Grange on Wiggins: Calling his own shots

Andrew Wiggins playing for Canada. (Photo: Sam Forencich/Getty)

Control what you can control.

It’s the first commandment of sports psychology; a mantra repeated by coaches, players and sports shrinks, but like most clichés, one based on a firm foundation of truth.

For all his gifts, the fact Andrew Wiggins has figured that principle out at a young age might be what holds the most promise for his wild ride of a future.

On Tuesday afternoon with the simple whirr of a fax machine, in front a small gathering of friends, teammates and family and just a single print reporter from the local paper in Huntington, West Virginia, Wiggins put his own low-key stamp on six months of madness when he informed a doubtlessly ecstatic Bill Self he was going to play college basketball at Kansas University.

As Rustin Todd wrote in the Kansas City Star, Wiggins instantly became the university’s “most highly-regarded Canadian import since James Naismith.”

An athletic marvel with solid basketball skills and a strong character, Wiggins instantly became the No.1 recruit in college basketball when he reclassified in November to so he could graduate this June. He was so well-regarded that he actually wasn’t recruited particularly widely: It was always going to come down to a short-list of basketball superpowers, with Florida State making the cut because Wiggins’ parents — Marita and Mitch — met there as stars in track and basketball, respectively.

And the decision to go to Kansas is also indicative that Wiggins thinks for himself.

There are more glamourous places than Lawrence, Kansas, but it is one of the spiritual homes of basketball; counting Wilt Chamberlain among its alumni. Naismith, the Canadian credited with inventing the sport, was the school’s first basketball coach and taught physical education there from 1898 until 1937. His body is buried in Lawrence and the story of how Kansas came to buy Naismith’s original rules of basketball for the school’s collection was recently a subject of a documentary on ESPN.

More importantly Bill Self is one of the most-respected college coaches by NBA talent evaluators. The belief is he develops players ready to play at a higher level.

The athletic training staff at KU and its weight room are considered at the cutting edge in college basketball, and were some of elements that impressed Wiggins on his visit to the school in March.

With Kansas losing five starters, Wiggins instantly becomes the focal point of a good but not (widely-acclaimed as) great roster for the perennial Big 12 champions. The school expects excellence and Wiggins will be required to produce in order to reach that standard.

It’s positive pressure, and the choice suggests that Wiggins has an eye on a bigger prize — how to become the best player he can be.

That he’s going to do it his way rather than, for example, join what was essentially an NBA all-star team in waiting at Kentucky or go to his parent’s alma mater indicates Wiggins is a different kind of cat.

Not jaded certainly — he looked positively pleased when he sat courtside at North Carolina in February and set Toronto hoops fans hearts aflutter by wearing a Toronto Raptors hat — but the farthest thing from a needy prima donna trying to leverage his 15 minutes of fame in to a feature-length documentary.

“I’d rather just practice,” he said in reference to the steady stream of big name college coaches that made a point of coming to his high school workouts to a reporter from Huntington Quarterly earlier this year. “If they come, I don’t mind it. They’re just doing their job. But they all tell me what I want to hear.”

Not that he didn’t listen, but to his credit, it can be argued Wiggins turned the recruiting process inside out. Without being arrogant about it or even by being overtly calculating, he took charge of the entire process.

He became the last of the major recruits to commit to a school and pushed it as far as any elite recruit in recent memory — the deadline to declare a school was Wednesday — mainly because he could.

He did his visits. He had college coaches come to his billet’s home but if the whole charade was somehow consuming him, it wasn’t readily apparent. When I spoke with Wiggins at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland in April — the last in a month-long gauntlet of high school all-star games — I got the impression that he really hadn’t focused on it yet.

Wiggins first order of business after the Hoop Summit, which ended a month in which he’d been on the road for most of April, was to simply catch up on what he had been missing: some sleep, some video games and some hanging out.

“I’m looking forward to shutting down for a couple of days, getting some rest, getting some ‘me’ time and just chilling with my friends and cherish the last few days I have … before it all gets crazy,” he said. “I’ve been travelling for like three weeks straight so I’m just looking forward to being able to relax and watch TV for hours for hours and lay in my bed for hours and just be me.”

There were more tweets about his high school prom recently on his Twitter timeline than the question that was driving the fan-bases of four major US college sports powerhouses nutty with anxiety.

Wiggins is apparently an enthusiastic poker player, and a good one. It’s believable because he played his cards close the vest until the very last moment.

How he laid them down for the basketball world says almost as much about him as anything he’s done on the floor.

“I don’t know how I’m going to announce it or anything like that,” he told me last month. “I dunno, I’m unpredictable… The only people who really know what I’m capable of doing are my family. Other people are just guessing.”

His high school coach, Rob Fulford, thought he might simply send a text. In the end it was Fulford who sent a tweet alerting all that were interested that he would make his announcement Tuesday at 12:15 and that it would be the equivalent of a backyard wedding: A small gathering of those who Wiggins cares about most.

In a nod to the panting interest, he did allow one reporter to cover the announcement, and even that was telling. It wasn’t someone from ESPN or Sports Illustrated. It was Grant Traylor, who covers sports for the local paper and who announced the decision via Twitter to a following that jumped from just under 2,000 when his role was announced Sunday night to nearly 16,000 by noon Tuesday.

But that was it for hype. Like a beautiful girl who can stop traffic in a baggy pair of sweats while wearing glasses, Wiggin knows that he doesn’t have to try too hard to get attention, so why not do things on his terms?

Good for him.

This is just the first of plenty of decisions he’ll need to make in public over the next few years. This summer it will be whether or not he wants to play for Canada’s senior men’s national team (he’s already committed to the U-19 World Championships squad). In a year’s time it will be should he stay in school for another year or should he enter the draft — don’t count on that one being too dramatic or drawn out. Then it will be who his agent will be. Then it will be what he’ll wear on draft night when his name could very likely be the first one called.

Ultimately he’ll face the biggest decision of all: how good a basketball player he wants to be, and how high he wants his star to rise.

He will be in control of that in the end, and his decision Tuesday was just the start.

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