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Andrew Wiggins has been a superstar in his role

Excelling in what the Warriors have been asking of him has been more than enough.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I understand why so many people were upset about Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins generated hype as the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. The expected savior of the Minnesota Timberwolves had a lot riding on his shoulders the moment he put on a Wolves jersey. Some are built to take on that heavy burden right off the bat; some take time.

Wiggins wasn’t the former, so he was given leeway to live up to the latter. But as time passed and a five-year, $148 million contract seemed to be a waste of an investment, time seemed to be running out for him. That burden became more and more of an albatross, both for Wiggins himself and the Wolves organization.

It’s not entirely his fault. The Wolves did not cultivate him effectively to become their promised superstar. They failed to surround him with the proper environment — supporting casts, coaching staffs, front offices, etc. — to help him live up to his billing.

But perhaps part of that was also him being miscast as the face of a franchise. It’s perfectly acceptable to rate someone’s ceiling as lower than that of a star or superstar — that is why the likes of Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are as rare as they come.

Wiggins won’t reach the lofty heights of those aforementioned superstars. He probably won’t reach the tier below — the Luka Dončićs, the Nikola Jokićs, the Jayson Tatums, the Joel Embiids of the world, to name a few.

And that is perfectly fine — if you place him within the correct context.

There was much consternation (this writer included) when Wiggins was acquired by the Golden State Warriors in a trade with the Wolves, one that had them exchange D’Angelo Russell, Jacob Evans, and Omari Spellman for Wiggins and a future first-round pick that became Jonathan Kuminga. If you look at the trade from the lens of the Wiggins who was billed to be a franchise player — it was hard not to back then — you’d obviously be disappointed.

But perhaps most of us didn’t look at it from the proper perspective.

The Warriors don’t need a franchise — they’ve already got one in Curry. They don’t need a secondary star and second offensive option — Klay Thompson has that role down. They don’t need a versatile defender who can also run the offense and unlock the Splash Brothers — Draymond Green is one of one.

They don’t even need a secondary shot creator — the ascension of Jordan Poole has given them that.

Wiggins entered the perfect context, both for him and the Warriors. He doesn’t have to be the number one option — or even the number two or three. His scoring would be essential, but not necessarily a make-or-break aspect. His defense would be paramount, but in a specialist role as a wing stopper.

All he needed to do was to play his role to the best of the abilities. No worrying about carrying a franchise or living up to his large contract. No need to be the leader — but be a shining example of what it means to thrive within your role.

Wiggins hasn’t just been thriving — he’s been a superstar. But not the kind of traditional superstar we’ve all been accustomed to.

And when this kind of superstar does things like this, it generates a unique kind of value that goes beyond the tangible:

Attacking a close-out against a tilted defense — one that became titled due to a Curry drive and the presence of Thompson and Poole as spacers out on the perimeter — is exactly what the Warriors had in mind when they made that trade.

In Game 3, Wiggins put up a career-high in playoff points while also hauling down double-digit boards: 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists. He shot 11-of-20 from the field (10-of-15 on twos, 1-of-5 on threes) on a 60.8% True Shooting mark.

In all of Wiggins’ 113 minutes on the floor during the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors have outscored the Mavericks by 66 points — a team high. In terms of efficiency metrics, the Warriors have outscored the Mavericks by nearly 29 points per 100 possessions with Wiggins on the floor.

Additionally, the Warriors are 38.6 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Wiggins is on the floor. That can be attributed to his minutes being shared with the likes of Curry and Thompson. But the staggering difference in defense can safely be attributed to Wiggins’ efforts on defense, particularly as the primary Dončić defender.

When Wiggins is on the floor, the Warriors sport a defensive rating of 99.1 — considerably better than the regular season’s best defensive team, the Boston Celtics. Wiggins on the bench, on the other hand, transforms the Warriors defense into a virtual sieve: a 128.1 defensive rating.

Three games in the Conference Finals is a relatively small sample size. So let’s extend that to the rest of the playoffs to see if it’s any different:

  • 461 minutes
  • plus-122 (leads the team)
  • Warriors w/ a plus-13.2 net rating with Wiggins on
  • 119.5 ORTG on vs. 102.9 ORTG off — 16.6 points per 100 possessions better on offense
  • 106.3 DRTG on vs. 112.1 DRTG off — 5.8 points per 100 possessions better on defense

Those metrics are tough to argue against, and they are fully supported by the eye test — an example being Wiggins’ tough defense on Dončić, who, despite getting his numbers throughout the series, has found a worthy foil in the lengthy and pesky Wiggins.

Wiggins has the length and tenacity to crowd Dončić. His pick-up points have been high — bordering on full-court pressure — but the most impressive aspect has been his knowhow and intelligence as a defender.

Wiggins primarily shades Dončić to his left — his weak hand — and makes him settle for more relatively inefficient shot attempts. Dončić’s tendencies have been well scouted by the Warriors coaching staff, but Wiggins completes the game plan through his high level of execution.

It takes a village to slow Dončić down — the high amount of switching (when the likes of Thompson, Green, and Kevon Looney are involved) and hard hedging (when Curry and Poole are targeted to lure out mismatches) is proof — but Wiggins has been front and center of that group effort.

Defending Dončić hasn’t taken away Wiggins’ exceptionally high motor, especially on the offensive boards. He rebounds the third highest share of the Warriors’ own misses (8.2 OREB%) during these playoffs; only Kevon Looney and Gary Payton II have higher offensive rebounding rates.

That rebounding rate has gone up to 9.2% during these Conference Finals — second only to Looney’s 13.9%.

Wiggins is hitting 39% of his threes (7-of-18) against the Mavericks, consistent with his overall three-point percentage throughout these playoffs. A 3-and-D wing is a valuable commodity to have during high stakes games, and Wiggins has turned himself into one of the more reliable 3-and-D wings in the league.

He’s coupling that with aggression that has never come at a better time. He’s attacking the rim with a consistent fervor that wasn’t there before: 31% of his shots during these playoffs have come at the rim (76th percentile), up from 26% during the regular season (36th percentile), per Cleaning The Glass.

He shares the team lead with Curry in terms of points in the paint per game (7.6), and is putting up a higher paint-points average compared to the regular season (6.9).

Wiggins’ contributions have exactly been what the Warriors have needed from someone expected to be the fourth option on offense, and the one-on-one wing specialist on defense. That value flashed itself several times during the regular season; it’s becoming exponentially pronounced during these playoffs.

The recognition Wiggins deserved wasn’t as a franchise player; it was as the missing piece of the Warriors’ playoff-excellence puzzle. He’s not the player that Kevin Durant was when he was with the Warriors — but on this team, he’s an entirely different breed of superstar.

A superstar in his ever-evolving and crucial role.

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