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Harper: Answering 10 loaded questions to help understand Andrew Wiggins

Zach Harper

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Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) drives between Houston Rockets guard James Harden, left, and Trevor Ariza in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/George Bridges)
(AP Photo/George Bridges)

Andrew Wiggins is [fill in the blank].

The Minnesota Timberwolves wing full of potential is kind of whatever you want him to be. Want to say he’s one of the most underrated young guys in the game? That’s what he is. Want to say he’s the most overrated young player the NBA has? There you go; that’s what he is. At 22 years old, some people have decided that he is what he is and that’s all he’ll ever be. Others hold out hope that he’s still going to deliver on the hype he was saddled with as a high school prospect.

Wiggins is finishing up his third season in the NBA and has shown some remarkable skills and ability. His athleticism is virtually unmatched in a league overrun by athletic freaks. But that seemingly limitless athleticism can frustrate people in thinking he should be better than what he is. We view athleticism in the NBA as this ultimate currency and not spending that money at every turn frustrates us to no end.

So what exactly is Andrew Wiggins 226 games into his career? As a self-proclaimed Wolves aficionado, I’d like to answer the questions I get the most about Wiggins. All the time. In a never-ending stream of unruly consciousness.

Question 1: Is Andrew Wiggins overrated?

Absolutely he is. Just look at this Twitter search for “Andrew Wiggins overrated.” Except here’s the one problem with saying Wiggins or really anybody is overrated or underrated or properly rated (shoutout to Ryen Russillo): overrated and underrated aren’t real things. Asking whether or not a player is overrated or underrated is a fun barbershop or bar conversation to have. Sit with your friends and yell out “I think Drake is underrated!” The next 45 minutes will be naming songs you love while others tell you they’re trash songs that make their ears bleed.

In reality, you can go find five people in the world who will say Wiggins is one of the best guys in the league, which at this stage in his career rates him too highly. Boom. He’s now overrated because your Twitter search yielded results you wanted to find. The truth is overrated and underrated are subjective concepts that are based entirely on a minuscule sample size we don’t actually want to grow in order to find a real set of results we can analyze. If you want Wiggins to be overrated, you can go find enough people to justify that claim.

Question 2: So you’re saying Andrew Wiggins is underrated?

Absolutely he is. Just look at this Twitter search for “Andrew Wiggins underrated.” Do you see what I mean? Which is it? Is Wiggins overrated or underrated because there are a lot of people saying that he’s one or the other? Which classification do you choose to believe as the consensus so you can go the other way?

It’s always a fun debate to have, but we shouldn’t use it as actual analysis because it’s entirely subjective based on the people we choose to include in the pool of opinions. There are NBA executives out there who believe Wiggins is going to become a superstar in this league. Other NBA executives in this league believe it’s a good thing the Wolves drafted Karl-Anthony Towns to be their franchise guy because Wiggins will never be able to handle the responsibility of that role. Do executives underrate or overrate him?

Question 3: Why hasn’t Andrew Wiggins improved at all?

He has. Not only have we seen Wiggins become a better playmaker, but he’s also become a much better scorer. The problem with judging whether or not Wiggins has improved is not every aspect of his improvement is a linear progression. This is the roller coaster that is his Synergy Sports scoring breakdown over his first three seasons. Pick-and-roll, post-up, and isolation measurements all include the passes he makes for scoring opportunities out of those situations, as well.

As you can see, some parts of his game have greatly improved. The pick-and-roll production took a huge leap in his second season and is in a better place this season. His iso and post scoring have gone down, but he’s also doing it less this season than he ever has. His scoring moving toward the basket has become much smart and much, more effective. Look at those numbers for transition scoring, off-screens, and cuts. Those are monster increases for him.

Wiggins’ jumper also has greatly improved as his handle has become tighter. He gets into shots easier now than he did a year ago, and that rhythm is something defenders have to break to be able to stop him. So far, the only two defenders with the most effectiveness in breaking that rhythm are Kawhi Leonard and Andre Roberson. As a rookie, Wiggins shot 32.7 percent on jumpers. That improved to 35.4 percent last season and it currently resides at 37.2 percent.

