Timberwolves 113, Nuggets 105: Andrew Wiggins is a lightning sword

TheFaceOfDestruction

At a certain point, I feel like I’ve really got to make a conscious effort to pace myself with writing about Andrew Wiggins. Ideally, I’d get to break down every game of his, possession by possession. Like an overzealous father with a camcorder (I guess an iPhone in today’s modernity), I want to show not just the first steps of Wiggins’ career and break down how they’re better than the steps of just about anybody else we’ve ever seen at that age. That’s a weird feeling too because I am in no way related to Andrew Wiggins, so really I’m just breaking down someone else’s child.

This is the excitement that he brings. I wrote about his improvement earlier this week for CBSSports.com (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT! THIS IS NOT A DRILL! SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT!) and in it I showed how his improvement in attacking the basket has really transformed his scoring ability. He’s so good absorbing contact and finish right now that it’s also helping him draw fouls for easy points at the line too. What I failed to mention in the article is that he’s simply not taking bad shots unless he’s forced to at the end of the shot clock. Everything is within the natural flow of the game and Wiggins’ basketball IQ is shining through with his shot selection.

In the Minnesota Timberwolves113105 road victory over the Denver Nuggets, Wiggins set the tone early by knocking down his first six shots and eventually settled on new career highs with 31 points, four made 3-pointers, and three blocked shots. He went 11-of-17 from the field, 4-of-5 from 3, and even had nine rebounds, four assists, and a steal. He’s just the second teenager in NBA history (LeBron James is the other) to rack up 31 points, nine boards, four assists, and three blocks or better in a game.

That’s officially good. 

I don’t want to just make this a celebration of Wiggins because he wasn’t the sole reason they won this game. He was just a big reason they won the game. His 31 points led the team, but the Wolves’ entire team play in the fourth quarter was exactly what people have been waiting to see from them all season long. They shared the ball on offense, took a lot of quality shots, and they played good defense.

The Wolves shot 53.8% from the field, just the third time they’ve hit half of their shots or better this season. They’re 2-1 in those games with their only loss coming to the Dallas Mavericks. Clearly, they should just shoot better to win games. The real impressive part though was the way they locked down on defense in the second half. The Nuggets made just 36.4% of their shots in the second half, including 5-of-20 from 3-point range. Denver took 48 contested shots and 44 uncontested shots, which is a real victory for the Wolves. You’d obviously like all shots to be contested, but that’s not realistic. If you can keep it to a 1:1 ratio, the defense is solid.

Denver made 50.0% of their uncontested shots and just 33.3% of their contested shots. The Wolves’ defense was being rewarded for hard work, something that has been absent on a collective front for much of the injured season. It’s that kind of reward for the effort that can potentially breed that effort on a more regular basis.

The Wolves had their problems in the first half, and those problems need to be corrected. Thaddeus Young has taken over the Corey Brewer role of needless gambling in the half court on basic passes that he has no chance at stealing. When that happens, the Wolves are good enough or disciplined enough to have the proper coverage to make up for it. With Young gambling and Mo Williams essentially being as resistant as that chair Yi Jianlin and Darko Milicic used to work out against, you’re putting the Wolves at a huge disadvantage. Despite going against a point guard like Ty Lawson, the Wolves found themselves doing better and more fundamental work staying in front of their assignments.

One encouraging play in the second half came from Zach LaVine defending Jameer Nelson. Nelson is whatever at this point in his career, but it is proof that LaVine can be a good on-ball defender.

He uses his quick feet, length, and even gets around a screen properly with good help from Anthony Bennett to stick with a point guard who can be quite slippery in midrange areas with the ball. This was the type of defense the Wolves played in the second half of this game. This is the type of defense they need to play as much as possible. Guys like Bennett and Chase Budinger showing enough help without getting out of position. Weak side players not overreacting and instead staying home on assignments. This is defense.

