Wiggins determined to let NBA career evolve on his terms

Zach LaVine scored 30 points to be named MVP as the U.S. topped the World 157-154 at the Rising Stars Challenge.

TORONTO — He heard you. Andrew Wiggins could hear the crowd at the Air Canada Centre chanting his name at the Rising Stars Challenge. He could hear the crowd chanting "MVP" even if it was a relatively meaningless exhibition game.

"It was great man, there was a lot of love in my hometown," he told Sportsnet.

Wiggins put on a show, dropping 29 points and five assists including a late scoring flurry that nearly sparked a World Team comeback in what ended up being a 157-154 win for Team USA.

But that will be it for Wiggins on centre stage for All-Star Weekend. He opted out of competing in Saturday night’s slam dunk contest weeks ago. The energy at the ACC did give him pause, but he’s not changing his mind.

"Yeah, it would be crazy, but I dunk in games man, I can’t even do the show time dunks anymore," he said, smiling. "My legs ain’t like that; this ain’t high school."

Oh well.

There are all kinds of superlatives Wiggins is deserving of midway through his second NBA season.

But perhaps the most important one is the simplest: He’s better now than he was a year ago, and he was pretty good then; good enough to win NBA rookie of the year.

He’s still a 20-year-old in a man’s league. He’s still mired on a losing Minnesota Timberwolves team, surrounded by a core of young players trying to find their way, much like himself. He’s still got holes in his game that only time will fill.

But the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, the guy that LeBron James didn’t think worthy enough to be his teammate this early in his career, is figuring things out.

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He’s scoring average is up considerably — from 16.9 points a year ago to 20.8 per game. If he stays above the 20 points per game mark he’ll be one of only 10 20-year-olds to manage that milestone. He’s shooting a higher percentage than last year and getting to the free throw line more often. His defensive rating has improved, if marginally. He once again seems to be getting stronger as the season goes on.

But one superlative that Wiggins won’t have to worry about is being called basketball’s greatest dunker, which he may well be. It’s just that Wiggins has never seemed inclined to find out, which is a disappointment for those who would like to see exactly what someone of his length, bounce and quickness could pull off on a big stage.

One thing that remains unchanged about Wiggins in his second season is that he remains determined to let his NBA career evolve on his own terms.

His willingness to grind it out for all 82 games of his rookie year, finishing second in the NBA in minutes played put to rest, if needed, any concern that Wiggins’ laid back nature meant he doesn’t want to carry the weight required by a franchise player.

And even in his second year, he’s emerged as leader among the T-Wolves young core.

"He’s the pinnacle of a teammate," T-Wolves rookie Karl Anthony Towns gushed to reporters on Friday. "He thinks of us before he thinks of himself. He does everything we would love for him to do and everything we need him to do. He’s everything. He’s everything to us. His personality shines with us, and you know, it’s just one of those things when the aura goes up when he’s in the gym because of his energy, his positivity."

That’s the private Wiggins, the one that he doesn’t campaign to put on display.

But the 20-year-old is in no rush to put himself out into the public domain any more than is required.

Granted, the dunk contest has been surpassed in significance (if there is such a thing on All-Star Weekend) by the three-point shooting event. That’s where the stars come out to play now, as reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry will battle against a high-profile field of the league’s best.

But Wiggins is clearly not someone enamoured with narrative, not where he’s required to be the central character, at least.

With the all-star game being played in Toronto for the first time, there has been much reflecting on and tributes to Vince Carter’s impact on basketball in Toronto, and Canada, and the frozen-in-time quality of his performance in the dunk contest at the all-star game in 2000. Wiggins is a bit young — he would have been not quite five years old 16 years ago — to credit that as a seminal moment the way some of the older members of Canada’s NBA generation have.

Still, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to think what kind of fuss could have been made about Wiggins in the dunk contest in his hometown, having the stage almost entirely to himself as the highest profile member of the generation that Carter is credited for inspiring.

And there’s no doubt his primary sponsor, Adidas, would have liked the exposure, not to mention BioSteel, the Toronto sports nutrition company that he represents.

And it would have been pure fun.

But Wiggins isn’t wired to entertain if it means standing out from the crowd. He loves the stage when the game is getting down to crunch time and the T-Wolves need a bucket — he’s averaging 10.3 points a game in the fourth quarter for the month of February, second in the NBA.

But putting himself front-and-centre for the sake of it? Even if he’d have a hometown crowd eating out of his hand and have a chance to make memories for the next generation of Canadian basketball fans the way Carter did 16 years ago?

Not going to happen. Wiggins claims that he’s retired from dunking, the result of a sleight he suffered in the McDonald’s All-American dunk-off as a high school senior.

“My story is, I lost in high school, right when I was in the McDonald’s [All-]American Game, so I really don’t do … dunks anymore,” Wiggins told ESPN.com earlier this month. “I kind of retired that back, left that in high school, so I don’t really do it anymore."

There is the matter of having to face off against his teammate Zach LaVine, the defending dunk champion and the prohibitive favourite to win against a lightly regarded field made up of the Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond, the Denver Nuggets’ Will Barton and the Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon.

It’s hard to think that Wiggins wouldn’t have fared well against all comers. His in-game dunks in his brief career stand up against anyone’s, and at six-foot-eight with a 48-inch vertical there is no dunk he couldn’t pull off in competition.

But even if LaVine won, losing a dunk contest never hurt Dominique Wilken’s reputation. One of the greatest dunkers of all-time, Wilkens lost events to Spud Webb and Michael Jordan in various years.

And one of the greatest dunk contest of all-time was in 1988 when Jordan won it at home in Chicago, taking off from the free throw line for a perfect score of 50.

But dunk contests aren’t what they used to be in any case. More common now is the high-flyer who almost seems to resent the idea he might be pigeonholed by his unique gift.

"When I did the dunk contest early on and people would say ‘he’s a dunker’ … I hated that label," says DeMar DeRozan, who competed in the All-Star Weekend’s dunk contest in 2010, his rookie year. "I felt like I was more than that, so I wanted to work on everything so that I was more than that."

And Carter? His epic performance in 2000 was the only NBA dunk contest he ever entered.

"I didn’t want to be labeled a dunker," said Carter in an interview scheduled to be broadcast on NBA TV on Monday. "I’m not a career dunker, I wanted to be a career basketball player that lasts and you look up to. That wasn’t me and wasn’t what I wanted to accomplish."

In time Wiggins will be an NBA all-star, likely many times over.

In his case, shedding the "just a dunker" label won’t be a problem. He never wanted wear it to begin with, no matter how loud the crowd might have called his name.

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