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The Silent Smiling of Andrew Wiggins

At every Timberwolves game are a handful of constants: Thibs standing for the full 48 minutes, barking orders at his players and cussing out referees; the Jamal Crawford-led bench standing up until the Wolves score their first basket; Jimmy Butler controlling the offense; Taj Gibson Doing His Job; Karl-Anthony Towns playing with outward emotion, whether it be celebrating highlights or crying to the officials over missed calls; fans going bananas whenever an opposing player misses his first free throw in the fourth quarter (CHERRY BERRY!);

and Andrew Wiggins smiling during breaks in the action.

No matter if his Wolves are winning or losing by 20, or if the game is tied with 30 seconds to go, if there is a break in the action and Wiggins has 10 seconds to converse with a teammate, there’s a good chance he’ll end up chuckling about something. If Thibs calls a timeout to explode over a failed rotation or dumb turnover, there is usually a minute before they re-take the floor when everybody is just quiet and resting. After that time expires and the players check back in, Wiggins can often be seen chatting and giggling with a teammate or two. Perhaps he’s entertained by his coach’s antics, like many viewers are. His mood does not depend on what’s happening in the game, nor does it depend on his own scoring success.  When he checked out of Thursday’s win over the Bucks with a minute to go, he was laughing his ass off about something.  He had played well defensively, but his 7 points on 3-10 shooting were hardly the stuff to make a scorer like himself feel good about his own performance. Nevertheless, he seemed happy as can be.

Wiggins smiling so much during games is interesting because we know so little about his personality. Publicly he’s very quiet. When asked questions, Wig answers them efficiently. A question set up for a “yes or no” is liable to get the reporter exactly one word or the other; no more. This could mean that he’s annoyed by interviews and media coverage, but it never comes across that way. Wiggins is not Popovich. Rather, it seems more like he has an advanced understanding of how ridiculous everybody else’s interest in him is, and he feels no need to construct an image or persona.

Or, maybe he’s just that way with everybody.

We want to know what motivates great players. Motivation helps us follow along and understand what’s happening. It tells the why. Karl-Anthony Towns wants to be an all-time great player. His own success drives him. He has been not-subtly-at-all working to craft his own brand as The Perfect Player since the moment he entered the league. Jimmy Butler is an Alpha Dawg. He works. He expects his teammates to do the same. His voice will be dominant. He’s funny at times, possibly overbearing at others.

Wiggins is not great yet, but that is supposed to be his destiny. His veteran teammates rave about how talented he is (Butler) and how easy the game comes to him (Crawford). We’d feel less anxious about his prospects if we knew what he was thinking. But when he’s asked about things like Glen Taylor wanting to meet him face-to-face before offering a max contract, he just says, “He’s offering all that money, he can do whatever he wants to do.” And then he laughs. When he’s asked about transitioning from Ricky Rubio — a player with whom he shared great on-court chemistry — to Jeff Teague, he just says that “We’ll see.” And then he smiles, teasing what might be thinking, “How the hell do I know what playing with Jeff Teague will be like?” Point taken.

This is the first time in approximately forever that Wiggins has had the same coach for two consecutive seasons. In the NBA alone he went from Flip Saunders to Sam Mitchell, to Thibs.

In that rookie season, Flip devoted the vast majority of his time, energy, and available in-game sets to ensuring that Andrew Wiggins became a special scorer and did not “coast.” That these two people — Wig and Flip — fell on opposite sides of the Talkative Spectrum probably frustrated and intrigued the gregarious Saunders. By that rookie season’s end, Wig was living at the free throw line and posting big numbers with consistency.

In Year 2, with interim head coach Sam Mitchell, Wiggins continued to progress as a scorer, but was now sharing the spotlight — and the basketball — with Towns. Mitchell was famously old-school on a lot of matters (lamenting the AAU culture in many a post-game pressers) and he could be hard on his players. He admitted, interestingly, that he did not yell at Wiggins. He said that it was not an effective way to communicate with him. This would’ve marked quite a change from Wig’s rookie season when Flip was maniacally obsessed with keeping Wig’s motor hot. Even if Sam’s bark came with more threat of a bite than Flip’s (Sam once fought Vince Carter in the locker room, for instance) the shift of treatment would seem pretty radical.

How do you coach a player who stays silent and smiles so much?

Now he has Thibs, who yells all the time at everybody. Wiggins receives no special attention in the offense, nor does he receive any special type of treatment from the coach. At least it doesn’t seem like he does. His offense is taking a backseat to Butler, his defense is showing real signs of improvement, and he just keeps on playing, keeps on smiling.

When Glen Taylor said that thing about needing to meet personally with Wiggins, he drew a fair amount of criticism. Some people thought it was offensive, for different reasons. I wonder if Taylor just wanted the conversation for his own curiosity about who Andrew Wiggins really is. None of us know, many of us would like to know, and it does not seem as if answers will be coming anytime soon. With Butler around for at least another season after this one, Wig can continue to be who he likes. He does his job and takes no days off, keeps his personality to himself, and the only thing he’ll share is that big smile.

