Earlier on Friday, I had a big long-form feature about Andrew Wiggins on CBSSports.com posted. I traveled to Brooklyn last week to follow the team on part of their road trip. I attended the Wolves’ win over the Nets, then followed them to Orlando, and came back to Miami with them. Part of the purpose of this trip was to try to write about Wiggins and the development process of creating a star. I was able to spend time and talk to some friends around the team, talk to scouts, coaches, players, and media members from around the league, and try to get a handle on just how realistic and great Wiggins’ potential development could be.
A very cool part of the research of this piece was running into David Thorpe of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida and ESPN.com. I’ve known David for a few years, and he’s worked with dozens of NBA and international players, including Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. He and I sat down to discuss Andrew Wiggins’ potential and the process of developing such an exciting prospect. His answers were incredible and he offered up great insight. I decided to post the full Q&A here, since I could only use so much of what he said in my piece on CBSSports. Hope you enjoy both the conversation, and the post on Wiggins:
Zach Harper: We all know about the potential of what he can become. How would you go about developing Andrew Wiggins’ game?
David Thorpe: I think you kind of marry a couple things. One would be showing him on film where there are spaces on the floor and where we want you to get on the floor. Then you can start working on the ball skills to get to those places. That way when he’s training one-on-zero in a sense, in his mind he understands where the other nine guys are going to be during the game.
And then it’s just the same ball handling you’d do with a sixth grader. Lots of pound dribble right hand, pound dribble left hand. He knows the basics; he’s just not any good at them. Working on crossover, through the legs, and change of direction. I think a really big thing is understanding what I call ‘slow-fast kind of stuff.’ Pro guys modulate their speed and then turn on the afterburners when there’s an opportunity and right now he just does everything on the afterburner. He gets in trouble that way. As he gets better, more and more defenders will know to meet him at the rim and you’ve got to be able to maneuver around them. Or beat them to the rim because you surprise them with how fast you get there. That’s what slow-fast does for you.
So lots of ball handling – full court, half court – but you’ve got to marry it with the understanding of when and where to use those in the game.
ZH: That’s an interesting approach to ball handling improvement. It’s not just about developing skills but you need to learn spacial awareness prior to acquiring the skill?
DT: Great example for Minnesota fans would be Zach LaVine. By himself, he looks really impressive dribbling a basketball. Looks like Pistol Pete Maravich kind of guy stylistically, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing in a game yet. It’s great to have those skills. Andrew Wiggins though is playing right now and Zach isn’t [Note: we talked before the Orlando game so LaVine wasn’t playing]. So for Andrew to be really good dribbling in space but not be able to translate it to the game doesn’t make any sense. You’ve got to marry those two together.
And a big part too with the young players, and LeBron is a great example of this, LeBron could dribble like a point guard as a rookie. In fact, he played a lot of point guard as a rookie. But LeBron had no value for where to be on the court. He just felt like, ‘Get me the dang ball; I can go do my thing.’ Well no, you can’t 30 feet out nearly was well as 15 to 18 to 20 feet. So as you get older, you start realizing that those spots on the floor are valuable spots, so I have to do work to get to those spots. That’s both when to start your move and where to make your moves.
For example, Wiggins right now when he has the ball, it’s like the court is tilted toward the baseline. He’s always running to the baseline but that baseline is a defender. So you can’t keep going because that defender stops you. He’s in a rush to get to the baseline and once he gets there, he realizes ‘I can’t go any further because they’re cutting me off,’ and then he’ll spin or put it behind his back. Well, the baseline counter to the middle is very dangerous because middle guys are dropping down. We always talk about you attack middle, you counter baseline. Attacking middle may stop you unless a guy sneaking along the baseline, which does happen sometimes. It counters to an open spot and is a much more valuable thing.
So as he learns the value of where he is on the court and where the danger zones are for him and he can stay away from them, he’ll be much better off.
ZH: He’s always had that spin from the baseline back to the middle, which he showed off at Kansas and in the summer league a little. Even though he has that and it appears to be somewhat successful, it’s still too dangerous for a guy without that acquired dribbling skill?
