Andrew Wiggins, refreshed and reborn, savors Finals journey with Warriors

Andrew Wiggins’ play on both ends of the floor has proven integral to Golden State.

SAN FRANCISCO — Andrew Wiggins was born in the year 1995, reborn in the year 2022. His time between riches and ridicule, steep projections and curious rejections, and of course losing and winning, basketball life spans that are absolutely polar. opposite.

And now he’s landed here, on the cusp of championship glory, the place he seemed destined for, but not after a detour to a very cold spot: OK, Minnesota. This arrival was notably marked by a moment of rage a week ago that revealed how the trip frustrated and then renewed him.

He grabbed the ball, drove the lane, got up on two feet, dived, got up and got up some more, and sank right into Luka Doncic’s skull. And at that moment, Wiggins did something totally out of character: he roared to let you know.

Even then, after his made-for-YouTube slam in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against Dallas became an instant, Wiggins still couldn’t get all the respect he deserved. He was initially called for pushing, an offensive foul that was later overturned on replay.

“They tried to take it away from me,” Wiggins said with a half smile, incredulous and perhaps also tired of so many years of being accused of basketball-related infractions that actually stuck.

The biggest, obviously, is how he wasn’t worthy of being the first overall pick in the Draft. The story of how this small forward found a home with the Golden State Warriors can’t be told without explaining how he wasn’t quite right for nearly six years with the Timberwolves. Comebacks are like that, and that’s what makes these stories endearing, and what makes the person in question easy to support, and what’s coming in the future, in this case, the upcoming 2022 NBA Finals, so intriguing.

“I’m grateful,” Wiggins said. “It is a beautiful story. Lots of ups and downs.”

In 2014, it was the top prize in the Draft. In such cases, the drafted player is immediately saddled with, or perhaps cursed with, a widespread expectation of greatness. And in Wiggins’ case, those high hopes weren’t too far-fetched if only because they seemed like organic destiny.

He is a descendant of former Olympian Marita Payne, who is still among the fastest sprinters in Canadian history, and Mitchell Wiggins, who started for the Rockets when they reached the 1986 NBA Finals. All that fiber of The fast twitch came to Andrew, who became the most celebrated Canadian-born prospect of all time—“Maple Jordan” was the catchy anointing—and who had a nice one-year college layover at blue-blooded Kansas, where he was considered a better NBA prospect than his teammate, future Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid.

The Cavs had the No. 1 pick and took Wiggins, but they also brought back LeBron James from his four-year stint in Miami. So they shipped Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love, who is now ready to win. Wiggins was good early on, winning Kia’s Rookie of the Year Award, and continued to better numbers for two straight seasons, averaging 20.7 points and then 23.6 while teaming with Karl-Anthony Towns, another No. 1 overall pick.

Then his production and efficiency dropped after Wiggins signed a $148 million rookie-max extension, making him Minnesota’s highest-paid player since Kevin Garnett. Except he didn’t deliver anywhere near the level of the former MVP. The All-Star appointments never came. Hell, not even a single Player of the Week award. Wiggins was pretty decent. He just wasn’t cool, and that was his crime. If he had been the 10th pick, for example, no one would care. And, true to his easy-going nature, Wiggins wasn’t fiery or expressive on the court, leading to the unfair assumption that he didn’t care about him.

Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins express their gratitude to each other after eliminating the Mavericks.

There was also that team practice on an infamous day in 2018 when Jimmy Butler and four bench players lashed out at the other Minnesota starters, with Butler claiming in a fit of rage that those starters, which of course included Wiggins, were “soft” and involved that he couldn’t win with them. Butler subsequently took advantage of a trade to Philadelphia.

Speaking of which: The Timberwolves kept losing, going 174-285 with Wiggins. They didn’t make the playoffs for 10 years before him and only made it once in their 5 1/2 years with him. As a franchise, the Timberwolves got stuck in reverse, still an NBA afterthought.

So that’s the backstory. And while the Warriors are saying all the right things now about Wiggins, there was a modicum of doubt when they traded D’Angelo Russell for him in February 2020. Why else would the Warriors demand a protected No. 1 pick in the package? Smart trading, sure. But they also wanted insurance… just in case. And the Wolves were so desperate to get rid of Wiggins that they actually said yes to the pick (who became Jonathan Kuminga in 2021).

