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The Andrew Wiggins experience

Praising Wiggins’ excellent season so far.

Brooklyn Nets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Andrew Wiggins experience in Minnesota was by no means peachy and joyous.

The Wiggins we all saw with the Timberwolves was highly talented but immensely flawed. There were nights when the number-one pick in the 2014 NBA Draft surfaced: a versatile wing who was capable of scoring at all three levels, while showcasing perimeter defense that made use of length, lateral quickness, and an ability to switch up and down the positional spectrum.

There were also nights when the doubt, the passivity, the questionable shot selection, and the laissez-faire attitude surfaced. Inefficient scoring turned into lackluster energy on the other end of the floor. Potential failed to translate into anything tangible and kinetic. A contract that was considered a risk when it was first given became a liability.

Perceived liability by the Wolves turned Wiggins into an asset that they wanted to move as soon as possible. If there was a package that, in their view, was sufficient enough for them to lay off of such a “dead-weight” contract, they would take it in a heartbeat.

The question that lingered — one that was entirely based on Wiggins’ notorious reputation — was this: Was there any team that would even be willing to take on such a hefty contract for a player who hasn’t lived up to it?

The answer: The Golden State Warriors, who gave up D’Angelo Russell, Jacob Evans III, and Omari Spellman in order to acquire Wiggins and a top-three-protected first-round pick that would eventually turn into Jonathan Kuminga.

Amid significant wailing and gnashing of teeth after his acquisition, something flew by several people’s heads (this author included).

Unlike his stint in Minnesota, the weight of expectations did not necessarily have to be as heavy of a burden upon Wiggins. His blue-chip pedigree and status within a franchise that had yet to know what it means to win at the highest level was perhaps too much to place upon someone who couldn’t handle such responsibilities at the time.

His role with the Warriors would be different. He would be surrounded by proven winners: players such as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green; and one who has won both as a player and a coach in Steve Kerr. No longer was he expected to be the savior of a franchise — he would only be expected to be a key cog of one.

And Wiggins has indeed been a key cog this season.

At 18.2 points, he has been the Warriors’ second-leading scorer on 48/41/66 shooting splits. He’s making 53% of his twos and 41.4% of his threes — both career highs.

It can’t be denied that Wiggins having the most efficient season of his career — he’s posting a 58.4 TS%, also a career high — coincides with several factors. Playing with an all-time offensive talent in Curry allows him to flourish as a floor spacer and rim attacker; the playmaking talent of Green gives him a teammate who can find him in his best spots; and the return of Thompson gives him even more room to operate.

All of the factors above have contributed to him posting the best three-point percentage of his career.

Since his last full season with the Wolves, Wiggins has increased the frequency of his catch-and-shoot threes. During the 2018-19 season, 20.4% of his threes were of the catch-and-shoot variety, with a success rate of 36.5%. A 10-percentage-point increase in his catch-and-shoot frequency (30.2%) this season has also seen a rise in his accuracy — 44.5%.

Again, that can be attributed to having an offense that generates lots of open threes, with teammates that draw plenty of attention to themselves, resulting in defenses that are spread thin and floors that are immensely spaced.

While Wiggins takes less pull-ups (7.6% of his threes) and is less accurate on them (35.4%), his renewed confidence as a shooter has given him license to shoot a couple of pull-up threes on occasion. But the best use of Wiggins in this offense continues to be as an additional spot-up threat (1.188 points per possession on spot-ups — 88th percentile, per Synergy) in a team that already has it in spades.

While he isn’t on the same level as Kevin Durant in terms of being a go-get-us-a-bucket-when-we-need-it guy, Wiggins has been decent as an isolation scorer, especially on switches. It’s no secret that the Warriors’ motion offense encounters a bit of a snag against switch-everything defenses — an example being the Brooklyn Nets.

