PORTLAND — Andrew Wiggins leads the world.
It has a nice ring to it, and for one afternoon in Portland, Oregon it will be true.
The Canadian basketball phenom will take the floor for his last game as a high school student on Saturday, and fittingly it will be as the best player in the world — or at least the best player on the World Select team in the 15th edition of the Nike Hoop Summit.
His opponents the USA Junior National Select Team, a collection of the top players 19-and-under from the No. 1 basketball power on the planet.
Wiggins led the World to a win in the event last year with a team-high 20 points. It was another signature moment for the 6-foot-8 forward from Vaughan, Ontario, and something he would very much like to repeat.
“I wouldn’t want to play my last game and lose,” the 18-year-old said after practice on Thursday.
The World team, which counts as its alumni the likes of NBA stars Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Serge Ibaka, has just a 4-11 record in the Hoop Summit and has never won in consecutive years.
Would Wiggins like to change that?
“That’s my goal,” he said.
But his motives aren’t quite what might be expected.
Wiggins has had the eyes of the basketball world centered on him for the better part of a year and never more intensely than the past six months when he accelerated his studies so he could graduate from high school this year and likely enter the NBA Draft in 2014. The son a of former NBA player father and Olympic track star mother, Wiggins’ size, skill and athleticism have made him the hottest name in basketball outside of the NBA.
And the focus has become laser sharp this past month as he has played in the major post-season all-star games — the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic and now the Hoop Summit — as the only player among the elite in his high school class that has not committed to a college for next season.
As an aside, he’s not about to anytime soon, it would seem; he has until May 15th to make up his mind and is in no rush to choose between his own ‘Final Four’ of Florida State, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas.
“Anyone who says they know where I’m going is a liar,” he said this week. “I don’t know where I’m going, so they can’t know where I’m going.”
But while he may be the centre of attention of the 50-or-more NBA scouts and executives that have been watching every practice this week, Wiggins doesn’t need it.
But his teammates? That’s a different story. The World team is made up of 11 players from nine different countries. While Wiggins has had countless chances to face off against the elite US players his age, that’s not the case for his teammates.
The possibility of helping their cause gets Wiggins excited.
“It’s a very big deal for them; more so for them than for me because they they’re in America so they get all the American NBA scouts to watch them play and over the past couple of years that’s how they got drafted,” he said. “So it’s a big deal for them; it could be their make-or-break point. If some of them play good in this game they can get drafted this year.”
The basketball world is much smaller than it used to be, even 18 years ago when the first Hoop Summit was started. It was at the 1998 Hoop Summit where a skinny German kid playing second-division basketball in his hometown put himself on the map and in some ways changed the sport.
Dirk Nowitzki was largely an unknown when the 7-footer from Wurzburg dropped 33 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a 104-99 World team win.
Suddenly, it was apparent that some of the best teenage basketball prospects around weren’t American, and for those kids, the chance to prove themselves is precious.
“It was huge for me,” said Portland Trail Blazer forward Nicolas Batum, who scored 23 points and had four steals in the 2007 Hoop Summit; a big reason he was a first-round pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.
Batum was watching one of the World team practices at the Trail Blazers’ facility this week and it brought back memories for him when he was a largely untested teenager from France.
“It really opened those NBA gates for me. It was big. I had 23 points for that game. It was a good memory for me. I was so excited to play that game and play against those players. I was so ready to play that game.”
Stories like Batum’s or Nowitzki’s resonate for the likes of Dennis Schroeder, a 6-foot-1 point guard for the World team from Germany, where his mentor has been Canadian National team point guard Jermaine Anderson, who he plays with on the NY Phantoms of Braunschweig.
Schroeder’s father was from Gambia and his mother from Germany. His first athletic loves were skateboarding and soccer, but he picked up basketball as an 11-year old and has looked every inch a world-class point guard directing the World team at practice this week, even finding a nice connection with Wiggins on several alley-oops.
If he can hold his own against highly-regard US guards like Andrew Harrison, who is headed for the University of Kentucky and a sure-fire first-round pick in the 2014 draft, it could change his life, and he knows it.
“For me it’s a big honour to be here and be selected one of the best players in the world. I want to give it my best shot,” he said. “This is a big chance. Dirk Nowitzki did 33 points and 14 boards. It’s a great opportunity for us the guys here, if we play well, maybe some NBA scouts see us and pick us.”
There is no doubt that Wiggins will be picked by an NBA team a year from now. He’s been seen and seen again. The only question for him is will he go No. 1 overall.
But his playing well on Saturday could have an impact on the futures of those he’s playing with, and he knows it.
“He really takes on whatever responsibility is needed,” said Roy Rana, the Canadian U-20 and Ryerson University head coach who is leading the World team at the Hoop Summit for the third time. “And this one for him is representing Canada. He’ll have the flag on his jersey and he’ll take it seriously. He’s such a giving person … it’s not really about him, it’s what he can give to others.”
“It’s really his last high school game,” Ranna said. “So what better way to go out than in front of 10,000 people at the Rose Garden and against the best in the world on ESPN; It’s a fitting completion to his high school career.”
For Wiggins the weight of the World Select team is on his shoulders.