A new player.
That’s how the broadcast team on the call for Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals made reference to Andrew Wiggins as he was in the midst of what was arguably the most impressive performance of his eight-year NBA career.
The 26-year-old Golden State Warriors wing from Thornhill, Ont., put an exclamation point on a 27-point, 11-rebound and a game-high plus-22 outing when he drove left and attacked the lane with maximum velocity before rising up for a dunk that was so ferocious officials initially called an offensive foul.
Upon review, it was determined that the only thing to see was awesomeness. The play stood, and may well stand as the greatest dunk in Canadian basketball history. Even if it had been somehow ruled an offensive foul, it almost wouldn’t have mattered.
As Wiggins put it: “You know, I feel that dunk would still be alive.”
It will live forever now.
Even the victim had to acknowledge it was a cut above your run-of-the-mill posterization:
“I mean, I got hit a little bit, but that was impressive, I'm not going to lie,” said Mavericks star Luka Doncic who unwisely tried to challenge Wiggins, losing the battle of the skies as the Dallas Mavericks fell behind 3-0 despite his 40-point night. “I saw the video again, I was like, oof. That was pretty incredible. I wish I had those bunnies.”
That it was just one play among many in a game, series and a playoff run looking more and more like the Warriors' sixth Finals appearance in the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green era, and a run at their fourth title is – for long-time Wiggins watchers – perhaps even more significant.
A moment after his show-stopping cram on Doncic, Wiggins took another flying leap, this time for a put-back dunk that pushed the Warriors up by 12 with 5:46 to play, and one of his game-high offensive rebounds as part of a defining 14-7 advantage Golden State had over Dallas.
"He was looking like Dominique Wilkins out there with the dunks he was throwing down," said Thompson of Wiggins after the game.
In some ways his most eye-popping attack on the rim came in the opening moments of the fourth, when he hurled his slender yet deceptively strong frame into the air and was met at the apex by Mavericks guard Reggie Bullock. The Dallas wing never stood a chance. Wiggins sent him flying to the floor while drawing the foul.
And underlying all of it was some determined Wiggins defence on Doncic down the stretch, as he helped blunt the Mavericks star’s efforts to lead a fourth-quarter comeback. He hasn’t exactly been lockdown – Doncic is shooting 53 per cent in the series with Wiggins guarding him – but he’s raised his hand and stuck his nose in against one of the very best offensive talents in the NBA. It’s more than something.
Wiggins has been in the spotlight since he was barely into his teens as a precocious son of his NBA-playing father Mitch Wiggins, and his Olympian mother Marita Payne. But never has he shone like this, both by rising to the moment and by how he’s done it: demonstrating a grit and toughness often deemed the missing ingredients holding the 2014 No. 1 overall pick back from the level of stardom his athletic talent seemed to predict for him.
It's his first extended post-season run after six frustrating years in Minnesota and the season-and-a-half prior to this one in Golden State when the dynastic Warriors were in limbo, waiting for their stars to return to full health, and he’s thriving.
“Playoffs [are] different than the regular season,” Wiggins said Sunday. “.. It's very detailed; the physicality, [you’re] able to get away with a little bit more stuff. So I love it. You know, I feel like it brings out the most in everybody. It's the biggest stage you can ask for.”
Wiggins’ ability to find a role within the Warriors’ established firmament does raise some questions, though. Mainly: what has taken so long?
He’s not your standard role-playing underdog, clambering his way over impossible obstacles in order to finally earn his just due. This is not Fred VanVleet, going from undrafted to earning a Finals MVP vote during the Toronto Raptors' run to the NBA title in 2019, or Pascal Siakam going from obscurity in Cameroon to All-NBA recognition less than a decade after starting to play basketball.
He’s a former No. 1 pick, the son of athletic royalty who is in the fourth year of a $148-million max contract who only this year became an all-star — in part because of some determined electronic ballot-box stuffing by fans of K-pop star BamBam, the Warriors' ‘Global Ambassador.’
This year, with a steady diet of open looks as the Warriors' third and sometimes fourth option, he’s shot a career-best 39 per cent from three and fit in well as the first line of defence against opposing team’s top players. He’s found a home.
Fair or not, the expectations were that Wiggins was supposed to be lifting teams with his own talent, not as an adjunct. Wiggins himself seemed primed for the job when he was emphatic that he should be given top dollar on his rookie extension heading into his fourth season. "Nothing less," — was his negotiating position at the time.
And if being the focal point of a franchise turned out to be a role he wasn’t ultimately suited for – and no shame in that, it’s a not a job for everyone – it’s hard not to wonder what his career would look like had he played with this kind of aggression and effort more consistently.
But hey, better late than never.
The Warriors certainly aren’t concerned. They acquired Wiggins for a bargain-basement price – D'Angelo Russell and the rights to what turned out to be the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, in retrospect, was a heist – giving him a clean slate and the opportunity to redefine the prime of his career for their mutual benefit.
“That's a guy that's been criticized for being lackadaisical …. we've heard it all,” said Green Sunday. “ And yet on the biggest stage, he's come through. I always said, no one talks about teams that guys are on or organizations that guys are in. No one ever talks about that. It's always the player's fault. You know, he's showing that I'm not far off when I say that. So you know, it's great to see. Absolutely amazing to see him pick up his level of play … it's been absolutely amazing for us as a team and for him as a player.”
Whatever path he had to take; Wiggins has arrived at a very good place at the perfect time: he’s a critical part of a juggernaut team on the cusp of his first NBA Finals. He’s weeks away from potentially becoming an NBA champion.
“Some people never get [this] opportunity,” said Wiggins. “So you can't take it for granted.”
Wiggins certainly isn’t.
A new player? Maybe not. But a different one? Certainly.