Ever since breaking into the league in September 2014, Andrew Wiggins has been a reliable force on offense. He can harass opposing team’s defense in a plethora of ways. The combination of his bouncy, sinewy athleticism and tendency to throw defenders out of position results in him getting to the foul line in myriad ways, his Eurostep is quickly becoming one of the best and most effective in the league, and, apparently, he can now hit threes!
But it wasn’t solely his offensive prowess and potential that had NBA scouts drooling during his days at the University of Kansas. Rather, it was his defensive potential and raw tools that had the Cleveland Cavaliers (and many others) convinced that Andrew Wiggins was not only the correct choice to be selected number one overall, but a superstar to be.
Wiggins stands 6’8” tall and boasts a 7’0” wingspan. Combine that height and length with his unfair athleticism and solid lateral quickness and it becomes obvious that Wiggins possess all of the building blocks for becoming an elite defender. The only real knock against the high-flying Canadian is his slight frame – he weighs just under 200 pounds – however, as young as he is, it is all but inevitable that Wiggins will one day grow into his body. The prospects are simply tantalizing; he has the length to be a disruptive wing defender, the quickness to be able to switch onto point guards from time to time, and, should he ever gain his “grown man muscle” he should be able to capably guard fours.
However, heading into his third season, much of the defensive hype surrounding Wiggins had yet to come to fruition. He had shown flashes of brilliance – such as defending James Harden admirably during his rookie season – and lapses that were inconsistent with how elite defenders go about their business (cue video of Wiggins losing his man who cuts for a wide open dunk). The broadest, most wide-sweeping generalization that could be made about Wiggins and his defense is that his performance hinges on two elements: consistency and effort. As many young athletes are prone to do, Wiggins has often defended to his competition. When he is matched up against an All-Star, by in large, Wiggins shows up to play; when he is matched up against a player of a lesser caliber, Wiggins is at a greater risk for taking a few plays off.
These deficiencies in consistency and effort were sure to change when Tom Thibodeau was introduced as the Wolves new head coach last April and now that we are 10 games into the season I figured it would be a good time to analyze how Wiggins has adapted thus far.
Wiggins’ early returns on defense appear to be underwhelming, perhaps even disappointing, when looking strictly at the numbers. His defensive rating (DRTG) is 108.8 according to NBA.com and 115 according to Basketball-Reference. His defensive box plus/minus is -4.6 and defensive win shares sits at 0.0. However, it cannot be understated how reliant on the defensive performance of teammates these stats are; it makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to suss out any meaning of individual defensive performance.
To help provide some perspective, below are the five most common lineups the Wolves trot out in terms of overall minutes played, according to NBA.com:
|Lineup||Minutes||DRTG||Opp. FG%||Opp. 3P%|
Wiggins is involved in four of the five lineups and none of them are particularly effective at stopping the other team from getting buckets. This isn’t to say Wiggins isn’t partially to blame for each lineup’s and, thus, his own defensive rating being extraordinarily high, but to put the blame solely on him would be irresponsible.
Perhaps much more useful stats to look at when trying to determine a player’s individual impact on defense are NBA.com’s defended field goal percentage (DFG%) and – the very blandly named – difference percentage (Diff%). The defended field goal percentage is simply the field goal of opposing players when they are defended by a given player. Difference percentage compares the defended field goal percentage to the “normal” field goal percentage of opposing players. Therefore, a more negative difference percentage would indicate “good” defense, while a more positive number would indicate “bad” defense. Below are Andrew Wiggins’ most up to date numbers:
These data would indicate that at this moment Wiggins is a pretty solid wing defender (negative difference percentage on twos greater than 15 feet and threes), but a very poor interior defender. That would seem intuitive given his slender frame and long wing span and has more or less been backed up by the eye test. Wiggins has struggled defending physical, more interior-centric players, such as Rudy Gay, and has performed better against more perimeter oriented players, like Evan Fournier.
But enough about numbers. The best way to determine how well Wiggins has been performing on defense this year is by turning to the game tape. The following are good and bad examples of Wiggins defending in a variety of scenarios (h/t to our very own Zach Harper for the videos).
