Is Andrew Wiggins the next Jimmy Butler?


The Thibodeau Transitions, Volume 1: Andrew Wiggins

The Minnesota Timberwolves are gaining steam in NBA circles. Casual followers recognize that they have one of the best young cores in the NBA. Junkies dream of how a, hopefully, generational talent like Karl-Anthony Towns can change the league. And Minnesota fans? They dream of wearing a t-shirt and shorts to a game of basketball in early June.

So what did the Wolves do over the past three months to satisfy said dreams? Will the additions of Kris Dunn, Jordan Hill, Cole Aldrich, and Brandon Rush lead them to the playoffs? Probably not.

But the addition of Tom Thibodeau can.

Throughout the season we will track player development underneath the guidance of Tom Thibodeau. From backups to starters, rookies to veterans, point guards to centers, Thibs will have a profound effect on this team. And we are here to keep you updated.

So today begins your educational training in the extrapolated encyclopedia of The Thibodeau Transitions. Here you will learn how a single, 58-year old, balding laborer came to Minnesota to collect stamps while rediscovering the joy of victory.

Volume 1: Andrew Wiggins

Today, Jimmy Butler is far and away a better basketball player than Andrew Wiggins. This is a fact—indisputable and irrefutable. Butler is a better shooter, finisher, and defender. Jimmy Butler is the best player on a team that is poised to contend for a playoff spot. Andrew Wiggins is six years younger, and now entering the realm of Butler’s ex-mentor.

So, how close is Wiggins to becoming Butler?

Statistically, the comparison is a bit rough. Butler, as a lowly 30th pick, began his career on the bench with no immediate expectations. Over time, Butler slowly gained rank within the Bulls organization, becoming their most prized asset. Conversely, Wiggins was plunged into the deep end as a rookie. He had a usage rate of 22.6% (high) as a rookie while leading the team in games started and minutes played. Moreover, as a sophomore, he led the Wolves in usage rate at 27.2% while ranking 28th in NBA usage rating ranks overall. In both seasons he was consistently forced to find isolation buckets within an offense that featured poor spacing. Before KAT, he was the Wolves sole savior.

Thus, for an apt comparison, it is best to juxtapose Butler’s two most recent seasons to Wiggins’ two existing seasons—the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 campaigns for both. As a quick reference, Butler’s usage rate jumped from 16.8% in 2013-14 to 21.6% in 2014-15, followed by 24.4% in 2015-16. As mentioned, Wiggins has had usage rates of 22.6% and 27.2% in his first and second seasons, respectively. According to usage rate, the 2014-2016 seasons are the most comparable seasons over the span of Butler’s five-year career.

Year

2011-12

2012-13

2013-14

2014-15

2015-16

Wiggins

-

-

-

22.6

27.2

Butler

14.9

14.6

16.8

21.6

24.4

Offense

Wiggins is an effective rim attacker. Last season Wiggins took seven free throws a game, while Butler took 7.1 free throws per game over each of the past two seasons. They both took at least 1.5 shots in the paint per game with corresponding field goal percentages over 60%. Thibs will press Wiggins to sustain his aggressive nature, especially as one of the Wolves few effective rim attackers.

Where Butler first separates himself is through his shooting. Two seasons ago, Butler shot nearly 38% from the 3-point line. While last year he regressed to 31%, he was shooting three a game. Wiggins has shot about two a game at a flat 30% rate.

However, if we look closely at the efficient catch and shoot opportunities—Wiggins’ three-point rate increases to nearly 35% on catch-and-shoots. While Thibodeau’s forte lies in his defensive mastery, his knack for offensive innovation often goes unnoticed. During Thib’s rise to prominence, Jeff Van Gundy praised Thibodeau for his innovative drive-and-kick and floor spacing methodologies.[1] Thibs will coerce the Wolves into the league averages for three-point opportunities. After finishing in the bottom two for three-point attempts in back to back seasons, it’s time for the Wolves to revamp the offense. Between emphasizing catch and shoot opportunities and the guidance of new shooting coach Peter Paton, look for Wiggins to improve behind the arc.

The final significant change needs to materialize in Wiggins' mid-range shot selection. Wiggins took about five shots a game pulling up in the mid-range, shooting 35.5%. Those kind of shots hurt a team—in some eyes, a wasted possession. They present Wiggins as indecisive at times, perhaps even lazy. Note the following clip.

