Timberwolves

How Wiggins Can Right the Ship Next Season

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As the Minnesota Timberwolves approach year six of the Andrew Wiggins “era”, many fans of the organization are vocally calling for an end next season. The 24-year-old wing has been frustratingly inconsistent throughout his career as the original Timberpup. Despite his first-overall billing, Wiggins has struggled with his shot efficiency, defense and intensity over the past five seasons. Questions about his motor and work ethic only increased after Minnesota offered Wiggins his maximum rookie contract extension back in 2017. Now on track to pass $27 million next year, his deal is widely viewed as one of the largest overpays in the Association.

Instead of blossoming into a young star, Wiggins has popped up in trade rumors as a salary dump option. But despite the Category 5 hurricane that was the 2019 offseason, he still remains in Minnesota. Now under a new President of Basketball Operations in Gersson Rosas, the Wolves look to grow their franchise and build around cornerstone pieces.

Andrew Wiggins can be one of those cornerstones. He flashes this in sporadic dominating performances, highlight-reel dunks and clutch buzzer-beaters. But those moments are growing fewer and farther apart. Instead, they are being replaced by tearing remarks on poor hustle and engagement. It’s impossible to diagnose Wiggins’s motor issues as an outsider. But stats and video can show where the areas for improvement lie on the court. Wiggins has the tools to fix many of his struggles from last season. Making the adjustments consistently could drastically alter the reputation of the former top pick.

Clutch Offense Must Return Next Season

Critics repeatedly knock Wiggins for his struggles with shot efficiency. On the whole, his 2018-19 season looks fairly awful in the shooting department (41.2 FG%, 33.9 3P%, 69.9 FT%, 49.3 TS%). But diving deeper into the shooting splits shows that Wiggins was actually solid from the field… outside of any fourth quarter or clutch scenario.

Per Basketball Reference, Wiggins made 43 percent of his total field goals and 37 percent of his triples in the first three quarters of games last season. Those numbers don’t blow people away, but they’re pretty good percentages. Then in the fourth quarter, the stats dive off a cliff: 32.2 FG%, 21.5 3P%, 35.6 eFG%. Yikes.

Even worse are the percentages when the point differential is under five in the fourth quarter. In those situations Wiggins shot 19-of-66 from the floor and just 2-of-21 from beyond the arc. Based on the shooting splits alone, he was just about unplayable in close games last season. Among the 84 players who logged 100 or more “clutch” minutes (last five minutes, less than five-point difference) last season, Wiggins placed 83rd in +/- and free throw percentage and 84th in field goal percentage. He also created viral expressions of anguish in the clutch, exemplified in the above video.

But he hasn’t always floundered this badly. Just two seasons ago, as Jimmy Butler wrestled for the alpha scorer role, Wiggins posted great shooting splits in the fourth quarter (43.7 FG%, 38.5 3P%). He’s canned improbable game-winners multiple times. If Wiggins can return to making impact plays in impact moments, both his seasonal stats and public reputation should make a major leap.

Consistent On-Ball Defense

The NBA audience generally regards Wiggins as a horrible defender, and this is largely true. But amid the lack of awareness and struggles off the ball are games where he can lock down opposing scorers. Here are the four players who Wiggins guarded for more than 100 possessions last season:

Paul George (190 possessions): 17/47 (36.2%) FG, 7/22 (31.8%) 3PT, 2 shots blocked

Kevin Durant (182 possessions): 17/37 (45.9%), FG, 4/13 (30.8%) 3PT

Joe Ingles (170 possessions): 13/26 (50.0%) FG, 6/16 (37.5%) 3PT

Brandon Ingram (104 possessions): 10/27 (37.0%) FG, 2/5 (40%), 3PT

Three of those four, with the exception of Ingles, struggled against Wiggins. He also played well against notable scorers DeMar DeRozan and Jayson Tatum last season. His athleticism, despite a skinnier frame, is a major benefit on-ball, as he’s quick enough and long enough to keep attacking players in front.

However, consistency is again an issue. Wiggins also was shredded by other players who aren’t considered devastating scorers. The most notable were Khris Middleton and Rudy Gay, who torched the Canadian on combined 18-of-25 shooting last season.

Andrew Wiggins has the ability to be a tough on-ball defensive matchup, and he sometimes displays just enough off-ball awareness to intrigue (see above clip). While Wiggins may never be an all-around force defensively, winning individual matchups can mask some of his liabilities.

How Can the New Regime Help?

Gersson Rosas has taken the helm of the Minnesota Timberwolves and boldly constructed a strong staff. He has openly emphasized the importance of building a strong team around franchise centerpiece Karl-Anthony Towns. However, some of the moves also make sense around the improvement of Andrew Wiggins.

Drafting Jarrett Culver was a major victory for Minnesota’s defense. Culver demonstrated impressive defensive awareness and hustle in college and should be an ideal defensive guard in a switch-heavy league. With Culver or Josh Okogie at shooting guard and Robert Covington as a small-ball power forward, Wiggins is sandwiched between two admirable stoppers who can cover up some of his lapses.

Bringing back Ryan Saunders as head coach should also give the 24-year-old some stability. Wiggins has played under four head coaches in five years of professional basketball, but Saunders is the lone assistant who has been with the Wolves throughout that time. He’s a staunch supporter of Wiggins and a positive presence in the locker room — a far cry from the drill sergeant culture of Tom Thibodeau. Now flanked by a veteran staff of proven assistants, Saunders has the resources to make good tactical decisions while remaining a well-regarded locker room coach.

One move Saunders tried sparingly with Wiggins last year was using him as a point forward of sorts. It’s a role Wiggins has rarely been in, but it makes sense given his set of skills and needs. Despite considerably high usage, Wiggins turns the ball over infrequently (9.3 TOV% last year), and can make some eyebrow-raising passes. Setting the table also allows Wiggins to drive downhill, perhaps his best attribute, and then kick the ball out to shooters or score at the rim.

Right now, Andrew Wiggins’s play does not warrant anything close to his salary. But he has the talent and support to become an impact player next season. Of course, the motor and effort criticism may be the biggest factor of all. Wiggins has shown that he can do almost anything on a basketball court; next season he has to show he can perform when it matters.

Follow us on Twitter @TWolvesLead for the latest Timberwolves news and insight.

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About Ethan Fuller

Hailing from Portsmouth, NH, Ethan is a journalism student at Boston University and writes about the Celtics for TLSM. His chief basketball teams are the Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves. Ethan is also a still-growing ultimate frisbee player.

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