It's safe to say the Minnesota Timberwolves had a very productive offseason. The expectations haven’t been this high for them since the Kevin Garnett glory days. Although they added great veteran talent and improved their bench depth, how far this team can go relies on how much more Andrew Wiggins develops.
Considered a “rising star”, Wiggins, direly needs to improve on certain facets of his skills for the Timberwolves to not just make the playoffs, but to overachieve in them. Missing the playoffs this year in a stacked Western Conference is not an option, especially with a roster that features Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, and some other savvy veterans.
Where the Timberwolves land in the playoffs will be heavily dictated on Wiggins’ development. If he can become a true two-way player, they could land anywhere from the 3-6 seed this season. If Wiggins shows no signs of improvement that features the same old, no defense and inefficient shot selection—the Wolves falling to a seven or eight seed would be highly disappointing.
Only for one second though.
After missing the playoffs for 13-straight years, the Timberwolves’ fandom would riot in happiness. Making the postseason at any seed would lift the burden of being terrible and finally wash away the stink this franchise has been associated with for so long. Hopefully, this new era will make the Minnesota-faithful forget about how awful the "Khan-years" were. #Neveragain
However, with the current talent on paper, they should aim higher than “just making the playoffs.”
Can Andrew Wiggins prove he's worth the new contract this season?
Whether you believe Wiggins deserved the 5-year $148 million max extension is neither here nor there. The fact is while he’s a supreme scorer at his age, he doesn’t add a whole lot more to helping the team win, yet. The advanced stats aren’t pretty, but with the eye-test, you can see Wiggins has all the tools in the world to be great, but it’s on him to put it all together.
Glen Taylor, owner of the Timberwolves, gave him the max knowing it could be a risky gamble. However, with a highly respected and a proven coach in Tom Thibodeau and the addition of Butler—Wiggins should be in good hands to develop his other skills.
With the Butler addition, Wiggins won’t be relied on to always guard the best teams opposing player. He can learn from Butler what elite defense looks like from practice, games and from the film. This will also keep Wiggins fresh on the offensive side of the floor as well.
As mentioned earlier, scoring is not a problem for Wiggins. He has improved his scoring every season he’s been in the league. Last season, Wiggins put up an average of 23.6 points per game on about 45% shooting (league average). While league average is ok, Wiggins’ is being paid like an All-Star and needs to raise those percentages if he is to be worthy of his newly signed contract.
How he goes about his attempts is what infuriates advanced-stats-nerds.
Today’s NBA lives and dies by the three-point shot, and if you’re not going to get it there, you better be attacking the basket and drawing fouls. While he finishes around the rim at a good 62.1% (261/420), Wiggins is notorious for utilizing the mid-range jumper more often.
Wiggins shot just 38.7% (188/486) from mid-range last season. If he would look more often to attack the rim, his percentages would rise overall across the board and he would draw in even more free throw attempts per game. Last season he went to the line about seven times per game making five of them.
If Wiggins can continue to raise his three-point shooting percentage from 35% to around 40%, he’ll become an even bigger scoring threat than he already is and the naysayers would be more inclined to approve of his new contract. He averaged 3.5 three-point attempts last season, making 1.3 of them.
The Timberwolves are an ok to poor three-point shooting team. Their best three-point shooter last season was Zach LaVine who shot around 39% before an ACL injury hampered the rest of his season. He was part of the trade that brought in Jimmy Butler. The Timberwolves have a few players on their team, including Wiggins, who can hit 35% or higher, but they don't have a coveted "sharpshooter" on the team at the moment.
Can Wiggins do more than score?
If we look at Wiggins’ stats other than scoring we can focus on his rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and turnovers. Why? Because these are all areas that desperately need to be improved if he wants to take his game and team to the next level.
Look at the table below, what do you notice?
His rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and turnovers have virtually been the same since his rookie season.
One could argue that his rebound numbers are so low because he’s the main outlet, the one to take off up the court in hopes of an easy bucket on a quick rebound before the defense can get back. However, the Timberwolves ranked 25th last season in team rebounding. Having Wiggins focusing on crashing the boards more often would help the team improve those numbers and deter second-chance points by the opposing team.
The assists numbers are too low for someone with Wiggins’ talents as well. There is no reason he cannot improve that aspect of his game. Teams look to double him often because they know he is hard to defend and can heat up quickly if not contained. This is on Wiggins’ continuing tape watching and feeling out the game to fix this problem. He should know that if he’s doubled someone is obviously going to be open.
If he can improve his playmaking mindset, he should be able to find an open guy for some easy buckets. His teammates are no slouches when it comes to scoring either.
Over his career so far, Wiggins’ Assist to Turnover Ratio has been at -.2. What this means is he is turning the ball over more often than assisting another teammate's basket. If Wiggins does not improve his assists numbers (2.0 per game) whatsoever, it would be in his best interest to stop turning the ball over (2.2 per game). No impact is better than negative impact in the game of basketball (duh).
Regarding his steals and blocks, that’ll improve once Wiggins is fully committed to Thibodeau’s Temple of Extraordinary Defense.
Speaking of defense, this might be the utmost important skillset Wiggins needs to improve for the Timberwolves to overachieve this season. They ranked 26th in the NBA last season in team defense. For a Thibodeau coached team, that’s pathetic. Let’s chalk it up to too many young pups on the team to put all together last year.
Of the 86 qualified shooting guards in the NBA for last season, Wiggins was ranked 85th in defensive +/- (DRMP). In the NBA’s entirety? Out of 468 players, Wiggins ranked 460… Woof.
If you didn’t think it could get worse, it does. This past summer Wiggins was awarded “Least Defensive Player” by Kyle Wagner of FiveThirtyEight. Read this analysis by Wagner:
“Possession by possession, there are a few defenders who are as bad as Wiggins. When Wiggins contests a shot, opponents have a 56.1 effective field goal percentage; when they are unguarded, they have a 56.4 eFG percentage. Fundamentally, getting a shot up against Andrew Wiggins is the same as getting an open shot.”
Let that sink in.
For the Timberwolves to compete with Houston, San Antonio, and Golden State this season, Wiggins will need to step it, bad. Luckily with all the new veterans on board, Wiggins will be held more accountable. His new teammates have all been to the postseason multiple times and they won’t be afraid to call him out if they need to.
With the veteran additions to help carry-the-load, while obtaining an extraordinary skill set, a spankin'-new contract and with another year under his belt—Wiggins should be expected to take another big step this season. He will be an important piece that dictates if the Wolves are contenders or if they are pretenders.
If Wiggins wants to help the Timberwolves overachieve, gain the national fanfare and respect by signing a 5-year $148 million max-contract, he has a lot to prove to not just the doubters out there, but mostly to himself.
Let’s find out if he can prove that the gamble was worth the risk.
*All statistics used in this article have been pulled from nba.com/stats, basketball-reference.com, and espn.com