The Minnesota Timberwolves hosted the Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets Saturday night.
During what became a one-point game with only a minute remaining, the Timberwolves had an incredibly disappointing sequence that basically cost them the win:
Such a disaster goes beyond one game. It is indicative of the Wolves these past few seasons:
Short-handed, they gave their best punch to a high-caliber group. A one-possession game materialized down the stretch and, somehow, these Timberwolves found a yet another way to collapse under pressure, failing to live up to immense potential. The Wolves lost at home and gave away a tough one to a divisional foe.
After the disappointing loss to the Nuggets, interim head coach Ryan Saunders called out Andrew Wiggins in particular for his inattentive effort and lack of inspired play:
Ryan Saunders on Andrew Wiggins: "We'd love to have more from him than what we had tonight. So we'll look forward to that next time."
— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) February 3, 2019
Games like these are not lost on accident or by lack of sheer luck. As a coach myself, I have to believe plays like this are correctable, coachable errors. There is a definitive reason the Timberwolves did not get back on defense and displayed such carelessness. It has to be cultural, and it has to start with the best players on the team.
By specifically mentioning Wiggins post-game, Saunders gave us a peek behind the curtain as to what his first guess is for how that pervasive culture takes root.
How is a team brimming with potential for years continually striking out?
Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the organization’s foundational stars, are approaching their mid-twenties and will be making a combined $54.5 million next year. Tom Thibodeau, a renowned defensive coach and toughness guru, failed to reach either and could neither establish the culture nor the success he planned on.
Jimmy Butler, a superstar playing in his prime, felt it to move to a new environment than stay in Minnesota. (Granted, there were his own contract issues and other dynamics at play there as well.)
The issues seem to be deeper than one person, one coach, or the addition of talent can fix. Through the last several years only one common link remains: Wiggins. The potential he has shown in flashes, and the potential promised when the Timberwolves acquired him in 2014, has been tantalizing enough to earn him that max contract.
Potential is just a fancy word for “ain’t done shit yet”, though. At some point, potential has to be seen as a disappointment and not a rallying cry for the future. A year after making their first playoff appearance since the Kevin Garnett era, that time may be here.
Wiggins was once so highly lauded as a draft prospect, it seems almost impossible to be talking about him as a disappointment. ESPN NBA Draft Analyst Chad Ford rated him out as his number-one prospect in 2014 before the draft, and stated he was the “best long-term prospect in the draft.”
More than four years later, Wiggins has yet to make an All-Star team, an All-NBA team or be honored with any league-wide accolade since his rookie campaign.
On the one hand, Wiggins’ volume is indicative of a high-caliber player. On the other, his production isn’t.
He is the only player league-wide to register at least fifteen attempts per game and a negative Offensive Win Shares number. Only he and Tim Hardaway Jr. take more than fifteen shots each night while shooting below 45 percent from two-point range. Wiggins is shooting below 40 percent from the field on the season, including a whoppingly-low 59 percent at the rim, according to basketball-reference. He’s been underwhelming by almost any measure on that end.
The stats prove what our eyes are seeing, but they do not demonstrate exactly what has been wrong to cause this plummeting production and insane inconsistency. But our eyes can see that part.
In general, Wiggins tends to struggle separating from defenders that are long and athletic. For as athletic as he can be with a runway for flight, he’s not proven very quick or explosive in tight spaces. As a result, he struggles to draw contact and get to the line. Defenders can quickly veer him off course and insert themselves between his path.
When the Wolves run plays for Wiggins out of a ball screen late in games, they at least need him to put pressure on defenses and get a paint touch. Without it, the action is dead and there is little reason to run possessions through him. The lanky Will Barton shut Wiggins out of the lane late Saturday, and it disrupted their offensive approach:
Thankfully for the Wolves, KAT was there to bail them out with a great one-on-one play. Whenever Wiggins is pressured, as he was frequently by the Nuggets, he appears relieved when giving up the ball and someone else deals with creating a good look. Yet, when he is not involved in the play as a lead facilitator, Wiggins seems content standing in the corner and watching Towns go to work.
Doris Burke took notice of this passiveness and rightfully called Wiggins out on national television for his lack of imprint during the late stages of a game:
This is a common theme. Routinely, there are possessions where Wiggins makes little to no impact whatsoever, seemingly floating around the three-point line waiting to jog back on defense.
There will be many who believe coaching and playcalling shoulders at least some of the blame for Wiggins’ lack of late-game involvement. i.e. “If he’s just standing in the corner, his coach should call another play to use him better.”
For the sake of Devil’s Advocate, would you want to play through a guy that is almost reluctant to go against intense pressure when the game is on the line? I don’t think I would.
Playing through Wiggins doesn’t consistently elevate the group surrounding him, either. When he does get others involved, however, the Timberwolves are pretty good.
They are 8-3 in games when Wiggins has four or more assists and 35-25 in such games since his rookie year. Unfortunately, instead of working to make positive plays with the ball in his hands, Wiggins takes the safe route, choosing ball security over risk. His turnover rates are low because he is happier jacking up a mid-range jumper than putting pressure on the defense, thereby forcing helpers to commit and then making the right read to create for someone else.
Per Synergy Sports, Wiggins is 26-for-88 on pull-ups after using a ball screen. You might expect someone shooting that poorly on such a difficult, low-return shot to take the ball to the rim when they can. Not Wiggins. He’s proven time after time he’s more comfortable taking a pull-up than putting any pressure on the rim:
That shot was not blocked or even altered by Quincy Acy. Wiggins should have attacked his outside shoulder and barrelled his way to the rim. One hard bounce and a quick hesitation would get him there.
The other Synergy statistics paint a similar picture around Wiggins’ ball screen or isolation effectiveness: He is 1-for-13 when attacking switches out if isolations. When defenders go underneath a pick—a tactic used to dare a ball handler to shoot from deep—Wiggins is 6-for-22. Not only is he missing those shots, but he’s also taking the worst shot in basketball: the long two-pointer. His lack of spacial awareness is jarring:
In order to unlock some of his best attributes, the Wolves could utilize Wiggins more in the post. A season ago, nearly ten percent of his offense came from post-ups, where he was steadily efficient. He was diverse too, shooting over 50 percent from either offensive block.
Perhaps most importantly, he made his teammates better in those situations.
Other Timberwolves logged 1.571 points per possession on kick-outs from Wiggins post-ups, with an adjusted field goal percentage north of 80. This season, Wiggins only has three assists coming from post-up situations.
Let’s not get it twisted. There is a balance to be found between being more aggressive on offense and being a more willing passer. Both are areas where Wiggins is not living up to his potential. Aggressiveness on his part means being more willing to draw contact and extra attention on drives. From there, he must make the right play for his team, whether that be scoring or passing.
He must put himself in a position to make those around him better.
Wiggins’ counterpart Karl-Anthony Towns will head to the All-Star game for the second-straight season. His offensive development has propelled him to become one of the league’s most productive bigs. Defensively, he is slowly making strides. The additions of Dario Saric and Robert Covington should mask some of the positional flaws he exudes. Those three are a dynamic, monstrous frontcourt combination that should power a playoff contender, even in the loaded Western Conference.
But the Timberwolves’ ascent now lies squarely on the shoulders of one who once promised to improve in order to secure a $150 million extension. Wiggins’ potential has earned him a full athletic scholarship, elite draft status by scouts and pundits, the top overall pick, designation of being a future superstar and now a maximum contract extension.
But that potential has run its course. The Timberwolves now need real production from Wiggins.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com stats, and Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of February 3, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.