The question we have is what’s behind it.

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5 thoughts on “The Silent Smiling of Andrew Wiggins

  1. Great article Andy G. It is tough to watch Wiggins laugh with the competition, when he is throwing up a 4-17 night, little to no rebounds and an assist(?), how about calling them an attempt of a meaningful pass? I’ve always thought that this guy has played so many basketball games, that he lost his competitive edge and sees almost every game like an exhibition. The Cavs and Raptors get his blood up and he can take over a game. He can even make FT in these games, where other nights, the act of shooting FT just seems to bore him.

    He has improved his game some this year and seems to be more engaged under the basket for rebounds, steals and blocks. I don’t think he will ever be a great distributor, partly because he never had to and partly because he isn’t the focus of the offense. He is elevating his game to be viewed as a sidekick to Jimmy Butler, and his body language usually gets him the nickname from DemBluez of Captain Casual. It is the body language that makes the laughing and smiling so difficult to endure. However, some stars like to smile while they cut your hearts out, so maybe that will be Wiggins. He isn’t going to say anything until he is good enough to kill like Black Mamba or his Airness. So when opponents trash talk to young Andrew he just smiles. Inside he may be fire and brimstone, but he doesn’t want anyone to think they got the best of him. My fear is that he is too patient to be a true All-Star. He has the nickname, Maple Jordan. He has the nearly twenty ppg average. He can be a good defender. He makes poster dunks on some of the tallest shot blockers. He can do it all. However, he doesn’t play big in all games and many times plays down to the competition in small games. He rarely hustles for a ball on the floor or going out of bounds, like Butler does. He is a guy that grew up in NBA circles and maybe just doesn’t see the work that all-stars have to do to be great. He just always was the most talented. Let someone else do the dirty work, he was the scorer supreme. I think that Andrew is at a crossroads. He can be serviceable and have a long career in the league just by showing up. Another Mitch Wiggins, which isn’t bad. OR he can get stronger, work on a better handle and three point shot and take his game to the next level and be smiling and laughing all the way to the bank for 15 more years. Having guys like Jimmy Butler and KAT, say that they played with Maple Jordan. We have watched this kid for almost five years and we still don’t know which he is going to be,star or sidekick, or what is behind that laugh or smile.

  2. I don’t spend my nights staring at the ceiling, trying to fall asleep, wondering, ‘What is Andrew Wiggins REALLY like?’

    It’s kind of like a tigerbeat heart throb, except for basketball talent. ‘There must be something behind him! He’s so good at basketball. I wish there was an article that told us all his favorite things, his likes and dislikes, his dog’s name.’ I really don’t care. And I’m somewhat less impressed by his natural basketball talent than the average serious follower of the Wolves. I mean, there’s just not a lot there. He’s a pretty blank guy, for lack of a better word. Actually, quite a majority of pro athletes are boring people otherwise. He’s a blank, generally good natured guy, with not a huge amount going on upstairs. That’s typical. He’s not stupid at all. He’s just not full of personality or interesting secret thoughts. This not only is clear from off court and interview tidbits, but from his play (lack of focus, intensity, competitive spirit, energy, etc) and his ‘body language’ out there.

    As a basketball talent only, I’m not gripped with fascination, either. He’s never going to be great. He’s been over hyped, given favoritism with this organization for long enough. My focus is generally elsewhere. He’s an overpaid piece to me at this point until he suddenly becomes a very different player. Lost in his numbers are his shots taken and how that makes him quite inefficient as a player, in reality. It looks good to say he almost average 20 a game, but the inefficient way he gets those numbers often hurts the team. For his player profile, he’s taking too many shots. And he’s not really playing 2nd fiddle to Jimmy. He has a pretty close second in attempts, I would guess (unlike Towns who is getting less). He gets enough shots to easily be leading the team in scoring, but due to inefficient play is behind Butler 21.9 and Towns 19.9 with 17.9. That says a lot. It also says a lot that people feel the need to pat a max player on the back for not disappearing and playing some D on a bad shooting night where his stat line was 7pts (10 attempts) 6 reb, 0 assists, 2 TO, 3 St, 1 Blk. For HIM, those are good ‘do sh*t’ numbers. But for a player of his ability, we should be numb to numbers like that, not excited he didn’t totally crap out of a game he wasn’t scoring and taking a lot of shots in. I’m getting as bored with Andrew Wiggins as he seems to be during an interview.

    1. So pyrrol which is it, are you somewhat less impressed by his natural basketball talent relative to the serious fan or are you disappointed in his production for a player of his ability? No, I think I hear you. It’s hard to understand why you Don’t get more from a guy w/ Andrew’s gifts. I think he is still raw and he does not have an alpha mentality like so many we compare him to. Will he become more refined, yes. Will that lead to superstar status? Not sure. How many non-alpha’s in sport or other industries are superstars? I can’t think of anyone. Not one. I enjoy watching him, beautiful athleticism. B/c the giftedness is extreme, you want dominance, we all want to see it. Maybe Andrew is not built to be a killer.

