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Don’t look now: Andrew Wiggins is reminding everyone he’s still around

He was a bright spot in the Warriors’ loss to the Nuggets.

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s easy for the main takeaway from the Golden State Warriors’ loss against the Denver Nuggets to be one or a combination of the following:

  • Steph Curry having another mediocre Christmas game, in which he finished with 18 points on 7-of-21 shooting (3-of-13 on threes) and was a minus-26.
  • Nikola Jokić finishing with 26 points despite a 4-of-12 clip from the field — buoyed by a career-best 18-of-18 at the free throw line. He was a plus-26, which speaks to his ability to affect the game in other ways despite having a subpar shooting night.
  • The Warriors’ defense coughing up 121.2 points per 100 possessions without two of their best defenders in Draymond Green and Gary Payton II — and *only* losing by six points to the defending champions.

There’s isn’t much positivity to take from a loss, but there are still some rays of sunshine peeking through the dark clouds, such as the last bullet point above. While Klay Thompson didn’t have the best shooting night either (nine points on 3-of-12 shooting), it could be just a blip in an otherwise upward trajectory. The team needs its wings to be more than just *fine* in order to survive the regular season gauntlet; they cannot afford them to be abhorrent.

If they manage to get high level play from them — something similar to what they got two seasons ago on their way to a championship — they could be knocking on the door of title contention. But that’s a big *if* in a season where they’re being forced to play catch-up.

The blueprint for that kind of wing play was Andrew Wiggins’ performance against the Nuggets. He finished with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting and was a team-high plus-18. The juice on offense was there, and the scoring punch was needed on a night where the Splash Brothers fell flat.

But more so than the rejuvenated offense — and was arguably the beneficiary of it — was his defense. If you were to ask me which Wiggins possession stood out, this one would take the cake:

Of course, the possession ends with a Jokić bucket because of his individual scoring brilliance, but I’m more intrigued with *how* the Nuggets were forced to resort to their main man having to create something out of nothing. More so, focus on Wiggins navigating the screen, staying in front of Jamal Murray, and smothering his space, which forces the emergency pass. He then shoots the gap on the exit screen for Murray and closes the passing lane.

That’s a defensive sequence that’s been more the exception than the norm this season for Wiggins, one that felt like it was fueled by his performance on the other end. It’s not high-level analysis to conclude that a player’s performance on one end feeds off of how they’re performing on the other end. Simply put: if the shots are falling, one is more compelled to play defense on the other end — generally speaking, that is.

You can pinpoint the spark behind Wiggins’ scoring against the Nuggets on this possession. It’s a typical Wiggins possession from the past few seasons — the ones he’s counted on to finish off of created advantages by Curry:

It’s easy to forget that Wiggins was once a knockdown shooter from the left corner (45.2% over the last two season). He’s still statistically a good left-corner three shooter this season, albeit on low volume (5-of-10 going into the Nuggets game), which is why the Warriors stash him there in the possession above with Curry and Trayce Jackson-Davis running empty-corner pick-and-roll on the right side.

In an empty-corner pick-and-roll, the help comes from the weak-side “low” man — Michael Porter Jr. in the instance above. He pre-rotates to cover the roll, which leaves Wiggins open in the corner. Once Curry touches the paint, he finds Wiggins, who drills the open shot.

With Curry drawing aggressive coverages and constantly attracting two defenders to the ball at almost any moment, Wiggins brought back the kind of play the Warriors once saw from him as arguably the second-best player in their 2022 championship run:

The team has been keen on limiting Wiggins’ self-creation in isolation — ones where he has to use his handles to create in space and pull-up off the dribble — and have been trying to get him going through post touches, mostly against smaller matchups. These are low-hanging fruit for Wiggins, who doesn’t need to resort to his often-shaky handle to power his way through mismatches:

The team didn’t get the version of the Splash Brothers they wanted against the defending champions, which — for obvious reasons — can’t happen if they want to succeed. But they got the Andrew Wiggins they’ve been looking for all season long, which is something they’ll definitely take.

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