DT: Far more often. What I always teach players is, unless you’re LeBron James, Kobe Bryant in his prime, a few other guys, and Dwyane Wade, you going baseline is going to be a 10 or 15 percent chance of success. Those guys are just so athletic with size, they can get to an angle and still use the backboard. Well when I say it now, I’ll add Andrew Wiggins to that list. He is long and athletic. He’s done it a couple times in the NBA so far in four games, where he’s gone baseline, there’s no angle to use the backboard, and he still does. Because he can jump really high and he’s long enough to be able to create that angle situation. But it’s not optimal. You’re going to be successful far less often.
And what we’re talking about is the marriage between production and efficiency. You don’t want to be efficient and not productive because then you’re not doing anything. You don’t want to be productive and not efficient. It’s learning both that’s important. As he learns that value, both the efficiency and production go up.
ZH: In terms of his jump shot, he does seem more comfortable than I think what many of us expected. How much development do you see him needing with his jumper?
DT: I, personally, think his shot looks really nice for a 19-year old, as good as almost any 19-year old that has that kind of athleticism. Think about how Derrick Rose shot the ball when he first came into the league. He couldn’t shoot the ball; he didn’t have to. You couldn’t guard him. Well, Wiggins with the lack of ball handling, he’s kind of been forced to learn to shoot if you want to be this National Player of the Year in high school. So it’s really helped him in that way. I think the bigger thing now is I think he looks more concerned at times with looking good when he shoots it than just trusting his shot and just stroking it.
Well, you’ll understand this because you’re a Minnesota guy. I helped Martell Webster for a year and a half or so, and before I decided to work with him, I called [John] Hollinger and asked, ‘What’s your take on Martell Webster?’ He said, ‘He’s the prettiest bad shooter ever to play.’ When I watched him work out for the very first time in Minneapolis, I understood why John said that. I just adored his shot. But Martell was so worried about looking great, that he wouldn’t really let it go.
One thing we did with Martell is we had him bank in 3’s from the top-of-the-key 3. Bank it in and kept backing him up. He was forced out of his pretty little shot and just chucking. But we wanted him to chuck it with the same form because he does have great form. He started banking a bunch in and it was like the whole world opened up for him. He realized, ‘I’ve got to stop just aiming it in and let it go.’ He was a much better shooter after that. It’s like a pitcher in baseball. You can’t aim a pitch and expect to throw a strike – at least not with velocity and movement. You throw a strike without velocity and movement, they’re going to hit it out of the park. You train all those years for a reason – so you can trust it when it matters. You’ve got to trust it.
So I think Andrew’s shot is fine; I don’t think he really trusts it yet. But he’s 19, that’ll come.
ZH: So then is that overthinking the shooting process instead of being a muscle memory thing?
DT: No, I don’t think it’s muscle memory because the shot looks good. I think it’s because he’s not naturally so assertive, but he knows everybody thinks he needs to be more assertive. So every time he shoots an 18-footer, he thinks, ‘Hey, I’m being assertive here!’ Well, you only shoot for one reason: to make the shot. There should be no other reason why unless you think you’re going to get fouled. It really is to score. You don’t do it because you’re open. I hate it when guys get the offensive rebound so they can just shoot a shot. They think they earned the right to shoot it. No, you earn it for our team. Give the ball to someone else now. You know, Dennis Rodman wasn’t taking 18-footers and he had the most offensive rebounds. That’s why they won, by the way.
I think he’s shooting sometimes because he thinks he’s supposed to shoot, because he’s the No. 1 pick, because he’s Andrew Wiggins. But he really does look great shooting the ball if he changes that mindset to ‘I’m going to make this.’ He’s shooting the ball good for a rookie and no rookies shoot great.
ZH: Defensively, what have you seen out of him?
DT: Start thinking about the best defenders ever to play this game. To me, I don’t know if anybody’s compared this before but I think he’s the most similar to Michael Cooper. Really long, more athletic than Coop was and he was a special athlete. With the disposition of ‘I like this, I can do this.’ I don’t know that he’ll keep it when he becomes a better offensive player. It’s a challenge and whenever you’re guarding the other team’s best player, he knows how to make you foul him. But if you’re the best offensive player on your team, you don’t want to foul a guy. That’s in your minutes and all that.
But right now, he’s got everything to be as elite as, like I said, Michael Cooper. He’s a better athlete than Bruce Bowen. Think about the best wing defender, that’s why I say Coop because he’s got that chance. Active feet, active hands. Really long with great size to guard 1, 2, 3, and 4’s. As he gets stronger, he’ll be able to defend a lot of stretch-4’s. If he doesn’t become a First Team All-NBA Defensive player, it’s a failure by him and his coaching staff. You can’t say that about a lot of guys, but that’s his future.
