Expectations are a bit of a mixed blessing. It’s certainly nice to have others believe in you, to be able to rely on that faith, hoping it is well placed and reasonable, on nights when you struggle to have any yourself. It can prod one forward, encouraging them that others see something in themselves that they may be too close to perceive, that they are capable of things they had not thought possible before. Of course, like many ostensibly positive things, there’s a bit of a shadow side to this as well. High hopes from without can crush one as easily as they can build one up, placing a burden on one’s back that was not there before, adding pressure to previously effortless activities. And if you consistently fail to live up to those expectations, those who placed them upon you are likely to blame you for letting them down. Hope withers and often calcifies into resentment.
Since becoming the number one pick in the 2014 Draft, after being hailed as a potentially generational prospect, Andrew Wiggins has been a disappointing NBA player. After winning Rookie of the Year, his progress has stalled and he has spent the last several years in a purgatory of sorts -- too talented, and too highly paid to completely dismiss, but lacking in enough skills to be a player a team can build around. Sure, he could create his shot and had natural athleticism that many players would at least contemplate selling their souls for, but he just as often looked lost on the court, unsure what to do when the ball was not in his hands. His numbers were fine for a complementary player, which with the development of Karl-Anthony Towns was all he really needed to be, but he was expected to be a star. You don’t get nicknamed Maple Jordan while still a teenager without some outsized expectations being placed upon you, after all.
Watching Wiggins play his first few seasons, it made sense to wonder if he actually enjoyed playing basketball, or if it was just something he fell backwards into because to his height and athleticism. He failed to grow as a player or modify his game and, on many nights, what he was doing failed to make a positive impact on his team. This lack of growth, combined with his generally laid back demeanor often read as a lack of desire to improve, which frustrated fans and made those who still believed in Wiggins’ potential appear heedlessly contrarian.
There’s a nascent expectation that future stars will enter the league close to fully formed, or at least with a skill set in need of refinement more than an overhaul. It’s natural to want to see the signs that a player is worth the faith their team placed in them by selecting them so high in the draft, and there’s understandable frustration from fans when that belief appears to have been misplaced, but progress in the NBA is not often as linear as one would hope or expect. Players like LeBron James who enter the league with a broad and well-defined skill set that is gradually refined and expanded upon are rare. More common are players whose development is more fitful, with false starts and reasons for evident hope that never quite blossom into anything more. There are players with promising rookie seasons that never build upon that initial success and players who appear mired in mediocrity for several years before finally breaking out.
The importance of context is also discounted when considering a young player’s development. Some players are great enough to thrive and grow in any environment, but they are the exceptions. Wiggins has spent his career on a mediocre team, playing for four different coaches in six seasons, trying to carve out a niche for himself with no stability around him upon which he can build. Now, for the first time in his career, he has a coach under fifty years old, who has come of age as the NBA has changed and is not wedded to old ideas about how to win. The team has also made a big financial investment in Wiggins, so if there’s a way to transform Wiggins into an All-Star caliber player, they are heavily incentivized to find it.
Two years ago, Victor Oladipo was beginning his first season as a member of the Indiana Pacers. After being the second overall pick in 2013, he had put up four decent seasons as a member of the Magic and Thunder but never looked capable of being much more than a fine enough starting two guard. As a member of the Pacers, getting a fresh start as the team’s unquestioned leader, he started the season hot, scoring more and more efficiently than ever, while also playing stellar perimeter defense. I kept waiting for him to fizzle out, to go back to being the player I had seen before, but he solidified himself as an All-NBA player and will hopefully return to that form once he returns from injury.
As I watch Wiggins play this year, much as there was watching Oladipo two years ago, there’s a part of me that refuses to believe that a corner has actually been turned. We’ve seen hot streaks from him before, but they’ve never really lasted. This year feels different, though. Not only is this a run that’s lasted over the course of multiple weeks, he’s also changed the way he plays in subtle, but important ways. He is taking markedly less deep 2’s than in the past and while he still relies on the midrange a lot, he is taking more jumpers closer to the basket and also converting from all over the floor at a higher percentage than ever before. It’s not that he suddenly learned how to shoot, but he is being smarter about what shots he does take and, unsurprisingly, they’re more likely to fall in light of that. He hasn’t suddenly transformed into the new incarnation of James Harden, but Wiggins is looking more like a modern player and less like an anachronistic throwback to the days of inefficient volume shooters.
Perhaps what is most shocking about Wiggins looking like a legitimately good player this season is not necessarily that it is happening, but how low of a bar he had established in his first few seasons. He’s posting career highs across the board, but it’s a pretty damning statement about his first few seasons that he had never averaged more than 2.5 assists per game before or had an effective field goal percentage higher than .484. So part of the jubilation about Wiggins is not just that he might be becoming a star -- and who doesn’t want the NBA to have more of those? -- but relief from those who regularly watch the Timberwolves that they may no longer have to watch Minnesota squander multiple possessions per game on a high usage player who is seemingly incapable of creating for others or taking good shots.
It may still turn out that Wiggins’ hot start to the season is no more than a chimera, a beacon of false hope sent up by a player that many have failed to believe in any longer. Yet for Timberwolves fans and those who still hold real estate on Wiggins Island, he is giving more reason to feel that their hope in his development was well-placed after all. Wiggins may be in his sixth season, but he is still just twenty-four years old and while much of his early career has been frustrating, he finally appears to not be weighed down by the expectations of the past and is, in the process, coming closer to being the player many hoped he may become.