Timberwolves’ Andrew Wiggins more confident with Saunders at helm

Minnesota Timberwolves small forward Andrew Wiggins (22). (Darren Abate/AP)

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins’ NBA career started with such promise.

The 2014 No. 1 overall pick kicked it all off by winning rookie of the year with a 16.9 points per game scoring average and at least on the surface appeared to show improvement in each of his next two seasons, averaging 20.7 points in Year 2 and then 23.6 in his third season as a pro.

After that 2016-17 third year things started going south for Wiggins as he saw his scoring average dip to 17.7 in 2017-18 and then last season he shot a career-worst 41.2 per cent from the field, a rather untimely dropoff considering he signed a max extension for five years worth about $148 million.

So then, how did a rookie of the year go from potential future superstar to an overpaid near-bust after just five seasons in the league? The answer might lie in that career-best 2016-17 season.

That year, while Wiggins did appear to take another leap, also came with the hiring of new head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau.

In an interview Wiggins did with local Minnesota radio host Phil Mackey of SKOR North, the Vaughan, Ont., native alluded to the fact that both his and the team’s internal struggles were, at least in part, because of Thibodeau.

“I feel like my first three years I was on the rise and was getting better and better and then some changes were made,” Wiggins told Mackey. “I worked really hard this summer, and I’m as confident as I was when I first came into the league.”

The change Wiggins referred to is likely the big move Thibodeau made in the summer of 2017 to acquire Jimmy Butler, a player Thibodeau helped coach and develop while with the Chicago Bulls.

At first it looked like the move worked because Minnesota made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, with Butler leading the way. But, as we all found out last season, that was very much only short-term gain as Butler’s personality clashed with Timberwolves players like Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, eventually leading Butler to request a trade — which was granted and saw him end up with the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Butler situation was the most public one, but it appeared to compound with the fact Thibodeau’s no-nonsense Spartan coaching style didn’t mesh well with Wiggins and the younger players on the Timberwolves roster, eventually leading to his dismissal as both head coach and team president in January.

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“All the yelling and stuff, I feel, is not going to really change my mood,” Wiggins said of what style of coaching gets the best out of him. “But when a coach comes at me and is real and tells me the real I feel like I respect that a lot more than anyone just yelling. Because anyone can yell, anyone can raise their voice, but not a lot of people can be real. So that goes a long way for me.”

And in the Timberwolves’ new coach, Ryan Saunders, it sounds as if Wiggins has found a coach who can be real in the way he wants one to be.

Saunders, of course, is the son of the late Flip Saunders – who passed away in 2015 after a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is considered to be something of a folk hero among Minnesota fans as he presided over the most successful era of Timberwolves basketball.

Ryan was named interim head coach of the Timberwolves after Thibodeau’s firing and was given the permanent position in May. At only 33 years old, Saunders is the youngest coach in the NBA, something that Wiggins says has helped acclimate himself to the Timberwolves players well.

“He’s a players’ coach for sure,” said Wiggins. “He has a great energy about him and I feel like a lot of guys can relate because he’s not too much older than us and I feel like he gets us.”

Saunders also understands that in order for Minnesota to be successful, the club’s going to have to get with the times and run a modern pace-and-space offence, a point of contention for critics of Wiggins as he’s a player throughout his career has shown an unhealthy love affair with long two-pointers.

But by the way Wiggins is talking, be on the lookout this coming season for him to actively try to silence those voices of dissension.

“I think it’ll be good for us because, obviously, the mid-range shot is probably the lowest-percentage shot you can take,” Wiggins said of the new offence this season. “I’ve always been a player who believes if it’s a good shot, take it. Take what the defence gives you, but, obviously, the better shots are the threes and getting all the way to the rim. That’s what we’re trying implement in the offence.

“I feel like it’s been going well because we’re playing faster and no one’s afraid to shoot. Everyone has the green light to shoot. If you’re open you shoot the ball. … When the coaches are telling you to shoot the ball I feel like that makes your confidence go up through the roof.”

Only time will tell if any of this talk will lead to actual tangible results for Wiggins. The talent has always been there but the execution and focus more often than not hasn’t been. Still, it’s encouraging to hear Wiggins acknowledge he needs to change and it sounds like Saunders — or maybe just no Thibodeau around anymore — could be the catalyst for a big year for the Canadian.

Minnesota kicks off its season on the road against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 23.

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