D’Angelo Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves did not happen this summer. Still, the pursuit of Russell was the player-specific Wolves storyline that defined the intermediate months. It wasn’t Karl-Anthony Towns taking the step. And it wasn’t Robert Covington returning from injury. If anything, the Wolves name that seemed to most circulate the silly summer news cycle was Andrew Wiggins — and that was based on the dot-connecting that suggested it would be Wiggins who would be the piece sent out in a Russell deal.
That narrative found it’s way over to NBA TV, where Sam Mitchell, Wiggins’ former coach, was asked to opine on whether or not the way Wiggins is perceived could evolve if he was granted a change of scenery.
“This kid’s talent is untapped,” said Mitchell, initially evoking the same old groan Wolves fans have become accustomed to exhaling. But the context Mitchell applied seemed to have merit, being as he had actually coached the kid, and the logic he laid out seemed to line up.
“He’s a two-guard,” Mitchell said in his elaboration. “To me, that’s the first thing. You gotta move him to the two. The NBA is all about matchups and adjustments. When you put him at the two, he has a size advantage. When you play him at the three, he’s undersized.”
The remarks were clearly a shot at the way Tom Thibodeau stored Wiggins off the ball. As a small forward, Wiggins was asked to be a tertiary character in the Wolves offensive story while players like Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, and even Jamal Crawford were permitted to be the ball-handling alphas at the two-guard spot. Mitchell’s shots fired didn’t stop there.
“For the days you really needed to get him going, all you had to do — instead of yelling at him in front of 20,000 people — was you’d call him into your office and tell him what he’s not doing,” said Mitchell of what worked for him. “You show it to him on film, and you can have that tough conversation one-on-one.”
This is where Wiggins’ new coach, Ryan Saunders, comes to mind. Every booming scream Thibodeau billowed from the sidelines has been replaced this season by Saunders high five or butt slap. At least that’s what the relationship looks like on television or from the seats at Target Center.
“You can’t coach everybody the same,” was Mitchell’s logic. “You have to coach these players as individuals.”
The best full-season of Andrew Wiggins’ career was in the one season he played for Mitchell. But this season, what will be his first full-campaign under Saunders, is trending toward hitting a far higher plane. He’s playing the best basketball of his career, and it’s not even really close. Friday night against Golden State was the most recent example, and the third game of the season that the Wolves definitely would have lost if this New Wiggins did not show up.
The season opener against Brooklyn was the first instance, where Wiggins’ fourth quarter and overtime offensive dominance propelled the Wolves to a victory. And then in the home opener, Wiggins’ four fourth quarter 3-pointers stunned and ultimately knocked out the Miami Heat. Then Friday against Golden State, Wiggins scored 18 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter and overtime period. Two of those points came on this filthy stepback in Willie Cauley-Stein’s eye.
The real difference this season is not that Saunders handles Wiggins with the proper amount of sternness. No, the real difference is that shots that look like this — deep, stepback twos — are few and far between. Of Wiggins’ 33 shot attempts on Friday, only four came from the midrange, while seven were from beyond the arc and 22(!) were taken in the lane. That is a complete flipping of the script of the way he’s playing the game offensively.
I asked Saunders after the game if he is comfortable with Wiggins taking shots from that range when he is rolling.
“I don’t know if I’d still say I’m comfortable,” said Saunders. “Because if you’re breaking habits, you’ve got to break habits. And he lived heavily in the midrange for a number of years, and we just really think that his effective field-goal percentage will jump if he just sticks to the shot values.”
Stick to the shot values he has. After attempting 36 percent of his shot attempts from the midrange in the first five seasons of his career, that frequency is down to 15 percent this year through eight games. The other 85 percent of his shot mix has this season been comprised of looks in the lane (52 percent) and shots beyond the arc (33 percent). In turn, this is the first season of Wiggins’ career where that effective field goal percentage is over 50 percent.
“The credit goes to him,” Saunders continued. “For the way he’s accepting that and the way he’s really trying to implement it on the court.”
Mitchell may have been onto something with the way Wiggins needs to be handled. But it is Ryan Saunders and the Wolves’ coaching staff that has taken it to the next level. By not only coaching him like the millennial that he is but also by implementing a shot selection thought process from this millennia, Wiggins is thriving.
They’ve had those tough one-on-one conversations with Wiggins. Conversations that made it clear that the expectations they have are not optional. Unlike as it was with Thibodeau, those requirements are happening behind closed doors, and not at halfcourt.
It’s still early, but the “right situation” Sam Mitchell and the NBA TV crew were searching for with Wiggins is seeming more and more like it could be Minnesota.
“To me,” said Mitchell, “if he goes to the right situation with the right coach, who is going to push him in the right way, and plays him at the right position, this kid’s potential is untapped. People don’t understand this kid can flat out play.”
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