ZH: Flip has made the KG comparison in terms of being a two-way player. Garnett never added that bulk but he got stronger as he matured. Wiggins wants to get stronger but not add bulk, right?
DT: That’s a great question and it’s a really easy answer. In the NBA with almost no exceptions, men compared to him – he’s 19, he’s not a man in that sense – men have man strength. They understand how to use their body, how to use leverage in a way that kids don’t. It would be a gigantic, enormous, criminal mistake if he were to bulk up. I believe, and I believe over the next 10 years we’ll see it more, that’s one of the reasons why guys get hurt so much more. Their skeletons are made to hold a certain body type. Bone density is different with every player. There’s a combination there of your bones and your muscles that you need to respect. He is this incredible athlete that needs to look like that at all times.
Look at how thin LeBron has gotten. He was pretty amazing at any weight. He was built bigger as an adult, but he was thin as a kid. He wasn’t that thin but he was thin. I think Wiggins is so elite as an athlete, it would be a shame to lose that so he can be stronger. He’s going to develop strength anyway over time.
ZH: And he would certainly need that strength to be a guy that can defend 1 through 4.
DT: You need it really in this league. I always say, ‘you’ve got to be strong enough to dish out punishment or to take it. You don’t have to be both necessarily, but it would be nice if you could. Obviously, I’m very close with Kevin Martin. Kevin’s never been a guy that can dish out punishment. He’s 31 years old and he weighs 192 lbs. but he can take as much as you want to give out. He goes to the free throw line. If you want to keep fouling him, he’ll keep going to the free throw line. He’s not going to back away from it.
Wiggins, if he’s going to be a Hall of Famer, one of the best of all-time, he’s got to be strong enough to be able to do it on both sides. I just don’t want him to add 30-40 lbs. because it would be a mistake. Maybe 10? Maybe 8? I mean, there’s some scientific formula that will tell you what it needs to be. I don’t know what his bone density number is, but he needs to be stronger. He needs to be tougher. That will come.
ZH: As far as the toughness, is that strictly mentally or physically?
DT: Physically? No question. I think mentally, absolutely, there’s just so few 19-year olds. The 19-year olds you would say have the requisite toughness right then to play at a high NBA level are almost never without exception going to be as talented as Andrew Wiggins.
Think about evolution. There’s genetic changes in you, genetic mutations in you that fit you best for your environment that allow you to prosper and the species to prosper. It’s really no different in basketball. You have to have something that allows you to get to a certain level and in Andrew’s case, it’s elite level athleticism. He didn’t need the toughness. Brian Cardinal did. Brian Cardinal had to be unbelievably tough in order for him to survive the way he did. But Brian Cardinal could never have learned Andrew’s athleticism; Andrew can learn Brian’s toughness.
LeBron was soft before he wasn’t. KG, people would say he was soft; people would say he’s all talk or whatever. Couldn’t be a guy to carry you in the fourth quarter. He’s no longer a concern with that. I think KG is a great example of a two-way player but he was never the offensive player that Wiggins can be. I mean Garnett was a great power forward but he was never an elite level scorer. He was an elite, he is an elite player for many years but now not so much. I think this guy has more offensive upside. He also plays a different position. But Garnett, you would never mention with guys like McHale and Duncan as the best power forwards ever from an offensive standpoint.
Wiggins has that kind of potential as a wing. I’m not saying he’s going to get there. How do you really know? He has no excuse not to be a First Team All-NBA player but saying he’ll be one of the top five offensive wings of all-time. That’s a stretch. You could never really predict that. Nobody said that about Kobe when he was 19.
ZH: I know position doesn’t really matter on the wing in terms of 2 or 3. Do you think it really matters with him in terms of providing a certain mentality? Or is it, ‘you’re a wing; do this?”
DT: I really don’t think it matters at all. It’s all based on system, scheme, strategies. There might be a system in place that’s really good for him, but he might be playing against a scheme or a group of schemes where strategically he’s not the best option to use. I think it’s more about being a complete basketball player inside and out.
I love that he looks to post up some now and I think you’ll see more and more of that. He is so athletic and so long, as long as he has a little craft in his game and a little handle, he should be able to get to spots on the floor and the mid-post to score. Jump over guys and score.