Most fans understand that there’s a steep learning curve for rookies entering the NBA, and know they must try to be patient when a talented young player debuts for their team… but they don’t know what a learning curve actually looks like until games begin and victories hang in the balance. The coaching staff has to walk a fine line between managing expectations and demanding steady improvement from their young players, and has to know when to reassure and when to reprimand. And the player himself, who has undoubtedly been told by his family, agent and coaches that the transition from college to the NBA is a difficult one, might not know exactly what he’s in for until he is staring at a bigger, stronger veteran player and is tasked with trying to keep him from scoring.
That’s what Andrew Wiggins has experienced during his first four regular season games with the Timberwolves. There’s been some good, some bad, and plenty of lessons to learn. It’s tough to tell how Wiggins is handling it because he’s such a quiet kid (his in-game and post-game interviews are often short and sweet), but if the way he carries himself on the court is any indication, he’s holding up just fine.
Offensively, he typically shares the floor with accomplished scorers Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and Thaddeus Young, so he isn’t a primary option. It’s easy for him to blend in, especially with a distributor like Ricky Rubio running the show. It’s Wiggins’ play on the defensive end of the floor that’s gained a great deal of attention, thanks in no small part to his last second foul against Jimmy Butler on Saturday night. But that mistake shouldn’t define his first week in the pros; there’s been both good and bad outside that one particular play.
It’s one thing to understand Wiggins has a learning curve, and another to see it in action. So, what does Andrew Wiggins’ learning curve as a defender actually look like?
Poor Defensive Possessions
After the disappointing loss to Chicago, Flip Saunders was rather candid in response to a Britt Robson question about how much playing time Andrew Wiggins can handle right now. “When he comes out of a game, he comes out of a game for a lack of effort,” he said. “Everyone knows, if you talk to people at Kansas, they thought he floated at times. So if our assistants on the bench see him floating, we pull him out.”
When people hear about an NBA player having issues with effort or intensity, they automatically assume it’s in reference to the defensive end of the floor. But as Flip continued, it became clear it was floating on offense that concerned him. “Eventually, what he’ll do is, he’ll learn to play hard over an extended period of time, know what a good shot and a bad shot is. That’s the process he’s going through… Jimmy Butler had the advantage tonight, but Wiggins really made him work.”
Watching video of Wiggins, it’s pretty difficult to find examples of him coasting on defense. That isn’t to say he’s perfect. He occasionally gets lost fighting through screens, doesn’t always know where his help is behind him, and every so often he’s late on a closeout. To be fair, he’s a 19-year-old wing, guarding experienced veterans with size advantages. But in the interest of painting an accurate portrait, here are a few examples of poor defensive possessions from the top overall pick:
Bad Fouls and Good Fouls
Like many young players, Wiggins is coming to grips with what’s a foul, what isn’t a foul, and the reality that sometimes he’s going to draw whistles he doesn’t think he deserves. There are differences between bad fouls and acceptable ones; He’s committed 12 fouls through 4 games, 4 of them on the offensive end of the floor, which isn’t ideal. Wiggins has also fouled jump shooters and bitten on pump fakes on more than one occasion; both are surely points of emphasis for him to fix. Some of his bad fouls thus far:
It’s early, but the Wolves are committing 23 fouls per game, the 13th-most in the league to this point. This is a stark contrast to the team’s style of defense under Rick Adelman; during his three year tenure, Minnesota finished with the 7th, 5th and 3rd-fewest fouls commited (respectively) in the NBA. While there isn’t a clear correlation between fouling and playing effective defense (the Pacers, for example, had one of the greatest defensive teams in league history last season, were in the middle of the pack in fouls committed), in Minnesota’s case it signifies a more aggressive approach. While Wiggins’ early foul trouble certainly isn’t what Flip and the rest of the coaching staff wants, they’ll probably live with Wiggins playing tough, physical defense, whistles be damned. Here are a few examples of those types of plays:
Athleticism, Length and Capitalizing on Mistakes
You can’t teach height, length or jumping ability, and Andrew Wiggins has been blessed with all three. Fortunately, he’s also got a keen sense of defensive awareness, keeping his eyes on both his man and the ball, and is already adept at using his long arms to disrupt dribblers and clog up passing lanes with the threat of a steal. Most draft experts expected this part of his game to translate quickly to the NBA, and so far, it looks like they were right:
Holding His Ground Against Iso Joe
Wiggins may have been blessed with ideal height (6’8), length (7’0 wingspan) and athleticism for a small forward, but developing muscle mass takes time. He’s 19 years old, and while he looks muscular and well-built in standalone pictures (such as the one at the top of the article), when he’s standing next to veteran wings, Wiggins often looks like a kid by comparison. Memphis and Detroit posed their own problems for him, but with all due respect to Courtney Lee and Kyle Singler, Jimmy Butler and Joe Johnson have provided the toughest tests Wiggins has faced thus far.
The listed heights and weights of NBA players are always rough estimates, or for the cynical among us, outright lies. Andrew Wiggins may actually be 6’8, but the 200 pound listing seems like an embellishment; at any rate, he was definitely ceding at least 20 pounds to Jimmy Butler (6’7, 220) and 40 pounds to Joe Johnson (6’7, 240). Butler knocked down threes on late closeouts and moved well off the ball, which kept Wiggins off balance for much of their battle. As Flip said, Butler got the best of Wiggins, but the rookie made him work.
The same could be said about the matchup against Joe Johnson. Coming down the stretch, Brooklyn used their 7-time All Star to attack the Wolves’ rookie, and he held his own. In some cases, he played perfect defense, but Johnson still knocked down shots. In others, Wiggins tried to hold his ground as he was aggressively backed down into the paint. Given the discrepancies in weight and experience, Wiggins faired pretty well, even though Johnson hit 5 of the 8 shots featured in this clip:
The sample size is small, but some of the issues Wiggins faces will stick around for the foreseeable future. He’ll be a rookie the whole season; there will always be new things to learn, new opponents to figure out, and new referees to adjust to. He needs time (several years, perhaps) to add weight and muscle mass. But the encouraging thing, if you watch the above video, is his determination. Despite the mismatch, and despite the lonely reality of defending such an accomplished scorer in an ISO situation, Wiggins doesn’t blink. Even on possessions with multiple attacks by Johnson, Wiggins sticks with the play, fighting to do everything he can to contest the shot.
The adage about process being more important than results rings true for all of the young players on the team, and Andrew Wiggins is no exception. Despite the fact that he’s blessed with gifts that already make him a pretty decent NBA defender, Wiggins is still in the early stages of an arduous learning process. Mistakes will be made – but as long as the frequency begins to decrease and Wiggins brings the fight every night, fans, coaches and Wiggins himself ought to be satisfied with his rookie campaign.