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Heading into his freshman season at Kansas, Andrew Wiggins was being hyped as the best freshman prospect in quite some time – an athletic wing with NBA-ready defensive skills and unlimited upside.
As he logged minutes on the hardwood in Lawrence and around the NCAA, opinions about his game and projections of how it would translate to the pros started to waver. There were times where he looked like a superstar-in-the-making, like the night he went for 19 and 17 against Iowa State or when he dropped 41 on West Virginia. Other nights, he differed too much, got into foul trouble or simply struggled from the floor.
Despite his ups and downs, Wiggins joined his Kansas teammate Joel Embiid and Duke’s Jabari Parker on the short list of potential first-overall selections in June’s NBA Draft. Ultimately, the Cleveland Cavaliers made Wiggins the top pick, marking the second straight season the team had tabbed a Canadian with the No. 1 pick in the draft after having selected UNLV’s Anthony Bennett the year before.
In August, Wiggins traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the key return in a deal that sent long-time star Kevin Love to Cleveland.
Wednesday night, the Toronto native returned home to face the Raptors for the first time, dropping 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and dealing with foul trouble all night in a game the Raptors held on to win 105-100. Though Wiggins didn’t blow the roof off the Air Canada Centre, the 20-year-old has exceeded expectations this season, showing that the hype that carried him into college was justified. He looks like a superstar-in-the-making, averaging 15.7ppg heading into Wednesday night’s game with flashes of greatness showing up in his game film on an increasingly regular basis.
And he’s handled the transition to The Association and the attention that has come with being the first-overall pick and a player shipped out of town in a trade to appease LeBron James with aplomb. He’s also gone for 33 and 27 points in his two games against the Cavs this season, showing not only that he thrives in the spotlight, but also that underneath the cool exterior and laid back attitude is a fierce competitor that is fully aware of his situation.
At the time of the trade, Cleveland was viewed as having won the deal: they were getting a Top 10 player in Love, who, when partnered with James and Kyrie Irving, would give the Cavs the inside track on winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy this year and potentially more should the former UCLA star re-up and stick around long-term.
The season isn’t even finished and it’s becoming clear that Minnesota got the best of things: Love is being improperly used in Cleveland and looks like a man that will leave via free agency in the offseason, while Wiggins is on the fast track to becoming the player everyone projected him to be before they started picking apart his game at Kansas.
Like any rookie, Wiggins has experienced ups and downs – he struggled with his shot for the first two months of the season, but since he dropped 27 on LeBron and the Cavs, the 6-foot-8 forward has scored in double figures in 38 of 41 games, including every single outing since the All-Star Break.
Watching him play alongside fellow rookie Zach LaVine illustrates just how good Wiggins already is and how good he could be in the future.
While his Slam Dunk Contest-winning teammate is all hops and highlight reel dunks with little else, Wiggins already plays like a veteran. He a plus-defender in his first season in the league, has a developing post-up game and has started to use his athleticism to assert himself more on the offensive end, putting the ball on the deck to drive passed defenders that play him too close and dropping jumpers when they give him too much space.
Wednesday night was the first opportunity for fans in Toronto to see him play up close and while he didn’t show out, the markings of a future star are clearly there. The sky is the limit as he continues to develop; think Rudy Gay without being a liability on the defensive end.
If he reaches his full potential, he might become a bigger version of Dwyane Wade; he’s that good.
“King James” liked playing with Wade for a couple championship seasons in Miami. In a few years time, there’s a good chance he’ll be watching Wiggins blossom into a superstar and wondering why he passed on the opportunity to mentor the young Canadian and groom him as his wingman.