NBA regular season

Andrew Wiggins is finally figuring things out

Joe Viray
Andrew Wiggins is finally figuring things out

REVELATION. Andrew Wiggins has shown a commitment to playing on both ends.

Photo by Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

The Warriors may have inherited a massively overpaid player in Andrew Wiggins, but he is exactly what Golden State needs

There are two schools of thought when it comes to Andrew Wiggins’ massive $147.7 million contract he signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves, which was inherited by the Golden State Warriors in a trade last season.

The first: The Warriors inherited a player who is massively overpaid, a max-level contract for a sub-max level player (or lower, depending on who you ask). An overall first-round pick back in 2014, Wiggins hasn’t played up to such standards and expectations.

The second: Even if Wiggins is taking up more space in the Warriors’ salary cap sheet than is preferred, he is exactly what the Warriors needed – a 6-foot-7-inch wing capable of two-way competency, a secondary scorer (tertiary once Klay Thompson returns) who is able to create his own shot and is willing to defend the other team’s best perimeter scorer. These facts give just enough justification for the Warriors paying him above his actual market value.

When you see Wiggins do something like this, you can’t help but be in the camp of the latter:

That is Wiggins, deciding to put the rim pressure on Frank Kaminsky without hesitation nor fear.

Wiggins isn’t pressuring the rim that often by his standards. Around 31% of his shot attempts are within 4 feet of the rim – 57th percentile among wings, on track to be the lowest of his career, per Cleaning the Glass. He puts up only 8.0 drives per game – 79th among 138 players who average at least 5 drives per game, per NBA.com.

Even with the kind of athleticism and first-step burst he displays when in isolation, finishing strong at the rim has been the one partially-missing piece of the puzzle left to complete his arsenal. He has often shown an aversion to contact in the past, and also at times during this season.

That said, Wiggins’ hesitance to attack the rim hasn’t stopped him from providing scoring value through other means.

Providing a scoring punch

In lieu of rim attacks, Wiggins prefers to operate heavily through jumpers, both of the three-point variety and in the mid-range, which consists approximately 37% of his shot attempts – 82nd percentile among wings, per Cleaning the Glass. 

Around 32% of his shots are from beyond the arc, putting him in the 20th percentile among wings – a relatively low number, but on track to be the most frequent of his career, per Cleaning the Glass.

Accompanying an increase in three-point attempt frequency has been a noticeable increase in three-point accuracy. On 5.2 attempts per game, Wiggins is shooting 37.7% on threes, on track to be a career high and the first time in his career he has shot the three at an above-average rate.

Wiggins has scored 342 points on assisted three-point field goals, a career high. He has become somewhat of a stretch threat for the Warriors. By no means is he a DEFCON 1-level of threat for defenses like Klay Thompson was, but Wiggins has shown a knack for drilling timely shots whenever they’re most needed.

The common threads in the shots above can be seen: Wiggins taking advantage of the defense veering away from him due to penetration, cuts, or extra possessions from offensive boards. Defenses don’t consider him an immediate stretch threat – a choice that Wiggins has often made opponents regret.

Most of his threes have been of the catch-and-shoot variety (25% of his attempts), and while Wiggins has a slightly higher success rate on pull-up threes, they are not that far off from each other percentage-wise – 39.1% on pull ups, as opposed to 38.2% on catch-and-shoot threes.

Wiggins’ ability to score off the catch has been marvelous to watch, and it has added an additional layer of danger to his preferred methods of attack: as a ballhandler in the pick-and-roll (0.951 points per possession, 72nd percentile, per Synergy), and in isolation (1.053 points per possession, 84th percentile).

Wiggins being dependable in such situations has garnered him the role of the pressure release whenever Stephen Curry has an off shooting night, or when Curry sits down during his customary rest periods in the second and fourth quarters. It’s a common sight for the Warriors to seek out Wiggins to create something out of nothing, especially when their typical motion sets bog down and stagnate, or when Curry attracts extra attention from defenses.

Wiggins has largely stepped up whenever their best scorer needs a bit of a break, a complementary scorer who can provide some north-side juice and mid-range shot-making off the pick-and-roll and isolation.

Wiggins also fits in seamlessly within the Warriors’ motion offense, typically using his athleticism to catch defenders unawares on cuts. While there is certainly a need for him to be involved in such actions more often – only 6.2% of his possessions consist of cuts – he can be highly effective whenever he is (1.359 points per possession, 66th percentile).

