How Andrew Wiggins silenced his critics

Andrew Wiggins thanked many people while accepting the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, the first time a Canadian ball player has been given the honour.

There was never any doubt about his ability. There is good reason for that: People are not stupid.

When they looked at Andrew Wiggins, everyone from the most sophisticated talent evaluators to casual sports fans saw the same thing.

He represented a perfect collection of athletic gifts packaged in a near idealized form.

But there were doubts about Wiggins, the 20-year-old from Vaughan, Ont. who became the first Canadian to be named NBA Rookie of the Year after his remarkable season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

As one NBA general manager from a championship team told me before Wiggins was drafted: “There is no doubt he’s the No. 1 athlete [available], but is he the No. 1 player?”

His tools were without question. The concern was whether Wiggins would show up for work. How would he play on a cold night in February? Would he be up for four games in five nights in four different cities? How would he handle losing?

The NBA season is a grind and Wiggins didn’t exude grinder, which is the quality that separates the stars from the vessels of untapped potential so common in professional sports.

Timberwolves assistant coach Sam Mitchell was the epitome of the working-class NBA player. He had no choice. With limited physical gifts he carved out a place in 994 NBA games by taking advantage of those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, match his will.

So it means something that Wiggins—his polar opposite as a player—earned Mitchell’s respect not just for what he did in his rookie year, but how he did it.

“I mean, he’s still got a lot to learn. He’s not a finished player yet,” Mitchell said when Minnesota was in Toronto in March. “But sometimes you just measure [growth] in the mental part of the game … Andrew played, what, 30-plus games [in college]? We did that in two months. And so this is three seasons all rolled into one for him, and for him to have not missed a game tells you a lot about his makeup.”

That Wiggins came to work every day may be the most exciting thing about his first year in the NBA—and there was a lot to be excited about as he answered question after question about his game.

Is he aggressive enough? Ask Rudy Gobert, the seven-foot-two Utah Jazz centre who earned the nickname “The Stifle Tower” as the NBA’s most intimidating rim protectors. In an otherwise nothing game between two teams well out of the playoffs on March 30, Wiggins went directly at the NBA’s leader in block percentage for a poster-worthy dunk not once, but twice. Sure, he was blocked on a third effort, but two out of three is pretty amazing.

A few weeks later his body-to-body battle with seven-foot, 270-lb. Omer Asik of the New Orleans Pelicans ended badly for Asik and Wiggins earned a spot on the NBA’s list of the top 10 dunks of the season. In the same game he tried to go through and over seven-foot-two Alexis Ajinca. He was unsuccessful, but the intent signalled that he was a player gaining more and more confidence in his abilities as the season went along.

Wiggins averaged 5.7 free-throw attempts per game this season, more than any teenager in league history other than Carmelo Anthony.

Can he shoot well enough? Wiggins shot a respectable 35.8 percent from the three-point line before the All-Star break. That number dropped off a cliff subsequently, the most obvious sign that his legs were starting to feel the minutes he was playing.

It’s easy to forget, but early on the concern was that Wiggins was trending more towards bust than Rookie of the Year. Through the first 26 games of his career he shot just 38 percent. His net rating was -10.6. The statistics site laid out a case for him as the worst player in the NBA through the first third of his first season.

He turned that around in short order beginning with his breakout performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 23, when he showed the Cavs what they were missing after trading him for Kevin Love in the off-season. He dunked on Love and finished with 27 points in another T-Wolves’ loss. Over the remaining 56 games he posted a line of 19.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 45.5 percent shooting.

But in some ways the most impressive part of Wiggins rookie season came after the All-Star Game hype died down and the dog days of the season began in earnest.

His numbers slid a little bit—in particular his three-point shooting. But his minutes kept climbing. From Christmas on, no one in the NBA played more minutes, and Wiggins ended up second to only James Harden for the season.

Remarkably, he also got stronger as the season went on. For the month of April he played 41.1 minutes a game while averaging 23.3 points, six rebounds and four assists a game on 44.4 percent shooting. And he did it the hard way as he got to the free-throw line 10 times a game.

“I’ve been taking care of my body, eating right to stay in the position I’m in,” Wiggins said of the load he was carrying. “[But] it’s really hard, you know? If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

His rookie accomplishments put his in some exclusive company. Wiggins joins LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant as the only players to win the award as a teenager.

But there is one category that Wiggins has all to himself—one that few would have predicted and that may be the most promising predictor of his future.

Wiggins is the only teenager in NBA history to play all 82 games while also playing at least 36 minutes a night.

“It’s a tough league. It’s hard to play every game,” Wiggins said at season’s end. “I feel proud of that.”

If 80 percent of success in life is simply showing up, Wiggins did it better—and younger—than any NBA player ever has.

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