The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the NBA’s most intriguing up-and-coming teams. In order to transform themselves from a frisky young team to playoff- and championship-contender status, though, the team needs its two foundational building blocks, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, to reach their superstar potential. 20 games into his second season, Wiggins is well on his way.
Much was made leading up to the draft about Wiggins’s calm demeanor on the court, with many commentators questioning whether he had the mean streak necessary to live up to his hype. Thus far, Wiggins has shown that those concerns, at least offensively, were much ado about nothing. Soft and passive players don’t have 28 percent usage rates, nor do they make a habit of doing things like this:
Or even try things like this.
As profiled by CBSSports’ Zach Harper earlier this week, Wiggins’s most significant development thus far has been his ability to carry the Wolves’ offense, particularly down the stretch of close games. Using NBA.com’s clutch statistics, Wiggins is amongst the league leaders in total field goal and free throw attempts and is top 10 in attempts per game, amidst superstars like Lebron James, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. This is a testament to both Wiggins’s growth as a bona fide go-to scorer as well as how competitive the Wolves have been in their games this year, a welcome sight compared to the blowouts of recent years.
Wiggins’s usage percentage is at its highest in the fourth quarter, where he’s single-handedly carried the team’s offense to close out games on numerous occasions. As the shot charts below illustrate, Wiggins is much more aggressive with his shot selection in the fourth quarter, cutting out elbow jumpers in favor of drives to the rim that very often result in trips to the free throw line:
With his shot volume, Wiggins remains a relatively inefficient scorer from nearly all areas of the court, except the left elbow, where Wiggins does most of his damage as the ball handler in the side pick-and-roll:
This inefficiency can in part be tied to the team’s insistence on Wiggins developing the ability to create his own shot. Unlike his rookie year, where Wiggins did most of his work off the catch, Wiggins is being asked to create more off the dribble this season. And as should be expected, Wiggins is thus being assisted on far fewer of his shot attempts:
In particular, the team is emphasizing Wiggins’s ball handling in side pick-and-roll sets, which is part of the reason for his increased activity at the elbows this year. While he hasn’t been terribly effective in this role, with an efficiency in the bottom half of the league, his future ability to operate in the pick-and-roll, especially with the almost ceiling-less Karl-Anthony Towns as the screen setter, will be a boon for the offense:
Part of Wiggins’s inefficiency is also no doubt due to the larger team context; the Timberwolves’ starting lineup for much of the season consisted of two non-threats in an increasingly-archaic offensive system that continues to lead the league in inefficient mid-range shots taken at the expense of the more tasty shots around the rim and beyond the arc.
Wiggins needs to continue developing his jump shot, especially beyond the arc, where he’s a 30 percent career three-point shooter, including a dismal 26.8 percent on 56 tries this season. His mid-range jumper, though not the most efficient shot, has improved, and he remains a good free throw shooter, so it’s plausible that he’ll get better from three-point range.
This will be especially true if the offense joins the rest of us in the 21st century and actually looks to create open looks from deep. Wiggins can also be more effective around the rim, where he’s just league average despite top-tier athleticism and an affinity for jumping off two feet, giving him more stability in the air. Adding these elements to an already established ability to attack the rim and draw fouls will vault him into the conversation as one of the NBA’s truly elite scorers.
Beyond simply scoring, Wiggins needs to improve as a playmaker. For the league’s elite perimeter players, scoring is only part of their offensive burden; for James Harden, LeBron James and others, creating scoring chances for their teammates is a crucial part of why their teams succeed (or, perhaps in Harden’s case earlier this season, don’t succeed).
Digging deeper into his high usage rate reveals Wiggins’s lack of shot creation for his teammates. Using Nylon Calculus’ Usage and Possession statistics, Wiggins’s scoring usage, which focuses exclusively on field goal attempts and trips to the free throw line as a measure of a player’s plays used, puts him amongst names we’d expect at the top of the list: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeMar DeRozan, etc. Wiggins’s playmaking usage (which measures the percentage of plays in which the player contributes a potential assist or free throw assist), however, is more akin to that of post players and defensive stoppers than it is to elite offensive options.
