Five years into his NBA career, Andrew Wiggins remains an oft-frustrating enigma.
The 2014 No. 1 overall pick has the physical profile of an elite two-way player, but he’s failed to become a consistent difference-maker on either end of the floor. He’ll flash explosive scoring chops or lockdown defense at times, but he has yet to parlay that into night-to-night excellence.
Earlier this month, new Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas addressed his expectations for Wiggins in 2019-20, according to Chris Hine of the Star Tribune.
“Andrew in particular with his talent and physical abilities, the potential he’s shows, we’ve got to get that on a more consistent basis,” Rosas said. “He’s focused on it as well. In order for us to have the success we want to have, he’s got to be a main contributor.”
The Timberwolves have long been attempting to coax consistency out of Wiggins. Prior to offering him a five-year, $147.5 million max extension in 2017, team owner Glen Taylor wanted to have a face-to-face sitdown with him to ensure he’d commit to improving.
“To me, by making this offer, I’m speculating that his contribution to the team will be more in the future,” Taylor told Jon Krawcyznski, then with Associated Press. “We’ve got to be better. He can’t be paid just for what he’s doing today. He’s got to be better.”
Narrator: He did not get better.
After averaging a career-high 23.6 points on 45.2 percent shooting in 2016-17, Wiggins’ numbers dipped across the board following the arrival of Jimmy Butler . Wiggins never quite found his offensive footing as the No. 3 option behind Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns in 2017-18, as evidenced by his then-career-low marks in true shooting percentage (50.5), player efficiency rating (13.0) and offensive box plus/minus (minus-1.1).
When Butler forced his way out of Minnesota during early November this past season, Wiggins slid right back into the No. 2 role behind Towns. However, he posted even worse marks in all three of the aforementioned advanced metrics, and he shot a career-worst 41.2 percent from the floor on 16.6 field-goal attempts per game.
While it’s easy to chide Wiggins for his empty-calories scoring, he’s been dealing with near-constant overhaul since arriving in Minnesota in 2014. He’s had four head coaches—the late Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell, Tom Thibodeau and now Ryan Saunders—along with four main front-office executives (Saunders, Milt Newton, Thibodeau and now Scott Layden).
Rosas believes that lack of stability hasn’t helped Wiggins establish his foothold in the NBA.
“To be fair to him, he needs some continuity in terms of coaching, philosophy, strategy and style of play,” he said, per Hine. “We think he’s going to be one of the better beneficiaries of this style of play. His physical tools, talent and skill. We do feel there’s a lot of upside for him.”
While Rosas didn’t extrapolate on what he meant by “this style of play,” his comments during his introductory press conference may shed some light on the matter.
As Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune noted at the time, Rosas “mentioned ‘modern basketball’ at least a half-dozen times when discussing his vision for the organization.” Last season, the Timberwolves ranked 26th in three-point attempts per game (28.7), whereas Rosas’ former team, the Houston Rockets, led the league in both three-pointers made (16.1) and attempted (45.4).
The Timberwolves’ offseason moves seem to suggest they’re indeed building around a three-and-D identity.
They traded Dario Saric and the No. 11 pick to the Phoenix Suns for the No. 6 overall pick on draft night, which they used to select Texas Tech swingman Jarrett Culver. Minnesota then brought in Shabazz Napier, Jake Layman (via sign-and-trade) and Noah Vonleh in free agency, all of whom have the ability to stretch the floor, along with modern-day big man Jordan Bell.
That additional spacing should behoove Wiggins, who could parlay his athletic ability into easy baskets via cuts to the hoop in half-court sets. Although he’ll still profile as the No. 2 offensive option behind Towns, playing alongside shooters such as Layman and Robert Covington should also help open more room in which Wiggins can isolate between the three-point arc and the paint.
Although Wiggins isn’t a great three-point shooter by any means, the organizational shift toward treys may force him to adjust his shot selection, too. According to Jace Frederick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Timberwolves adorned their practice facility with a new decoration this offseason to remind players about the most efficient shooting locations.
New chart inside the Wolves practice facility: Points per shot pic.twitter.com/nSlIGLYVmL
— jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) July 23, 2019
Wiggins ranked 11th in the NBA last season with 4.4 mid-range shot attempts per game, but he hit only 34.7 percent of those looks. Turning more of those into close-range twos or three-pointers would go a long way toward helping him bolster his efficiency.
The Timberwolves also need Wiggins to make strides defensively.
Despite being blessed with a 6’8″ frame and 7’0″ wingspan, he has yet to post a positive mark in defensive box plus/minus. He also finished 84th out of 90 small forwards in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus-minus last season, and the Timberwolves allowed 1.5 fewer points per 100 possessions with him off the floor.
Covington, Culver and Josh Okogie should help out in that regard.
Playing alongside a slew of rangy, switchable wings should reduce pressure on Wiggins to contain the opponent’s No. 1 scoring threat on any given night, which could help him stay more active and alert as an off-ball defender. If he can poke his hands into passing lanes and generate turnovers, it could lead to run-out opportunities on the other end.
As Wiggins enters his age-24 season and the second year of his five-year max extension, it’s imperative for Minnesota to get more out of him than ever before. If he continues to vacillate between tantalizing and aggravatingly passive, he’ll cement himself as a cap-clogging albatross with negative trade value.
As a result, the Timberwolves may need to tamp down expectations for Wiggins heading into 2019-20.
Towns is the franchise centerpiece, while Covington, Okogie and Culver should give them a strong two-way wing attack regardless of what happens with Wiggins. That could enable Minnesota to experiment with the best ways to unlock his upside.
Rather than asking Wiggins to be a jack-of-all-trades, the Wolves may be better off sticking him strictly in a three-and-D role at first. Once he proves capable of handling that on a nightly basis, he can begin carving out a larger share of the pie on both ends of the floor.
The Timberwolves likely didn’t envision having to take such a piecemeal approach when they handed Wiggins nearly $150 million two years ago, but it may be the best way to get a positive return on their investment moving forward.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.