By: Drew Mahowald
At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a need to rave about how freaking bright the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves is. Those reading this are well aware that Minnesota is capable of Warriors-like dominance in the NBA within a few seasons.
But there is the need to rave about the greatness that is Andrew Wiggins. His first two seasons have been marked by eye-popping posterization slam dunks, lethal performances against the Cleveland Cavaliers and a magnificent spin move.
The steady improvement Wiggins displayed in his sophomore season was overshadowed by jaw-dropping, illustrious rookie season put together by 2015 No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, and it deserves more recognition. The athletic freak from Kansas set expectations high after a brilliant rookie season in 2014-15 that ended with a Rookie of the Year award to go with 17 points per game on over 43 percent shooting.
In 2015-16, Wiggins took major strides in rounding out his entire offensive and defensive arsenal. After a shaky start to the season that initially raised concerns about his offseason program and commitment to the game, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick started to display better passing, improved rebounding and increased scoring efficiency. Overall, Wiggins averaged 20.7 points per game -- tops on the Timberwolves -- on just under 46 percent shooting as a sophomore.
While the Internet repeatedly shoved its attention toward Karl-Anthony Towns -- rightfully so, much of the time -- Wiggins quietly made solid improvements in assist rate (9.8 to 10.1 percent), free throw rate (.410 to .437 percent), effective field goal percentage (.454 to .481), true shooting percentage (.517 to .543), turnover rate (11.7 to 10.6 percent) and PER (13.9 to 16.5).
The most notable positive development Wiggins experienced on the offensive side of the ball came as a passer and as a three-point shooter. On the surface, Wiggins’ passing doesn’t appear to improve at all -- he actually averaged less assists per game in his second season. But his uptick in assist rate suggests he became more efficient as a passer in 2015-16.
Even without looking at the analytics, Wiggins’ passing improvements are evident. All fans have to do is rewatch the video of Ricky Rubio’s buzzer-beating three to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to see the improvements.
If this play happened in his rookie season, there is absolutely no way Wiggins gives up that ball. He’d go up strong and attempt to win that game for his team among the trees. Would he be successful? It’s possible. Is a wide open look from Rubio at the three-point line a better bet? Probably, especially given where Wiggins was relative to the hoop.
That was certainly far from the only instance Wiggins made a kick-out pass after penetrating the lane. As the season wore on, ‘Air Canada’ grew more and more adept at attacking the paint, recognizing the help defense and kicking the ball out to a teammate on the perimeter.
Speaking of the perimeter, Wiggins’ three-point shooting was also a hot topic of debate throughout his second season. After shooting barely over 30 percent as a rookie, naysayers looked for a much higher number in the young phenom’s sophomore campaign.
Well, those naysayers didn’t receive a higher three-point percentage for the season. In fact, they received a lower number -- 30 percent even.
However, it’s really not as bad as it sounds. The bright side to that 30 percent is that as the season wore on, Wiggins became much more efficient from beyond the arc. In the months of November, December and January, Wiggins shot just 32.5 percent, 17.1 percent and 21.6 percent, respectively, from deep. He followed those first three months of mediocre shooting by knocking down 38.1 percent of treys in February, 42.9 percent in March and 36.8 percent in April.
If Wiggins is able to carry his three-point efficiency from the final three months of 2015-16 into 2016-17, there will be no further doubts regarding his perimeter shooting ability.
On the defensive end, Wiggins also took small steps in the right direction. This is evidenced by the difference in defended field goal percentages -- the field goal percentage of an opponent when Wiggins is defending the shot. During his rookie campaign, Wiggins surrendered an overall defended field goal percentage of 47.2 percent. He improved on this mark in 2015-16, allowing a 45 percent defended field goal percentage. In every shot category measured by NBA.com -- two-pointers, three-pointers, less than six feet, less than ten feet and greater than 15 feet -- Wiggins put up a better defended field goal percentage in his second season.
All in all, Wiggins was a solid defender in 2015-16, but he was nothing spectacular. The shooting percentages he surrendered weren’t anything special. Having said that, the physical tools Wiggins possesses give him all the potential in the world to become an elite perimeter defender.
In fact, on both sides of the ball, Wiggins is physically capable of becoming an elite player. He made significant improvements to his offensive repertoire while, at the bare minimum, improving from his rookie season on the defensive end.
New head coach Tom Thibodeau brings a hard-nosed defensive mentality to a Timberwolves team that has struggled mightily on that end of the floor for years now. Given Wiggins’ tendencies to become a lazy defender at times, Thibodeau seems like the perfect coach to mold Wiggins into the elite defender he has the potential to be.
As the Timberwolves begin a new era under Thibodeau, fans have quite a bit to be excited about. Obviously, Towns’ sensational rookie campaign will deservedly garner much of the attention in that aspect. However, Wiggins has put together two darn good seasons that are on par with other players that have grown into superstars.
Make no mistake about it -- Andrew Wiggins is a budding superstar.
All stats used are from nba.com/stats or basketball-reference.com