Expectations: The Early Careers of Andrew Wiggins & Zach LaVine

Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins, left, and Zach LaVine pose during the NBA basketball team's media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Minnesota Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins, left, and Zach LaVine pose during the NBA basketball team’s media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Between learning the NBA game, a new city, and a new team, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have been through a lot together.

When LaVine became a pro, evaluating what his initial role with the team was very hard to gauge. He was drafted as an unproven combo guard, who struggled even to find a slot on a good-but-not-great UCLA squad. Of course, the talent was clear. His jump shot, while inconsistent coming into the NBA, has a clean look to it both off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations. Whether he’d even play point guard or not, his handle was always a useful tool for offenses. He can dunk, too.

Still, as the Wolves decided to transition out of the Kevin Love era, Zach LaVine was one of the first pieces in that new regime. But it wasn’t until Love was actually traded, and Andrew Wiggins brought in, before it started to make sense.

Naturally, the hype and expectations  of the top pick Wiggins were much higher coming in. The Kansas product had expectations and player comparisons coming in that ranged from Scottie Pippen to Paul George to “at-worst” DeMar DeRozan. His defensive potential, ability to find an easy bucket inside, and top-notch footwork made him the top choice in the draft. Also: he can dunk as well.

Fast forward three years. For all intents and purposes, Flip Saunders got it right on these two.  Wiggins has a rookie of the year title under his belt, LaVine played some point guard, won a couple dunk titles, and has transitioned to the team’s full-time shooting guard.

But the best part about this pair’s journey to 2016? Their fit together is blossoming and working more and more.

Through the years and the development, the inevitability of a “Wig vs Zach” narrative seemed like destiny. With that, the “is LaVine surpassing Wiggins?” chatter began midway through last year when Zach got moved to permanently off the ball. For better or for worse (and whether or not it really matters), that narrative implies that, at the very least, the Wolves have two guys not named Karl that can score 20+ points on a consistent basis. Their methods are different, and the three point shot may be why some are starting to prefer LaVine.

LaVine spends most of his time on the perimeter, spotting up for threes or slashing to the rim with his improved finishing ability at the rim. But LaVine is an outside threat for the most part, shooting nearly 50 percent so far this season from deep, a trend he picked up midway through last season.

Still, the added ability to finish at the rim is a huge plus, and should make it harder for defenders to play overly tight on the perimeter. He’s always had the quickness and handle to get to the rim, but his willingness to take on contact was where the shots would normally go awry.

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This year, he’s much more willing to take on contact. In addition, his dribble drives to the rim are much more aggressive, while remaining under control.

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The sample size remains small, but the most exciting development of Wiggins’ game so far this season is his improved three point shot. Not only is he the league’s leading shooter from deep so far at over 60 percent, the confidence that he takes his shots with is apparent, even by body language.

Here’s him pulling up from deep last year.

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Now here’s him this year. Notice the difference in speed of the pull-up, the more refined form (a quicker flick of the wrist), and the overall confidence in which he’s taking them. No hesitation.

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The improvements in the offensive weaknesses is a nice addition, but the best part is that each seems to know and understand their role quite well. Wiggins takes the ball from all over the floor, and is a noticeably improved shooter, but is generally going to take shots from inside and in post-up situations. LaVine’s catch-and-shoot ability has become downright scary on some nights. While Wiggins’ assist numbers have occasionally come into question, both remain willing passers as well.

Defensively, Wiggins came into the league with a more refined sense of what to do. But as time has passed, it has become clear that both have a ways to go to become the lockdown gurus Tom Thibodeau wants them to be. The often-criticized 2-man lineups indicate that while the pair play wonderful offense together, with a 109.4 offensive rating. That is not shocking, but the pair of them also show for a 112.2 defensive rating when on the floor together. This, of course, often depends on what teammates are around him (hint: the presence of Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns helps).

Both are generally inconsistent but high-potential defensive players, and both (especially Zach, in my opinion) have shown major improvements through the past two years and change. Neither are at a point to where Thibs will feel totally comfortable giving an assignment against the other team’s best player, but both might be close.

When they entered the league, they were high-profile prospects, but still one-and-done unprovens. Two years later, they are very much proven NBA players, looking to improve the obvious kinks to their game, all while being walking examples of what hard work can do for your game.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who ends up “surpassing” who. They entered the league together, and continue to work on getting better together.

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One Responseso far.

  1. seanie blue says:

    Unfortunately, Zach forces Wiggins to play the 3, which is not sustainable. We’ve just seen an explosive performance from a vastly improved Wiggins playing as the 2. He’s a much better defender there, and overwhelms any defender who is his size. Zach is a force of nature, but he will never be the equal of Wiggins unless he shares the floor with him and causes him to be worn down by bigger players. Our man Tibs is learning as he goes, as we’ve seen with his use of his point guards, and if continues to play Wiggins at the 2 he will be giving the league a riddle that cannot be solved.

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