The defense fueled the offense and we had a couple of turnovers and rebounds turn into LaVine highlights during the game. The first one was a breakaway in which he cocks the ball way back for the dunk but does it so casually that it’s routinely impressive:

The second play was a transition attack by LaVine in which he took one solid crossover move against bad transition defense and turned it into a two-handed dunk. This is what I have been begging for LaVine to do more of. Don’t settle for the jumper; attack the basket by using his quickness, length, and athleticism.

I should also mention how good Robbie Hummel was in his first start of the season. He played a career high in minutes (42-plus) and scored a career high in points (15) and grabbed a career high in rebounds (13). He was really good as both a small forward and a stretch-4 in this game. What I liked from Hummel in this game (outside of his defensive positioning) was he wasn’t afraid to take shots. He pulled the trigger almost instantly when he had space. Seven of his 12 shots were uncontested and he hit four of those. You can see the confidence he has in his game, which I’m not sure was totally there last season when he was a bit hesitant to take shots, even in blowouts.

Despite the early gambling by Young, he also returned to being an efficient player. While the defense can be frustrating from him, I really preach patience in his evaluations because he’s someone that needs a point guard like Ricky Rubio to set him up. He scored 22 points in the game, and he also dished out five assists because the Nuggets’ pressure was turning him into a point forward. I was surprised Denver went away from pressuring the ball full court because it was something that was working for them.

You can’t press in the NBA because the players are too good for it. But the Nuggets were going through stretches in which they denied Mo the ball on the inbound, forcing a wing to bring it up. Whether it was Young or Wiggins dribbling up the floor, the denial of Williams stayed consistent until they could get it to him around half court with six or seven seconds off the shot clock. Once it was given to Williams, Kenneth Faried would try to trap the ball in the corner of the half court and force a turnover. Even when they didn’t force a turnover, the Nuggets were able to retreat from the pressure and we’d see only eight or nine seconds left on the shot clock. It was effective for getting the Wolves out of their offense early and forcing them to rush quite a bit.

Without multiple ball handlers on the floor for Minnesota, Denver had the luxury of full court pressure, but I’m not sure we saw it once in the fourth quarter.

What we did see in the fourth was Gorgui Dieng bank in two face-up jumpers from the right side of the floor to keep the Wolves’ offense chugging along. That was a fun shot to see him confident to take and routinely make. I’m not sure you want him being a crunch time scorer but it’s nice to know that safety valve exists late in games (although two of his four turnovers came in the fourth).

Let’s close this out with a little more drooling over Wiggins. Everything with him just seems so effortless. The athleticism is almost all instinct and nothing he has to gear up for. He’s that special of an athlete, which makes sense when you look at who his parents are. This dunk in the first quarter coming off a curl cut is so casual and yet you don’t see this from NBA athletes. It’s catch, pro-hop, and elevate. There is no gearing up for the jump; it’s just “you have to jump now so do it.”

He follows that up by fading to the left corner, becoming a weak side threat on cross-court passes. It’s not just the quick release on the shot or where he’s shooting it from; it’s that this is the pass Ricky Rubio excels at and having him in a pick-and-roll with Gorgui, Pek, or Thad while Wiggins spreads the floor on the weak side will be an actual weapon the Wolves have at their disposal.

And we can stop saying, “wait until his shot improves,” because it’s there now. He’s hitting 41.4 percent of his 3-point shots and 37.5% on open 2-point jumpers outside of 10 feet. He’ll need to get better shooting against tight defenses but that comes from understanding spacing on the floor rather than waiting for a shot to come together.

I’ve had a lot of people asking me what Wiggins’ ceiling is, who he compares to, and what type of player he’s going to be. The one thing I feel confident in saying is I think his floor is the Paul George we saw in the first half of last season. They’re very similar in skill sets and defensive abilities. As far as how good Wiggins can be? I have no idea. That’s the fun thing with him. I simply can’t even begin to guess how high his game can go. I’m just excited that I get to write about it for a long time.

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