Wiggins has improved.

Question 4: Why doesn’t Andrew Wiggins rebound?

This is an excellent question. Wiggins was tagged as maybe the best wing prospect since LeBron James when the Canadian import was still in high school. That meant the hype train was careening a bit as it came around a turn heading into his one year at Kansas. But the train didn’t topple over and create the opening scene of Unbreakable. It simply didn’t keep picking up speed as he entered the NBA.

Wiggins’ rebound numbers don’t satisfy our quest for signs of all-around production. His total rebounding percentage has dropped from 7.2 percent as a rookie to 6.4 percent in his third year. He averages just 4.1 rebounds per game. So why doesn’t he rebound? I’m not entirely sure the Wolves’ design is meant for him to rebound. Wiggins is often defending the perimeter, and the Wolves trust Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns to own the boards. Not to mention, Ricky Rubio rebounds well for a point guard.

Wiggins is tasked with contesting on the perimeter and then getting out in transition. Remember those transition numbers from the previous question? The Wolves love for him to be between the opponents’ three-point line and half court when the rebound is secured. Throw the ball to him and let him attack in the open court.

When Wiggins is in the paint to rebound, he’s actually one of the best at it. He’s fifth in the NBA (players under 6-foot-10) in contested defensive rebounding percentage (26.4 percent). That’s significantly higher than guys like LeBron (16.0 percent) and Kawhi (20.5 percent). There are 112 players under 6-foot-10 who grab more uncontested rebounds than Wiggins. He doesn’t rebound because he’s not poaching freebies.

Question 5: So Andrew Wiggins’ lack of rebounding doesn’t hurt the Wolves?

It’s easy to explain why Wiggins’ rebounding numbers aren’t impressive. But should he rebound more often? The Wolves are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the NBA. They rank third in offensive rebounding percentage. Defensively, they’re not as good, ranking 18th in the league. The weird thing with the Wolves is their defensive rebounding percentage doesn’t really waver when comparing wins and losses.

In the Wolves’ wins this year, they rebounded 76.3 percent of their defensive rebounding opportunities. That’s 22nd in the NBA for teams that win. In losses, they rebound 76.1 percent, which is 15th in the NA for teams that lose. The Wolves’ losses aren’t necessarily coming from a lack of rebounding.

Should that give Wiggins a pass for rebounding? In games they’re losing the rebounding battle, Wiggins should probably help out more. He averages 4.6 rebounds in wins and 3.8 in losses. Not to mention, the Wolves’ rebounding rate drops to somewhere between 71 and 72.5 percent when Wiggins is playing with Nemanja Bjelica as a stretch-4. In those minutes, he has to crash the glass more.

But at the same time, they want him to put pressure on the opposing transition defense, and it’s more likely to happen when he’s catching an outlet at half court.

Question 6: Yeah, but Andrew Wiggins isn’t improving as a passer, right?

Wiggins has improved as a passer, but he definitely has a long way to go. The raw numbers don’t show a ton of improvement. He averages 2.4 assists this season. His career average prior to this season was 2.0. He’s not going to be confused for James Harden or LeBron James in that respect any time soon. However, over the last year and a half, we’ve seen a ton of improvement with Wiggins getting to spots on the floor. The key for him is now having the vision as he’s getting there to recognize the defense and know whether or not a shot should go up or an open man with a better shot exists.

Wiggins passing has shown an improvement this year, per NBA.com/stats.

We’ve seen Wiggins run a ton more pick-and-roll possessions this season — sometimes to the detriment of the team because that means Rubio isn’t running them. Wiggins has run 198 more PnR possessions this season than he did last year, and he still has almost 20 games to play. Just taking into account his passing from PnR’s, Wiggins is creating 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than he did a year ago.

He has nearly doubled the number of made three-pointers those passes have created, but he’s still turning the ball over at the same rate (just over 20 percent) as last season. Wiggins creating 95.1 points per 100 possessions is a big leap, but not being over 100 points here still shows immense signs of growth needed. There are too many times Wiggins gets tunnel vision and only puts up a shot to avoid the final swarm of a defense. You can trust there are players open in those instances.

