Seeing Wiggins in Toronto bittersweet for Raptors fans

NBA Rookie of the Year and Toronto-area native Andrew Wiggins was ambassador for the city as it unveiled the 2016 NBA All-Star logo on Wednesday. Watch his one-on-one chat with Eric Smith.

Just as scripted, there was Andrew Wiggins, a budding NBA star, pumping up the 2016 NBA all-star game coming to his hometown.

He looked the part, displaying his growing comfort and polish in the spotlight. The logo – which he officially unveiled – looks great too: the city’s iconic CN Tower is the centrepiece with the words "All-Star Toronto" printed across a depiction of the main pod of what remains the tallest free standing building in the Western Hemisphere, 40 years after it opened.

The only downer was the reality that he’s a Minnesota Timberwolves foundation piece doing a public appearance on behalf of the NBA in his off-season home.

Imagine if the Toronto Raptors had been as committed to tanking – OK, rebuilding through the draft – a few years back as their Toronto Maple Leafs corporate brethren apparently are now?

It was hard not to see the irony of MLSE getting religion on rebuilding to the tune of a record-setting $50-million contract for Mike Babcock to bring the pain to Leafland when gazing at Wiggins, who could have been a Raptor if MLSE and general manager Masai Ujiri had been more definitive about taking his team to the lottery in 2013-14. That would have cost nothing and the benefits would be incalculable.

Wiggins might have been a Raptor, on hand to build the buzz around an all-star game in his city, starring him for his hometown team. Fantasy stuff, but it didn’t happen.

Regardless, Wiggins was the perfect choice by the NBA to trot out for what was strictly a hype-building event. He’s at the crest of the rising tide of Canadian basketball, both a function of it and a source. If he moves, people will pay attention. The Raptors’ presence was limited. The only formal appearance by anyone with the organization was by outgoing MLSE president Tim Leiweke, who used the moment to confirm that a deal for a Toronto-area NBA Development League team will be in place for next season.

Who knows, with the way the Raptors finished last year, the all-star game itself might pass them by as well.

Not Wiggins. At 20 years old he’s already amassed his share of milestones and he’s already got his sights set on the next one, and yes, it involves a triumphant return to his hometown on Feb. 14 when the 65th NBA all-star game is held outside the United States for the first time.

It would be almost too perfect if the emerging face of Canadian basketball had a coming out moment at the Air Canada Centre where he grew up watching Vince Carter.

"That would be like a dream come true," Wiggins told Sportsnet’s Eric Smith in a sit-down interview after the unveiling. "If you could paint the perfect picture, that would be it."

And Wiggins wants to get there the hard way – as an all-star. He wouldn’t commit to participating in what would be a show-stopping dunk contest – "It’s something I would decide closer to the time it was going to happen" – he wants to be on stage for his game, not because he can fly.

It would be thrilling for all concerned, undoubtedly.

But there’s something a little bittersweet about Wiggins in Toronto, helping hype the NBA all-star game when he’s working hard to become a cornerstone in Minnesota, particularly as the Raptors head into an uncertain summer with a team that appears to already have hit its ceiling in the Eastern Conference – good but not nearly good enough. There are those within the Raptors organization who believe that someday, one day, Wiggins will come home. But that day is years and years away, and Wiggins seems sincerely happy in Minnesota.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Flash back a couple of months ago when the all-star game was awarded to Toronto and Leiweke was introducing Drake as the Raptors global ambassador.

Wiggins was part of the plan.

That’s why Ujiri traded Rudy Gay. That’s why he had all but completed a trade that would have sent Kyle Lowry to the New York Knicks for a future first-round draft pick until Knicks owner James Dolan got cold feet.

No one needs to be reminded about how that all worked out. Out of nowhere the Raptors were a playoff team. Against all expectations they became relevant years ahead of schedule. And for a while it was euphoric.

But as the Raptors head into a pivotal summer it feels like all that was the equivalent of dessert before supper: a quick sugar high that spoils your appetite for something more substantial.

Even the perfect tank job wouldn’t have guaranteed the Raptors a shot at Wiggins – it is a draft lottery, after all. But after playing all 82 games as a rookie and finishing a close second to the Houston Rockets’ James Harden in minutes played – strong evidence that he’s got the grit to go along with the glitter – Wiggins certainly sounds like the kind of athlete you could be excused for burning a season trying to get.

"I feel like I was brought to Minnesota for a reason," Wiggins told Sportsnet. "Not just to be a regular player, but to be a player that someone can build a franchise around and can change a whole organization in the right direction and I’m going to keep working hard to do so, no matter how long it takes."

And the Timberwolves look like an organization on the rise – and not just because they have Wiggins. Their roster of young talent is deep. They will be drafting another cornerstone talent with the No.1 pick at the NBA draft next month. They feel like a franchise that’s on its way.

Does he feel like he’s ended up in the right place?

"Yeah, it definitely does," he said. "We have a young core and we got that first draft pick that will make the core even better."

You have to be happy for the guy. It’s always nice to see a local boy make good, and the early returns on Wiggins are that he’s going to be great.

It will be a special moment if he can earn his way to the all-star game when it takes over his hometown for a history-making weekend that will undoubtedly be as much fun as Toronto is legally allowed to have.

The Raptors will benefit by exposing their city and their market to the best of the NBA in a way that doesn’t often happen during the hustle and bustle of the regular season. In the long run that can’t hurt and having Wiggins in town, front-and-centre, will be a thrill for all of Canadian basketball.

But when he leaves, heading back to Minnesota, he’ll be missed.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.