Andrew Wiggins survives hype, criticism to land first mega-deal

Watch as Andrew Wiggins drives the lane and goes up to dunk over Nikola Jokic.

He’s done it.

For now, that’s the most relevant single issue as Andrew Wiggins gets ready to sign a five-year, $148-million contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

There will be plenty of discussion about the merits of the contract and the merits of Wiggins as a budding NBA superstar over the course of the coming season and beyond.

Already Zach Lowe, the respected NBA insider for ESPN suggested Wiggins’ deal would become the NBA’s most polarizing contract.

It just might. Wiggins is like the Toronto RaptorsDeMar DeRozan with a national profile and a higher upside — sure he can score, but is he efficient? Does he make others better?

But what gets easily lost in breakdowns of numbers and defensive metrics is how uncertain a path it is to get the position Wiggins is in now – with one stroke of a pen able to secure the financial future for himself, his five siblings and his parents in what is an extremely close and largely private family.

From the outside, the 22-year-old from Vaughan, just north of Toronto, has been on this unwavering trajectory – a rocket ship headed for NBA riches – since he was a spindly, precociously talented adolescent with a dunk reel on YouTube stating he was “the best 13-year-old in the nation.”

But even when you’re labelled “can’t miss” it’s very easy to do just that when the bar for success is so high.

Not long after that video went viral, Wiggins left home to start high school In Creedmoor, North Carolina at an ill-fated prep program launched by Ro Russell, long an influential and controversial figure in youth basketball both in Toronto and the United States.

Wiggins was there only two months before homesickness brought him back to Vaughan. The program was eventually shuttered in infamy when a CBC Fifth Estate report revealed the team of primarily Canadian kids were living, often unsupervised, in less-than-ideal conditions and taking courses online rather than at a proper school. At least two kids ended up academically ineligible as a result.

Wiggins didn’t end up playing anywhere in Grade 9 after he came home. He won a provincial championship with Vaughan Secondary in Grade 10 and landed in a good situation at Huntington Prep in West Virginia where his profile really took off before he ended up at Kansas for a season.

But even then there were bumps in the road. A flop in his final game at the NCAA tournament; being traded before he ever played for the Cleveland Cavaliers after being taken No. 1 in 2014, a casualty of LeBron James‘ return home. And he has yet to sniff the playoffs with Minnesota.

So as much as it all seemed pre-ordained as the youngest son of world-class sprinter mom and an NBA Finals hero dad, it never really was.

When he first burst on the scene, a seasoned NBA official said that Wiggins had a chance to “make basketball a very, very good business for his family.” But emphasized chance.

“Everything has to go right,” he said.

And now the debating, the nit-picking, and the doubting will double down. A max contract comes with maximum scrutiny.

My prediction is Wiggins will be able to handle it just fine. There will be no Kevin Durant-esque public crisis. He will continue to incrementally improve. He’s low-key enough to fly under the drama.

A cruise through his social media offerings suggests Wiggins is hardly the type with champagne tastes, regardless of his budget.

In late June, Wiggins found himself in Halifax for the first time.

A sponsor’s appearance, perhaps?

Not at all. Wiggins was the star attraction at the inaugural North Preston Bulls elite basketball camp put on by Nevell Provo, a junior this year at Loyola Maryland University, a resident of North Preston and a former high school teammate of Wiggins. The NBA star had to cover his own costs in order to help out an old friend.

Not that Wiggins didn’t have time to have fun, but he dug into his pocket for that too. Further back on his feed are pictures from a weekend in Miami, where Wiggins lounged, “Entourage” style, with his pals from Vaughan Secondary, few who would have been able to underwrite that kind of adventure since most of them are broke college students.

He recently released a behind-the-scenes video on his YouTube Channel that starts with a tour of his old neighbourhood, complete with a visit to the recreation centre he spent so much time at and where he has since sponsored a refurbishment. The video’s climactic scene?

A night of bowling in Minneapolis.

Scroll a little further back and you can find Wiggins’ shout-outs to a local Chrysler dealership that sets him up with a Jeep Cherokee when he comes home – cheaper than renting.

At this rate, $148 million should last Wiggins a very long time.

But getting paid is just step one for Wiggins. For good reason, any professional athlete should make landing that second contract – the generation-changing deal – a top priority.

Step two is to make your career about something more than numbers and money.

This is where the controversy around Wiggins swirls. On one hand he’s had one of the most impressive starts to an NBA career he could possibly have been expected to have.

His scoring average has jumped from 16.9 as a rookie, to 20.7 in Year 2, to 23.6 last year, making him one of just 13 players in NBA history to average 23 a game before turning 22. Only three players in NBA history have surpassed the 4,995 total points Wiggins has amassed at his age: James (6,307), Durant (5,967), and Carmelo Anthony (5,405).

But Wiggins has long had an image problem. He’s so fluid he looks like he rarely gets into top gear; his placid expression even under extreme stress can easily give the impression that it’s because he’s not all that concerned about the outcome. Add in his tendency to stand stiff-legged when defending off the ball (and sometimes when on it) and his pedestrian hustle totals – rebounding, blocks, steals and deflections – and Wiggins leaves most wanting more.

Wiggins feels as though he’s delivered. He’s put up numbers, stayed healthy – he’s played 245 of a possible 246 games in his career and his 8,822 minutes are second only to James Harden over that span – and willingly embraced playing in Minnesota, at various times having his entire family living in Minneapolis.

Which is why he was understated-yet-adamant when asked by Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated this summer if he felt deserving of the maximum extension Minnesota was eligible to offer him.

“I definitely do,” Wiggins said. “Nothing less.”

He’ll soon get his wish and will now be facing a level of scrutiny even greater than he’s been subject to already in his career. He’ll be the highest-paid Canadian athlete of all time and the T-Wolves’ highest-paid player, and for the time being, only their third-most important behind newly acquired Jimmy Butler – who will be looking for a max deal in a couple of seasons – and third-year forward Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the brightest talents in the entire league.

Wiggins will have to show that he can use his athletic ability in more varied ways than simply scoring and that his scoring can help lift a young team to the playoffs and beyond.

But that’s for later.

For the moment Wiggins has passed through the eye of the needle. He’s made basketball a very lucrative business and his family will benefit for generations. As inevitable as it may have seemed, it should still be celebrated.

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