When Wiggins came to a franchise that made it to the NBA Finals five years in a row, the Warriors started to lose. It wasn’t Wiggins’ fault; this was during Klay Thompson’s two-year recovery odyssey, and Steph Curry also went lame.

During this time, Wiggins was little better than Golden State expected. His 3-point shooting improved. He messed with the system. Nothing great, but still. Wiggins averaged 18.6 points in his first full season with the Warriors on a career-best 47.7% shooting rate.

“Wiggs understands the nuances of winning basketball and how to take advantage of the little things,” Curry said. “Consistent effort on defense, taking those challenges one-on-one, being aggressive on the offensive end, using his athletic ability to get to the rim if necessary, confidence in 3-point shooting. Those are the things that help you win.”

All of this goodwill and promise nearly unraveled when Wiggins hesitated to get the COVID vaccine before this season, then relented at the last minute when he realized that, being based in California, he would only play a fraction of games. And then the payoff: Wiggins was named an All-Star starter this year, fueled largely by fan voting.

“I thought I was dreaming for a second,” he said. “I was like, what’s going on?”

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With the Warriors back in full force, Wiggins was installed as a secondary option who sometimes played better. Unlike Minnesota, he didn’t need to save a franchise or be an alpha dog or live up to anyone’s outrageous expectations. As Draymond Green said: “We want Wiggs to be Wiggs.”

Then in these playoffs, Wiggs was something else: He went to work. All the breathless athleticism, rebounding and reflexes came together, especially in the Dallas series, where Wiggins was the first line of defense against Doncic, and also had furious stretches of scoring, with jump shots and dribbles. He played wisely, rarely forced shots, looked for his comfort zone, took advantage of opportunities to hit.

“On the biggest stage,” Green said, “he has outdone.”

With his two-way ability, the 6-foot-7 Wiggins, just 27, is the new (albeit not quite as accomplished) Andre Iguodala, a wing defender with the ability to protect leading scorers and also catch baskets when needed.

“If they need me to score, I’m going to score,” he said. “If they need me to defend, I’m going to defend, rebound, whatever.”

Thompson is still trying to get his defensive chops back after his injuries, which only raises the level of importance for Wiggins, who will get the Jayson Tatum assignment in the Finals that would normally go to Klay.

“I told him, wow, you make my job easier,” Thompson said. “I don’t have to chase these guys like I used to. We have a defender like you.

The Warriors did their due diligence before getting Wiggins in terms of how to trigger something within him. There has been no tough love; instead, the dialogue from the coaching staff and teammates was a constant flow of encouragement and getting him to understand that his mistakes will not be magnified, while his outstanding play will be glorified.

The atmosphere created, by the Warriors and by winning, has worked, especially in the playoffs, where Wiggins had only been once before, and never this deep. Being part of a winning team makes you a more confident player. Green criticized the Wolves when he recently weighed in on the change in Wiggins’ image.

“That’s a guy who has been criticized for being indifferent,” Green said. “No one talks about the teams the guys are on or the organizations the guys are on. Nobody talks about it. It’s always the player’s fault.”

Which stars step up and who controls the paint are two factors that could play a big role in the NBA Finals.

So Wiggins’ evolution is almost complete. It was never this terrible in Minnesota, in a franchise with a rich history of misery, as the buzz and local fan base indicated. And by the same token, he’s not the main reason the Warriors are back in the Finals after a two-year absence.

But his acquisition and subsequent adjustment have made the Warriors more athletic and well-rounded, allowing coach Steve Kerr to use a smaller, faster lineup comparable to the “Death” lineup of champion teams of the past. Therefore, when it comes to Wiggins, they sing his praises whenever they are asked. It cost them virtually nothing in the Minnesota trade, a lopsided one in hindsight.

“It’s a lot of fun to watch Wiggs play at this level and get his due,” Kerr said.

The Finals will explain a lot about Wiggins. It’s the ultimate proving ground, where one cements his legacy…or steps on a banana peel. At the very least, he’s in a better place, performance-wise and team-wise, and this is the tonic he’s always craved. And in a casual twist, he may become the first player in his class to win a ring. In a sense, this former No. 1 overall pick has a chance to finish first, again.

“Being here, being around these guys, I learned a lot,” Wiggins said. “These are winning players, this is a winning system. And I am winning. Finally.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can email him here, find his archive here, and follow him on Twitter.

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