Wiggins appears to have a predetermined notion to score but has no interest in truly attacking his defender. Thibodeau’s offense should alleviate the need to settle for a pull-up. Whether this becomes a drive and kick, a post up, or an additional opportunity to attack the rim, settling for a mid-range pull up five times a game will no longer be necessary within a reconditioned Wolves offense.

Finally, monitor Wiggins’ passing. The Wolves are blessed with intrinsic passers such as Rubio and KAT (underrated). Butler has increased his assists per game in every season, averaging nearly five a game last season. Wiggins sits at a flat two assists per game thus far. Look for Thibodeau to push Wiggins to develop his court vision to complement his rim-attacking nature.

Defense

In entering the 2014 draft, Wiggins was submitted to countless player comparisons. While ceiling expectations included players such as Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter, floors were centered around defensive stoppers (think Tony Allen). Scouting reports suggested that Wiggins’ superior athleticism was a surefire indicator of the birth of a defensive star.

They were wrong.

Thus far, Wiggins’ defensive plus/minus is -2.1 and Defensive Win Shares remains below one (his defense has contributed less than one win in two seasons). Over the past two seasons, Butler’s defensive plus/minus has remained positive while his Defensive Win Shares has reached nearly six—excluding a peak in the 2013-14 season at 4.6 (8th in the NBA). It seems that the accolades speak for the stats. For three consecutive seasons Butler has been placed on the All-NBA Defensive Second team, and he looks to be a consistent resident in the NBA All-Defense conversation 

Frankly, it's borderline insulting to compare Wiggins’ defensive aptitude to Butler’s. But recall the scouting reports. Wiggins has the physical tools to become an elite defender—but what he has lacked, he now has: coaching 

Wiggins’ prominent weakness lies in his positioning. He is constantly out of position, leading to late rotations and broken defensive assignments.

However, these issues are easily noticed in most, if not all, players on the Wolves—a quick counterargument to anyone claiming Wiggins to be a hopeless space cadet. Regardless, Thibodeau will not allow for these positioning deficiencies to remain with Wiggins or his teammates.

While it will not be an instant fix—engrained habits rarely are—the defense will develop with training. Reports claim that Thibodeau had the players in weeks before practice to begin choreographing proper defensive rotations. Through the impact of proper defensive positioning, expect Wiggins to collect an extra steal per game (Butler averages two steals a game; Wiggins one) and cut a foul per game (Butler averages just below two; Wiggins above two) while developing into a plus NBA defender.

Life Above the Rim

As explained, Butler represents the superior basketball player; however, between Wiggins' tactful spin move and poster-creating hopping ability, he creates the highlights that a fan craves.

While winning is important, first answer this question: At 2am on a Sunday night, are you watching highlights of a Chicago Bulls regular season victory? Or are you watching a high school student with the athleticism worthy of YouTube stardom?

Or perhaps a college student-athlete playing basketball after class?

Prefer NBA Summer League? 

How about the upcoming NBA Rookie of the Year? 

Jimmy Butler?

Nah. Andrew Wiggins.

Hair

Thibodeau’s effect on one’s hair, other than the expected balding routine, has yet to be seen. But certain sources indicate that, at the moment, Butler’s hair is generally favored.[2] Early preseason reports suggest Wiggins will likely sport an even grander afro, but watch for Wiggins to approach the signature Butler ‘Polished, but Messy Flat-Top’ by the season’s end.

And pray we have forever passed the cornrow phase.

Basketball in June (that matters)

Asking Wiggins to become Butler feels a bit much. Butler looks to be a perennial all-star, a regular on the All-Defense NBA teams, as well as a featured member of Team USA. At this point, Wiggins is accomplished enough to be recognized as a cornerstone to the Minnesota Timberwolves' future.

KAT’s path towards superstardom is clear—his game is unbelievably polished for a 20-year-old; Wiggins’ path is cluttered with confused expectations. Is he a defender or a scorer? Will he become a three-point threat or a rim-attacking bulldog? Can he develop the ball handling skills to offset his shooting woes or is he fated to become a rotational complement? Wiggins is 21 and has already averaged over 20ppg in a season. His athleticism is jaw-dropping, but his game is unpolished. Regardless of how Thibs moves forward with Wiggins, the direction needs to be forward. A 1-2 punch of KAT and Wiggins has championship conversation written all over it. But at this point, the conversation depends on Thibs to develop Wiggins into the player he sees fit as a working piece within a championship formula.


[1]http://archive.boston.com/sports/basketball/celtics/articles/2010/06/03/attention_to_detail/?page=full

[2] Shea Serrano

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