The stage will only get bigger from here on out—the stakes higher. But after years of excitement, anticipation and plain old hype, Andrew Wiggins gets his first chance to show the greater basketball world what the fuss is about Tuesday night.
Following an opener featuring No. 1-ranked Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State, Wiggins will lead the Kansas Jayhawks (No. 5) against the Duke Blue Devils (No. 4) in Chicago in the headline act for the State Farm Champions Classic.
The people are waiting and the expectations couldn’t be loftier, fair or not.
“He could go for 20-and-10 and disappoint everybody,” Kansas coach Bill Self said last month about the standards to which his freshman star will be held. “All he needs to be is himself and not live up to what other people think he should be.”
The problem is the entire basketball industry—fans, television networks, shoe companies and certain NBA franchises not-so-subtly tanking the 2013–14 season to improve their chances for the No. 1 pick next summer—thinks Wiggins should be great.
And it’s not hard to see why. The 18-year-old is six-foot-eight with a perfect basketball frame that will thicken and strengthen over time. His first jump is electric; he has improved as a shooter and has the body control of a player a foot shorter when he attacks the basket. He is a highlight waiting to happen in the open court as he is legitimately at risk of giving himself a concussion by hitting his head on the rim at some point in his career.
Hailing from Thornhill, Wiggins has long been tabbed as the likely first overall pick of the 2014 draft, but Tuesday night will be the first of many tests as he’ll face off against Jabari Parker, who was a candidate for No. 1 overall until Wiggins blew by him. Kentucky is anchored by Julius Randle, a six-foot-nine power forward that many now peg as Wiggins’s chief rival for the top spot.
In total as many as 11 projected first-round picks will be on the floor, spread across the four teams, according to DraftExpress.com, a big reason that NBA presence at the United Centre will be thick and heavy. Represented will be the Toronto Raptors who—according to league sources—have already made a visit to Lawrence, Kan., to see Wiggins and teammates Wayne Seldon and Joel Embiid in person.
Wiggins is a pre-season All-American and has already been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, comparing him to Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning—two previous transformational freshmen who arrived nearly 30 years apart at KU, a school whose basketball tradition dates back to the arrival on campus of James Naismith himself in 1898. Wiggins is currently on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s college hoops issue. He’s even been featured in GQ.
Not bad for an athlete that even many ardent basketball fans haven’t seen play.
Think expectations are high?
After Wiggins’s debut with Kansas on Friday against sacrificial lamb Lousiana-Monroe the criticism was that despite scoring a team-high 16 points on nine shots while grabbing three steals, Wiggins hardly got out of second gear. “Did he live up to the LeBron James generation-type player hype? Not so much,” sniffed USA Today.
He showed an encouraging three-point stroke and flashed his quickness on a couple of occasions, but for the most part he went with the flow—sometimes for the worse. He got pulled in the first half after making a careless pass and being slow to get back on defence—a sin made worse when Louisiana-Monroe missed the layup and scored on the follow, with Wiggins only then gliding into the frame.
Meanwhile his rivals have thrown down the gauntlet. Parker scored 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting for Duke in his debut, including a highlight-worthy alley-oop. Most impressive has been Kentucky’s Randle, who seems determined to impose his will, as evidenced by his averages of 22.5 points and 14.5 rebounds through his first two college games.
Those that know Wiggins best are pleased that he’s getting the recognition and soon enough the rewards—the No. 1 pick in June will get a three-year contract worth $14.5 million and Wiggins is already reportedly in line for a shoe contract that could rival the seven-year, $90-million deal that Nike gave LeBron James in 2003.
“When you get a kid as talented as he is and mix it in with the kind of person he is, I’m glad good things are coming to him,” Rob Fulford, his high school coach at Huntington Prep said to me in an interview when the SI cover ran. “It’s refreshing to see someone who does things right get rewarded.”
But there are concerns, too. With so much talent Wiggins has been able to coast at times. That will have to change.
“Andrew was better than everyone in high school whether he worked at it or not,” says Fulford. “That’s not going to be the case in every game in college and it won’t be the case in most games in the NBA. He’s going to have to work at it.”
If success is defined as becoming one of the very best players in the world and turning an NBA franchise into a contender, falling short is a relative thing.
“It’s not fair. You hear all the ‘Maple Jordan’ stuff and all of that. I feel for the kid because he’s going to go through some adversity this year,” says New York Knicks forward Cole Aldrich, a Kansas alum. “He’s going to have a really good year and be part of a great team, but you can’t always play as good as everyone wants you to.”
Anthony Bennett was the first Canadian to earn the first overall pick when the Cleveland Cavaliers took him No. 1 last June, but he got there with virtually no fanfare. A year later as many as a half-dozen NBA franchises have written off any plans for a playoff spot in order to position themselves for a top pick next June, where the hope is Wiggins or one of his peers can turn their fortunes around the way the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose have in the past decade.
He will need to embrace the challenge that will come with that role soon enough. It’s a long journey to the top, but for Wiggins the rubber is finally hitting the road.