Wiggins facing pressure ahead of showcase

Andrew Wiggins was presented the 2012-13 Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year trophy by former NBA player Alonzo Mourning. (AP/Susan Goldman)

CHICAGO — When Andrew Wiggins made his official recruiting visit to Florida State, 16 female students seated courtside at a Seminoles game wore "WE WANT WIGGINS" painted in black across the front of their white T-shirts.

A cheerleader held a sign that read: "FSU has hotter girls."

When he played a high school game in Georgetown, Ky., more than 2,000 Kentucky Wildcats fans turned out to watch, chanting "We want Wiggins!" and "Go Big Blue!"

At a tournament in Cincinnati, some 300 high school students taunted the Canadian basketball phenom with "Over-Rated!" and "U-S-A!"

For an 18-year-old who’s not super fond of the spotlight, there’s no escaping it these days.

"Somebody of his talent, every gym he goes to, somebody’s going to say, ‘No. 1 player in the country? You’re overrated,"’ said Steve Nash, who knows a bit about life in the spotlight.

Wiggins will be front and centre again Wednesday at Chicago’s United Centre as the brightest young star in a gym full of them for the 36th Annual McDonald’s High School All-American Game.

Nash has some advice for Wiggins: like it or hate it, he should embrace the attention.

"Maybe that’s his biggest challenge," the two-time NBA MVP told The Canadian Press. "It’s not the players he plays against, it’s not the competitions he’s in. It’s the never-waning spotlight, and pressure from the outside. I think he has to embrace that as his greatest competitor at this stage in his career."

A quick peek at his mixtapes — one of which is just shy of a million views — shows the six-foot-seven small forward from Vaughan, Ont., rarely has competition. He runs faster and jumps higher. He spins past players on his way to the hoop like he’s matched up against elementary school kids.

"Although unfair and difficult for someone his age, (pressure and expectations) can push him," said Nash, who’s keeping a close eye on Wiggins’ catapulting career. "It can be the thing that creates adversity if the players he’s playing against don’t always do that. I think you need to fail, you need to have bad moments that propel you to get tougher and to be better.

"That might be his competitor right now, and I think he should continue to embrace that, because it will give him the obstacles that will keep him hungry."

Nash and Wiggins found basketball fame from opposite routes. The L.A. Lakers star went unheralded through high school, then played for Santa Clara, accepting the one scholarship offer he received from a Div. 1 school.

On the flip side, there’s already a ridiculous amount of buzz about Wiggins that hasn’t been felt perhaps since Kevin Durant (2006) and O.J. Mayo (’07) came out of high school.

Wiggins, a Grade 12 student at Huntington Prep in West Virginia, won both the Naismith Trophy as the top U.S. high school player of the year — garnering a congratulatory tweet from Prime Minister Stephen Harper — and the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year award. He’s expected to go No. 1 in the 2014 NBA draft.

Hoops fans are anxiously awaiting word on which NCAA school he’ll choose for his one-and-done year. He’s visited Florida State, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas.

Wiggins, the fourth of six children, also boasts impeccable genetic credentials.

His dad Mitchell played in the NBA. His mom Marita Payne-Wiggins was a sprinter, helping Canada to a pair of relay silver medals at the 1984 Olympics. She still holds the Canadian record in the 200 metres and shares the 400 record with Jillian Richardson. There’s a Marita Payne Park in Vaughan.

"Andrew’s athleticism is very rare," Nash said. "He’s tall, has long arms, he’s extremely quick and agile, he can take that six-foot-seven frame and move it like he’s 5-7, with great control. He’s so explosive, his ability to move in any direction, to jump and to control his body while he jumps — with quickness, explosiveness and power. He’s a rare set of size, co-ordination and explosiveness."

At an evaluation session last summer in Toronto, Wiggins made like a six-foot-seven spring and outjumped the vertical testing apparatus.

"He blew away the test so that we couldn’t measure it," said Roy Rana, Wiggins’ coach on several national youth teams. "Andrew went up on the first jump and just cleared the whole testing mechanism, which is above 12 feet. I’ve never seen that. We tested 30 guys that weekend and nobody came close. He destroyed the test."

The evaluators eventually propped the testing mechanism up on an aerobics step. He leapt 44 inches putting the high schooler in the same airspace as the likes of LeBron James and Vince Carter.

"And he didn’t even try," Rana said. "He just did it with ease. It’s not like he’s grimacing, it’s not like it’s difficult. It’s just so fluid, so natural."

Rana, who will coach Wiggins with the World Select Team at the upcoming Nike Hoop Summit, guided Canada to a bronze medal at the 2010 FIBA under-17 world championships in Hamburg, Germany. Wiggins was 15 at the time.

"He stepped on the floor (for Canada’s game versus the United States), two to three years younger than anybody, and he was easily the best player on the floor," said Rana. "The U.S. had Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, James McAdoo… they were loaded. They had probably eight guys who are now in the NBA, and Andrew was easily the best player."

A who’s who of college basketball coaches was in the gym that day.

"I think he made a lot of believers out of people that day," Rana said.

Former Canadian coach Leo Rautins, who was scouting the tournament for his senior squad, had no doubts after that day.

"I remember one play, Andrew was coming down the left side of the court, above the three-point line. He spins in towards the middle, spins back the other way, and then goes straight to the hoop and dunks it," Rautins recalled.

"It was so effortless and smooth. It was like: Where did that come from? it just came out of nowhere. It was unique, not many guys can do something like that."

What makes Wiggins even more remarkable, Rana said, is his ability to make spectacular plays back to back.

Rana remembered a game in Spain prior to the world championships where the youngster with the pterodactyl 6-11 wingspan blocked two shots.

"He went above the rim and just caught it, instead of just blocking it, he caught it," Rana said. "I’ve never seen that done once, and he did it twice in one game. He’s able to do the spectacular almost consistently, he’s able to make ridiculous athletic plays look easy. And he can do it back to back."

Rautins said the fact Wiggins — who’s older brother Nick is a junior guard at Wichita State — grew up immersed in the game puts his basketball I.Q. at an entirely different level.

"You look at the great small forwards, Dominique Wilkins, Dr. J, Lebron James, they’re all six-eight, six-nine, long, jump-out-of-the-gym, run-like-a-deer kind of mould. And none of those guys had a dad who played in the NBA.

"You look at Steph Curry (son of former Raptors sharp-shooter Dell Curry), his head is entirely different from anybody else’s. Yeah he’s a great shooter — his old man taught him how to shoot the right way, but his head, the way he thinks the game, is way beyond everybody’s else’s."

But the young Canadian hasn’t made everybody a believer yet. A February article on Sports Illustrated’s website ran under the headline "The Canadian Jordan, Andrew Wiggins the great hope north of the border." The story raised questions about his work ethic and focus.

An angry Wiggins erupted for 57 points in response to the article.

It was just the kind of "killer-instinct" comeback Nash said Wiggins will need to find success in the NBA.

"I’m sure there are fans, media that will say: ‘I’m going to take the stance that you’re not the best,’ so to have to hear people all over you every time you play, it’s not normal for a high school kid.

"And I think that’s great for him. You don’t want it to be easy for him because it’s going to be tough when he gets to the NBA, no matter how good he is. We’ve seen every NBA star go through obstacles and become better, whether it was LeBron or Kobe or Jordan. You want him to go through obstacles too."

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