When the Warriors run their staple “modified” three-way split action, Wiggins is there to save the day:

Peep at how the Nets switch both options — the back-screen for Thompson’s dive cut, and the down-screen for Curry, which stagnates the action. But a late-clock isolation for Wiggins garners a mid-range jumper at the nail, and the Warriors salvage two points from a junked offensive set.

While Wiggins’ one-on-one scoring was a failsafe option above, it can also lead to occasional mismatches. The Nets’ switch-everything ethos plays right into the hands of Wiggins, who can score capably against smaller defenders.

The Warriors are fond of one Wiggins-focused set play — termed as “Head Tap,” since the signal for it is the ball handler tapping his head. It signals a cross-screen/”Flex” cut for Wiggins underneath the rim. With the Nets switching everything, Kyrie Irving ends up being the man tasked to defend a Wiggins post up.

It’s a missed shot from Wiggins, but the Warriors have placed their faith on Wiggins to succeed on these types of mismatches more often than not, which is why they’ve installed these specific play calls for him this season.

Wiggins exploiting a mismatch against a switch-everything scheme is made easier when partnered with a shooting threat such as Thompson. The Nets are more than willing to give up a mismatch rather than an outright open look — even to the point of putting their best offensive player in quite a conundrum.

A simple “ghost” screen by Thompson in transition, for example, places Irving in a compromising situation:

Ghosting the screen forces DeAndre’ Bembry to have to account for Thompson, all while leaving Irving on an island against a downhill burst from Wiggins. Irving’s lack of size and subpar laterality gives Wiggins an easy lane to the rim.

But while Wiggins’ offensive contributions have been well chronicled, his defense has arguably been more notable.

There is most certainly a direct correlation between his performance on both ends of the floor; a well-defined role on offense translates into effort and energy on defense. Wiggins has been tasked to defend the toughest assignments this season by virtue of his profile as a lengthy wing.

That potential largely failed to surface with the Wolves, mostly due to lack of effort and desire. But in an environment that demands defensive excellence, Wiggins has embraced the role of the Warriors’ lockdown specialist.

With Thompson still having to find his legs on offense, Wiggins was tasked with defending Irving. While Irving found innumerable methods of scoring — as a player of his caliber is wont to do — some of his most difficult looks were caused by Wiggins’ length and ability to cover ground.

Wiggins proved equally up to the challenge of switching onto Irving’s backcourt partner in Patty Mills. With the Warriors opting to blitz Irving around ball-screens, the Nets had Mills set screens for Irving, with the mindset being that Mills would potentially free himself up for a look with his man leaving him to help blitz Irving.

Wiggins didn’t fall for the bait:

The Wiggins late switch and recovery on Mills in the first clip showed astute recognition, while his contest on Mills’ shot in the second clip was a showcase of his screen navigation chops.

There’s a valid reason why Wiggins has been christened “Two-Way-Wiggs” by Warriors fans this season: his 1,456 minutes on the floor has seen the Warriors outscore opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. Their offense with him playing is equivalent to the third-best in the league; their league-best defense is maintained and empowered with his presence on the floor.

You can attribute that to having a couple of MVP and All-Star-caliber teammates. You can argue that having an excellent coach with a system built to cultivate his talents is playing a huge part in his renaissance. But the willingness to change and adapt is an initiative of Wiggins’ own making.

Wiggins becoming an All-Star for the first time — and as a starter, no less — is a whole different discussion. You can certainly make a good argument for other players who are more deserving than him. But I can’t help but wonder if some are protesting his inclusion due to their preconceived notions about Wiggins: as someone who wasn’t able to live up to his billing as an elite superstar.

Wiggins may never be that superstar he was supposed to be, and that’s fine. Maybe he himself is fine with that; the Warriors most certainly are. He may be better off as a third option who feeds on the margins and thrives within specialized roles.

All-Star or not, superstar or not, there is one fact that can’t be denied.

The Andrew Wiggins experience in Golden State has helped them become a Western Conference powerhouse once more.

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