Two names dominated the 2014 NBA Draft long before the night itself.
Andrew Wiggins was hyped through high school as “the next LeBron James,” possessing a combination of size, length and athleticism that thrust him into teenage stardom.
Jabari Parker followed with his own explosiveness, showcasing early talent as a smooth yet strong scorer, proceeding to average 19.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in his freshman year at Duke. Wiggins averaged 17.1 points of his own at Kansas, and while the two had their weaknesses (as any young star does), the pair’s potential was sky-high.
It wasn’t so much a matter of how many All-Star appearances they could rack up, but when they’d first do so.
They’re still on their way, however. After the Cleveland Cavaliers dealt Wiggins for Kevin Love and LeBron turned them into a championship team, Wiggins was thrown into a young, growing situation to thrive, but has needed time. So far, there are some clear weaknesses to his game, specifically on defense, that we’re waiting to see shine as bright as expected, given his potential and rare physical gifts.
As for Parker, taken down early in his rookie season by an ACL injury, he was held back before he even got a chance. After playing just 25 games in 2014-15, last season was essentially his real rookie campaign.
Now, in Minnesota’s youth movement that’s taken a major leap forward for Wiggins, and another year further removed from surgery with some post All-Star break momentum for Parker, 2016-17 looks like the year we can see this duo deliver more like we expected.
Wiggins’ basic production isn’t arguable. A 20-year-old to averaging 20.7 points per game on 45.9 percent shooting as he did last season is impressive enough. Each explosive spinning dunk gives the Timberwolves and their fans another reminder of his potential and faith in their glowing future. His jumper improved a little, too, with his shooting percentages from 3-9 feet (45.6), 10-15 feet (38.6) and 16-plus feet (34.7) all increasing from his rookie year.
It’s not like any of those numbers are actually good, though. Wiggins taking a quarter of his shots from 16 feet out isn’t what the Timberwolves need either, especially since his range is an obvious weakness. Plus, the long two is the least efficient and least valuable shot in basketball today.
As of right now, he’s limited and there’s no way around it. He shot just 33.8 percent on pull-ups last season, and he’s not an accurate shooter whatsoever when he’s well defended. When Wiggins’ defender contested his shot from between two and four feet away on attempts at least 10 feet from the basket, he shot a mere 30.9 percent. Even when he was considered to be “wide open” from 10 feet (guarded from six or more feet away, per NBA.com), he still only shot a disappointing 38.6 percent.
The three-point shot is the epitome of Wiggins’ offensive limitation so far. We knew it was never his strong suit, but after two seasons, he’s only hit a total of 96 threes in his 5,814 minutes (35.7 per game). Last season, his percentage from beyond the arc dipped ever so slightly from 31 as a rookie to 30.
We can almost look past that, though. At such an early stage, it’s OK for three-point shooting to be a work in progress, seeing as we knew that upon his arrival in the NBA. Wiggins is still highly talented and you don’t have to look far to see footage of the work he’s putting in this summer, with Timberwolves fans hoping it delivers more regular season production rather than offseason promise.
The other issue that’s more difficult to understand is his defense.
During his pre-draft workouts, one image of Wiggins went viral that was an almost perfect summation of his physical prowess.
Standing at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, a 44-inch vertical leap and excellent speed and agility, you can hardly create a much better physical profile for an NBA wing even if you got overly creative on 2K17. Wiggins has all the tools to excel defensively, and for those who haven’t paid too close attention to watching him play, they may believe that he’s a good defensive player because of those tools alone.
He’s long, athletic, has all kinds of bounce and has had some great blocks in his short career, so how could he not be a good defender?
He should be, yet that hasn’t quite been the case yet. At least, not as good as you’d think. Too often, Wiggins falls out of position and can be late to rotate and close out on his man. And he certainly isn’t a lockdown defender at the perimeter, thwarting three-pointers and smothering all drives down the lane.
In fact, players shot higher than their season average from all areas of the court against Wiggins last season, be it within six feet or from three. And while it’s by no means the determiner of a player’s defense, a ranking of 69th among 75 small forward measured with a defensive real-plus minus of 1.84 helps indicate the disappointing nature of his defense so far.
Just go watch how Justise Winslow performed on defense last season as a rookie (who, for the record, ranked 33rd in the same category).
Essentially, there are areas of Wiggins’ game (primarily the defense) that are weaker than expected at this stage. But if there’s one factor that can help him forward next season besides typical growth and age, it’s the hiring of Tom Thibodeau. There’s no coach better suited educate Wiggins on his positioning, pick-and-roll defense and generally teach a young Minnesota club.
Then there’s Parker, the young star held back by matters that were out of his control: injury.
After missing a few games at the start of the season and playing with limited minutes more often, we gradually saw more of the Parker we knew: The tearaway play in transition, the aggressive drives, the spins in the lane, the mid-air maneuvers he makes to finish at the basket.
As the weeks and months went by, Parker looked more like himself, but could only go so far. It took him until his 35th game last season to score 20 points in a game, finally coming on January 13 against the Washington Wizards.
Still persisting with some inconsistency in what was essentially his rookie year (which is entirely understandable), Parker had more success after the All-Star break. In those 28 games before the end of the season, he averaged 18.9 points on 49.8 percent shooting to go along with 6.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
Another point that could easily go unnoticed is that he hit nine three-pointers after the All-Star break, too. Even though that’s far from impressive, Parker making those nine threes at a 32.1 percent rate is at least slightly encouraging after he attempted a measly seven with no makes whatsoever before the break.
Like Wiggins, Parker has a lot of room for improvement. He needs to work on that range, fine tune his driving ability and ideally become a positive defender (the Bucks allowed 2.3 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor).
However, we’ve started to see a touch more aggression from range in the small sample size that is the preseason. He has shot two threes per game, four times what he attempted last season, and made 40 percent of them. More so than the obviously small sample size which can’t be taken too seriously from an efficiency standpoint, the fact that Parker is taking more is good to see.
Another year and summer of hard training and fully removed from injury, Parker is ready to take another step forward. Working on his game rather than focusing so heavily on rehabbing can only be good for his skill level, and we’ve seen signs in preseason of what to expect in terms of a possible increase in three-point attempts. The thing we know for sure is the need for improved perimeter play, and that should only help encourage him.
Meanwhile in Minnesota, Wiggins is entering the best situation of his career yet. He doesn’t need to immediately be the offensive star that Karl-Anthony Towns has become, and the arrival of Thibodeau could finally unlock some of his explosive two-way potential.
After a slower start to certain aspects of their careers than we may have liked, maybe we’ll see Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins leap forward next season.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com and ESPN.