return immediately. Juan Toscano-Anderson is capable, while Otto Porter Jr. is largely a defensive unknown. Andre Iguodala’s effectiveness will be contingent on how much he’ll be able to function in his age-38 season. Kuminga and Moses Moody both have shown flashes, but at a level below the big leagues.

Should Wiggins be able to continue where he left off last season in a more tertiary role, he will be a fine complement to a contending core that is seeking to return to top-echelon status. His impact alongside two of the big three has already been proven: In 572 minutes without Oubre or James Wiseman on the floor, the trio of Wiggins, Curry, and Draymond Green outscored opponents by 14.7 points per 100 possessions. It’s reasonable to assume that adding Thompson to such a trio would not only maintain its potency — it may also augment it.

All of this doesn’t change the fact that Wiggins’ contract is still a hard pill to swallow, and that mustn’t be ignored. Should he embrace his role further and continue to thrive within it, however, it could go a long way toward the Warriors’ championship aspirations.

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