The Good: Man-to-Man
The Bad: Man-to-Man
A common theme can be derived from these first six videos: Wiggins is at his best defending man-to-man when he relies on his lateral quickness to stay in front of his man. He gets himself in trouble when he doesn’t trust his feet and hips to do all the heavy lifting and instead resigns to swiping at the ball with his hands. This is a pretty common tendency for players to fall upon, but the first step in Wiggins unlocking his true defensive potential is through relying on his feet and not his hands.
The Good: Close Outs
In this first video, Wiggins does a good job at preventing Danilo Gallinari from getting an easy hand-off pass from either Nikola Jokic or Jusuf Nurkic (they’re both tall, white guys wearing yellow shoes so it’s difficult to tell them apart) and forcing him to cut back to his original position. He does a nice job at staying in close proximity to Gallinari and contesting the shot. Sometimes they just go in.
Here, although he bites for the Aaron Gordon pump fake, he does a good job at directing his contest towards the baseline, forcing Gordon to drive towards the middle of the lane, right into the help of Tyus Jones and Karl-Anthony Towns. If you’re going to bite on a pump, at least cause a drive into a congested lane and that’s exactly what Wiggins did.
In the final video, Wiggins does a nice job a fighting through a plethora of screens and, with the help of Jones, denies Fournier from a taking the initial three. After Ibaka dishes the ball back to Fournier, Wiggins does a good job at fighting through yet another screen, keeping Fournier close and getting his hand up right as Fournier releases the shot.
Again, the common theme here is that Wiggins is doing his best close out defending when he is taking advantage of his athleticism and quickness, allowing him to keep his man close. He can then utilize his length to disrupt opponent shots.
The Bad: Close Outs
This all comes down to effort. In the first video, Wiggins doesn’t even attempt to close out on the wide open Ty Lawson and in the second he makes a half-hearted lung at the wide open Grizzlies’ player. Wiggins has not only the speed close both of the gaps shown above, but the length to disrupt the shot. In these situations, he needs to put forth the effort to get out and be disruptive.
The Good: Rotations
Wiggins does a good job at stunting over towards the driving Lawson after he burned by Kris Dunn. This caused Lawson to have to kick out to Matt Barnes for a three, rather than getting an easy layup. Wiggins then does a good job of closing out and contesting Barnes’ attempt, which ultimately rims out.
In this video, Wiggins was put in a pretty tough spot. Jones made the decision to slide over in an attempt to steal the ball from Nikola Vucevic, leaving Wiggins to have to cover both D.J. Augustin and Aaron Gordon. Wiggins does a good job at rotating over to Augustin in a controlled manner, forcing him to pass to Gordon. Wiggins then uses his speed and length to get to Gordon and disrupt his shot.
Similar to with close outs, Wiggins provides his best rotations when he’s taking advantage of his natural gifts and putting in the effort.
The Bad: Rotations
Admittedly, Wiggins found himself in a pretty tough spot here. He was left on an island having to choose between defending JaMychal Green or Vince Carter. Wiggins stunted in an attempt to bait the Green pass to Carter in the corner, but Green went straight for the shot. The most important thing on the court, however, is the ball, and being that Green never even bluffed a pass, Wiggins should have gone for the close out on him, especially since Cole Aldrich was rotating over to pick up Carter.
Here, Wiggins just straight up loses track of his man, which leads to a wide open corner three. Wiggins has to be more aware of where his man and less dialed into where the ball is.
Wiggins’ performance on defense thus far this season has not been as bad as the numbers indicate. He’s done a good job at defending on the perimeter while struggling to defend closer to the basket. The consistency and effort still need to improve, but he’s shown signs of improvement in both of these categories already this season.
As I have stated in the past, it may take time for Wiggins and the rest of the Wolves to truly grasp Thibodeau’s strategies and techniques. Although the results haven’t risen to the surface quite yet (the team ranks 29th in defensive rating and 19th in opponent points per game at this point) individual players have shown improvement from last season, at least on a man-to-man level. How long it will take for them to grab hold of Thibodeau’s teachings and improve the team defense is yet to be seen. However, as was shown in the Wiggins’ videos above, he (and the rest of the team) are doing some things well, but what it comes down to are consistency and effort.