  3. I’m actually quite happy with Wiggins and his max contract for the next 5 years and let me explain:
    His play this year outside of scoring has improved a lot. His defense was terrible before and this year you can see the effort and he’s been posting consistent steals/blocks numbers on the stat sheet. Also over the last handful of games Wiggins has been working on his scoring efficiency. Either driving to the basket or shooting 3s. He is missing a lot of layups now but the important thing to see is that he is trying to finish at the rim. The talent in him is how easy he can drive to the basket even now. Once he gets stronger and improves his handle he will be an All-Star guaranteed.
    Regarding his personality, its perfect! Too many times young players get inflated egos and it just ruins team chemistry and eventually one gets traded for nothing. We’ve seen it with Marbury and KG here and most recently with KD,Harden, and Westbrook. Wiggins is not the alpha dog personality and to see him smile when scoring 7 points while the team is up by 15 in the 4th quarter is encouraging. Go Wolves!

    1. Ah, to have such a sunny outlook! Honestly, Wiggins is in position to make doubters look bad because of his natural abilities and the fact that he’s still so young.

      On the other hand, the cynics have some ammo, here. For most of 4 seasons, Wiggins has basically been a one dimensional, inconsistent, inefficient volume scorer as a player. There aren’t legitimate statistical reasons to have him out there other than scoring, but night to night you don’t know what kind of effort or results you’ll get from him, and overall as a player he’s fairly inefficient as a scorer. This season he’s improved on D a little (while Towns has more). Maybe he’s on the cusp of really turning into something on D and I can’t see it in front of me. Right now I see a player that I wouldn’t describe as a good team or individual defender. He’s gone from about 0 to 10 miles an hour as far as his D stats go. He’s still barely rolling, despite some improvement. The improvement, the actually starting to do a few measurable things on D, opens the imagination up. What if he becomes a bit of a Jimmy Butler type guy? I guess it is a matter of degrees and how you see things. For me, his defense improvement could mean next to nothing, but at best is never going to lead to a player that reminds anyone of Jimmy Butler, or an effort/lock down D guy. On the flip side, perhaps he’s trying hard to be more efficient now, but that seems like stretch to me. He turns in inefficient games all the time currently, and each game, takes a variety of inefficient shots. So far the two best tools for efficient play are a no show from him: three point shooting and drives to the rim. His athletic ability and length make him OK taking it to the rim. But he doesn’t have a great nose for it. When he gets there he’s likely to try to arm it in rather than plant and jump for dunks. His handle is poor and hasn’t improved a lot and this greatly limits his ability to find the rim in the half court. He also isn’t strong, and this affects both his ability to finish in traffic and his ability to draw fouls (think Butler here). His 3 pt shooting hasn’t really become a weapon yet. To call him streaky would not be accurate. He doesn’t hit them enough to be streaky. He has short, rare periods where he’s an average to above average 3 pt shooter for his position, otherwise, most of the time he’s average at best, or below, with little feel for when he should be taking them. His handle again limits his ability to get good 3 pt looks one and one, and he relies on others getting him catch and shoot looks for his shots because he can’t really create off the dribble.

      The point of the column is that through some apparent lack of personality, it is hard to tell what his personality actually is. I think when folks critique his personality it is mostly because it appears to be a huge part of his on court product–basically, an inconsistent player who could never be accused of putting in impressive amounts of effort (think Butler or even Towns and Gibson). He seems unfocused, disinterested, not particularly competitive… It could be seen as highly rosy to describe his personality as a huge plus because his ego won’t drive anyone away. Who’s to say he doesn’t have a huge ego? He doesn’t seem real interested in playing hard if he’s not taking a lot of shots… I don’t like the ball hog aspect of Harden and Westbrook at all, but they aren’t a good comp with Wiggins because they are massively better basketball players. Starbury was an issue. But KG? He ran great teams. He left because he was sick of the organization not giving him more talent. But he was liked when he was here and was a great leader. I’d take a guy like that any day of the week. I think Love is a better example of a ‘toxic ego’ Wolf. Although, again, most of his displeasure was aimed at an organization which did not provide supporting talent consistently. As for Wiggins, no one seems to have chemistry with the guy. There’s not a lot there to have chemistry with… I don’t like that. He’s not some loud guy demanding things, which is good I guess, but he’s not an effort guy, not a leader, hasn’t developed notable chemistry with any player he’s played with and gives bad interviews. Not sure what I’m supposed to be positive about… That he’s not a giant prima donna? Also worth mentioning that even if the outward signs aren’t strong, there’s usually some sort of ego issues with folks as coddled as Wiggins has been. As a youth he was the next big thing, the next LeBron. Then he was the #1 pick. Then the Wolves coddled him and put him in a no consequence environment his entire time here. He’s not had to work for things like Jimmy has at times in his life. And I think that does show up on the court.

      There is still a lot there, but in my best estimate the equation doesn’t add up to him being a great player or even worth the money we pay him. Suddenly, the Wolves are sort of ‘cool’ and Jimmy and KAT got voted in as All Stars. Wiggins wasn’t really close. He has a long way to go to match the hype. I simply don’t expect that. I hope for great things, though.

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