What will help with Wiggins’s passing vision is better and more confident ball handling. Wiggins currently has few countermoves beyond his killer right-to-left spin move when he attacks the rim. As evidenced by Wednesday night’s Lakers game, teams have caught up to this tendency. Twice down the stretch Wiggins drove right and attempted to spin back left, only to find defenders in his lap, leading to one turnover and another botched possession.
When that move is unavailable, Wiggins becomes a bully-baller, putting his head down and attempting to drive through and then over his defenders. In fact, he leads the league in Nylon Calculus’ Drive Scoring Attempt%, showing that, when he puts the ball on the floor, he’s looking to get to the rim and score rather than probe the defense for open looks. What should be encouraging for Timberwolves fans, and is likely why Wiggins isolation plays are such a foundational element of the team’s half-court sets, is how effective he (as well as Rubio and LaVine) has been on those head-down drives, despite his lack of passing:
With better ball handling and court vision, particularly when attacking the basket, Wiggins’s AST% as compared to other high-usage wings, can go from embarrassingly low to respectable and will buoy the team’s offensive efficiency along with it.
In addition to this lack of playmaking thus far, Wiggins has also taken a step back in his rebounding numbers this season, and he doesn’t force turnovers at a significant rate.
Part of his dip in rebounding numbers may, again, be due to his role, having spent much more of his time on both ends of the court on the perimeter, rather than on the block as he was used last year. Additionally, the presence of Towns and Kevin Garnett has the team amongst the best defensive rebounding teams in the league despite Wiggins’s low numbers; there simply aren’t as many defensive rebounds to go around as there were last year. That said, a total rebound percentage of 5.9 percent isn’t good, no matter the other players on the floor.
When he does go after rebounds, Wiggins has been effective, particularly on the offensive glass. Nylon Calculus’ Detailed Rebounding Stats show Wiggins as one of the most efficient offensive rebounders in the league when he crashes the offensive glass, as he’s able to get off the ground quickly and out-jump opponents. He’s less successful on the defensive end, but overall he rates out well as a solid rebounder when he actually contests rebounds.
Wiggins’s issue has instead been the number of rebounds he actually goes after, adding fuel to the fire of those who believed he’s too passive to be a true difference-maker. With more time at his natural small-forward position, and thus a greater team reliance on his contributions on the glass than earlier in the season as the team’s shooting guard, those numbers will likely increase, as he’s too effective and athletic to maintain such low rebounding numbers.
While his steal rates are very low, Wiggins is nonetheless establishing himself as one of the game’s up-and-coming two-way stars with his ability to play stifling on-ball defense. Wiggins is often tasked with guarding the other team’s top perimeter threat, especially after the team’s insertion of Kevin Martin into the starting lineup in place of Tayshaun Prince. His quickness allows him to stay in front of his assignment on-ball, while his length and jumping ability allow him to contest shots when he’s beat.
To be a real difference-maker on that end, Wiggins will have to create more turnovers and, as discussed above, get more active on the defensive glass. Like most young players, he can also get lost chasing shooters around screens, but that should develop with experience and as he gains the necessary strength to fight through screens.
Nonetheless, a 20-year-old having to guard a team’s top wing threat while shouldering such an incredible offensive burden and being able to put up the numbers that Wiggins has is a huge step forward for the Timberwolves franchise. With a better offensive system in place, Wiggins should be able to improve his scoring efficiency while continuing to develop his playmaking, rebounding and defense. He may never be elite in any of those three areas, but marginal improvements upon what he’s already developed should make Andrew Wiggins a perennial All-Star. Significant improvements in any of those areas may remove his ceiling, and the team’s as a result, altogether.