Question 7: Is Andrew Wiggins a bad defender?

No. Wiggins is a good on-ball defender. Every night since his rookie debut, Wiggins has been tasked with defending the best scorer on the opposing perimeter. Be that Harden, Jimmy Butler, or Chris Paul, Wiggins has been the guy. Sometimes you’ve seen incredible moments of defense. Other times, there’s nothing he can do to stop them.

His best defense comes on the perimeter. Once you get him inside, it’s much easier to score against him because he’s not quite strong enough. According to NBA.com, opponents shoot 1.9 percent better against him than they normally would. There is zero change in how they shoot three-pointers. They shoot half a percent worse against Wiggins outside of 15 feet. It’s everything inside of 15 feet where his positioning gets a bit exposed.

He’s been good at defending in isolation and good helping against the pick-and-roll screener when there’s a switch.

Question 8: So Andrew Wiggins is a good defender?

No. Or at least, it depends on the stretch of the season. Wiggins’ downfall on defense is he tends to fall asleep or be unaware off the ball. There are times in which Tom Thibodeau’s incessant screams of teaching get through. Wiggins rotates well. He digs down into the paint. He recovers to challenge a shot on the perimeter. But too often we see him getting late to a spot-up shooter he should’ve been stalking.

Wiggins’ biggest problem is he’s a reactor as opposed to someone who is consistently in the position he needs to be in. That’s the next challenge for Thibodeau — get Wiggins to do the work early. While he’s good at defending the roller on a PnR, he’s bad defending the initiator. Usually, that involves fighting through a screen and he’s struggled to consistently get through that pick. He’s also bad at defending spot-up shooters. Get him one-on-one, and he’ll challenge well, but not on a rotation.

When he finds himself defending the rim or defending in transition, he doesn’t use that length and athleticism well to challenge the shot.

Question 9: If all of this is true, whom does Andrew Wiggins compare to?

You’ll get a lot of DeMar DeRozan comparisons from people when asking about Wiggins. The mid-range and the random Canada tie-in (Wiggins is from there, DeRozan works there) seem to propel that. If you’re comparing Wiggins with other similar players in their third years, the similarities are kind of all over the place. He has often reminded me of Paul George. The Indiana Pacers star had issues handling the ball early on. Once he improved that skill, he was able to unlock the star aspects of his game.

But even then, he was a better defender and passer in his third season than Wiggins has shown. You can pour over per game, per possession, and advanced stats between Wiggins and four semi-comparable players to find matches in various ways.

He’ll probably never be Rudy Gay (low end) or Tracy McGrady (high end). I’d wager he ends up somewhere between DeRozan and George at his peak.

Question 10: This is all happening in meaningless games, so it doesn’t matter, right?

Amazingly, not! The Wolves are 2.5 games behind the 8-seed Denver Nuggets and two back in the loss column. In order to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04, they’d have to leap Dallas, Portland, and Denver. They have a lot more road games than home contests the rest of the season, so that seems unlikely. But they’re in the playoff race, sort of by default at this point.

The Wolves have been the best defensive team and have the best net rating since the All-Star break. They’re 20-19 over their last 39 games with top 10 ranks in offense, defense, and net rating. Over his last 21 games, Wiggins is averaging 26.5 points on 47.8/35.6/83.1 shooting splits. The Wolves don’t entirely matter yet, but they’re becoming far more relevant as the season progresses. It’s very possible he isn’t putting up empty scoring numbers.

What does all of this mean? You were right about Wiggins all along. He’s definitely underrated/overrated/properly rated.

Zach Harper is a basketball obsessive with a penchant for outside shooting and high volume scorers. He believes in living life 3-point line to 3-point line. Zach has worked for ESPN, Bleacher Report, and CBS Sports since 2010. He's as interested in exploring the minutiae of the game of basketball as he is in finding the humor in it. Basketball in previous eras was fun, but it's much better now. Embrace change.

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