Wiggins is especially deadly in stagger actions:

Watch Wiggins on the two possessions above. Devin Booker’s overplay in the first clip – preventing Wiggins from using the staggered screens – allows Wiggins to cut backdoor for the lob dunk. In the second clip, a “Twirl” option from Curry allows Wiggins to take advantage of Curry’s gravity and willingness to set backscreens, allowing Wiggins the space to catch the lob from Draymond Green.

In addition to being more involved in cuts, another aspect of Wiggins’ offense that needs adjustment is his ability to draw fouls and sending himself to the line. He averages 3.4 free-throw attempts per game, and is currently putting up a free-throw rate of .226 – both on track to be the lowest of his career. With a free-throw percentage of 71.6%, Wiggins needs to compensate for his relative lack of accuracy with volume, something that hasn’t happened yet but will probably need to happen as the postseason approaches.

Defensive commitment

Arguably more so than his offensive exploits, it has been his commitment to playing defense at a high level that’s been the most revelatory aspect of this season with the Warriors. Playing for an organization with a defensive-minded approach – as well as being teammates with one of the best defenders in NBA history – Wiggins has shown renewed vigor and intensity on the defensive end, a far-cry from his Minnesota days when his desire to play defense would wax and wane.

Wiggins has often been counted on to guard opposing teams’ best perimeter scorers this season. All the physical tools for him to be a stopper have been there from the start; it was his willingness to roll in the mud of defensive physicality that was the missing piece of the puzzle – a piece the Warriors’ culture has willingly provided.

Wiggins hasn’t been afraid to take on the big guns of the opposing team:

That is Wiggins taking on Kawhi Leonard, and doing a pretty darn good job of making him miss. On post ups, he uses his right hand to probe and control Leonard, and uses his length to bother Leonard’s shot attempt, enough for him to miss. Wiggins’ footwork is commendable here, as well, not allowing Leonard to get past him with good timing and positioning – Wiggins never gets out of position, and he cuts off Leonard’s attempts at blowing by.

Wiggins is averaging 1.0 block per game – only the third time he has averaged at least a block per night in his career. The combination of length and timing has been sublime; it’s hard for anyone – from the smallest of guards all the way to stronger and taller big men – to get a clean shot past him.

The advanced impact metrics have Wiggins rated as a slight positive on defense. Estimated plus-minus (EPM) has him as a +0.5, and FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR has him at +0.3. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) is the most generous of his impact on defense, putting him at a defensive RPM of +2.7 – ranked 21st overall.

The short explanation behind these metrics is that Wiggins hasn’t been a significantly huge positive on defense – certainly not on the level of the elite defenders in the league – but he’s no longer a negative either, which has often been enough. Wiggins certainly passes the eye test, and just squeaks by on the raw and advanced numbers. If you’re the Warriors, that’s certainly the most you can ask out of him.

“He’s answering the bell,” Green said of Wiggins after the Warriors’ win against the Phoenix Suns. “He’s attacking and he was getting rebounds, hitting jump shots, getting into the paint, [post-ups]. He scored in every way possible tonight. It’s been great to watch his growth, [especially for] a guy who a lot of people had written off in his career.

“He’s really stepped up to the challenge. Like I said, he carried us tonight, and that was huge.”

Stepping up to the challenge means making a positive impact, and Wiggins certainly has had more positives than negatives this year, especially when combined with the Warriors’ biggest stars. In 1,325 minutes on the floor, the trio of Wiggins, Curry, and Green has outscored opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions.

In 631 minutes without Kelly Oubre Jr, the trio’s numbers shoot up even further, outscoring opponents by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Include rookie center James Wiseman in that equation, and in 544 minutes without Oubre and Wiseman on the floor, the trio outscores opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions.

Think of the biggest hole the Warriors needed to fill since the departures of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, while losing Thompson to lower leg injuries: lengthy and switchable defenders who can guard the opponent’s best perimeter scorers, all while providing value on the offensive end.

Wiggins is certainly not the kind of scorer Durant is. He doesn’t nearly have the basketball IQ and passing chops of Iguodala. He can’t stretch the floor on the same level that Thompson can. But what Wiggins provides is something of an in-between: scoring just enough and doing what is asked of him on the defensive end.

That might not completely justify the $147.7 million contract, but it justifies what the Warriors have needed this season. Consider the return the Warriors got by giving away D’Angelo Russell to the Wolves: Wiggins, and the Wolves’ top three protected 2021 first-round pick. It’s safe to conclude it was a trade the Warriors comfortably won.

Add Wiggins’ 18.6 points on 48/38/72 splits – plus the defense – and it’s all been gravy. – Rappler.com