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Extending Andrew Wiggins Now Is An Unnecessary Risk For The Minnesota Timberwolves

Andrew Bernstein – Getty Images

Andrew Wiggins is a sub-max player set to receive a max contract, which reflects a growing trend in the NBA

It’s one thing for a player to request a max contract extension. Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves did that about two weeks ago. It’s an entirely different story when a team owner basically guarantees that extension in public, without a single peep from the front office. The only stipulation? A gentleman’s agreement for the player to “be better,” which may be the lowest bar ever set for a transaction of more than $100, let alone $148 million.   

Three years ago, when the Wolves acquired Wiggins in exchange for Kevin Love, the swingman was a top pick who oozed potential. With through-the-roof hops and ideal NBA length, Wiggins checked every box physically. Scouts raved about his two-way upside. And although he shot just 34.1 percent from three in his one year at Kansas, Wiggins’ stroke was silky smooth. He wasn’t a project so much as a basketball tabula rasa, capable of becoming whatever a team wanted him to be. He was the real-life equivalent of 2K MyPlayer mode.

Three years on, whoever’s controlling Wiggins on MyPlayer decided to use every available attribute point on scoring. Wiggins averaged 23.6 points per game last season and scored 40-plus points five times. He attracts fouls (6.6 free throw attempts per game), just shot a career best 35.6 percent from three, and owns an array of Euro-steps, jump stops and crab dribbles that he uses to slice through the lane.

Unlike the gold-plated counting numbers, however, Wiggins’ advanced stats portray him as average (at best). Here are his numbers from last season and how he ranks relative to the other 314 players who logged more than 750 regular season minutes: 


StatisticWiggins’ NumbersRank (out of 315)
PER16.591st
Box-Plus Minus (BPM)-2.7267th
Offensive BPM0.2109th
Defensive BPM-2.9307th
Win Shares Per 48 Minutes.066228th



Broad, vague stats are always imperfect, but across-the-board mediocrity usually indicates – well – mediocrity. Wiggins is a scoring machine who does little else at an above-average level.

The problems start on defense, as Wiggins recently took home the FiveThirtyEight trophy for “Least Defensive Player.” Most young players struggle defensively, of course, yet most young players don’t have Wiggins’ physical tools. At 6’8,” with a 7’0” wingspan, elite athleticism and sneaky grown-man strength despite his lithe frame, Wiggins was built to play defense. But as FiveThirtyEight’s Kyle Wagner points out, he doesn’t try. Like, at all. Wagner uses this video of laughable Wiggins closeouts to illustrate his point:


Other poor defenders like Isaiah Thomas and James Harden get a pass because of their production on the other end. Wiggins, however, can’t carry an attack just yet. Outside of three feet, he shoots well below 40 percent, which is problematic considering his affinity for inefficient midrange jumpers. Combine that inefficiency with subpar playmaking ability – his career average is 2.1 assists per 36 minutes – and defenders can feel comfortable leaving shooters, clogging the lane and daring Wiggins to hoist. 

It doesn’t help he’s still unreliable from three. Wiggins shot a league average percentage last season, but only 18 percent of his shots came from beyond the arc. Unless he becomes more trigger happy, defenders will continue walling off the paint against him and his teammates. Wiggins can create 40 points for himself on any given night, but he doesn’t yet create space or shots for others. 

To be fair, Wiggins still has star upside. In the right situation, he’s certain to improve. The Wolves just entered a new era, though, which definitely justifies some uncertainty. With All-NBA wing Jimmy Butler and former all-star Jeff Teague now on the roster, Minnesota suddenly has win-now dudes who need the ball. The fit is better than some may assume. Defensively, Butler can cover the opposition’s best wing, allowing Wiggins to hide on a less threatening player. On offense, meanwhile, Wiggins can be a secondary scorer, bursting into the lane off kickouts and dribble hand-offs. No matter his teammates, he can get buckets late in the shot clock just like this: 




That said, no one really knows how this situation will turn out. Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns will almost certainly control the offense as Minnesota’s alphas. So it’s not crazy to think the Wolves would be better off with, say, Jae Crowder or C.J. Miles – solid defenders willing to sit in the corner and spot up – in Wiggins’ stead.

Amidst that uncertainty, it’s baffling why Wolves Owner Glen Taylor would promise Wiggins a max deal. He’s a restricted free agent next season, meaning he’s under team control for at least another four years. Instead of waiting to see how next season shakes out, Minnesota is giving an average player an absurd contract. And let’s be clear, Taylor can’t walk back hisstatement now; agents don’t want to deal with franchises that renege on public assurances. 

One obvious counter is that a player with Wiggins’ potential would get a max offer sheet next summer anyway. The Wolves, so the argument goes, should preempt that offer, even if Wiggins isn’t worth it, just to keep the band together. In recent years, this logic has led to behemoth deals for guys like Otto Porter, Victor Oladipo, Allen Crabbe and Bradley Beal. 

But saying “they have to pay him” is reductive. It completely dismisses the risks of paying players more than they’re worth. Porter’s contract may put Washington on a treadmill of early playoff exits. If not for Kevin Pritchard’s blunder, Oladipo’s deal would have handcuffed Oklahoma City for years. 

Sometimes you need to pay non-stars to keep real stars around – if the Wizards had let Porter go, John Wall would be seething. In Minnesota, however, the most important player is Karl-Anthony Towns, who’s under team control for several more years. The second most important player is Jimmy Butler, who may actually dislike playing next to a scorer like Wiggins.

At the very least, Wolves brass could have taken another year to evaluate the guy. Instead, they’re following a growing trend in the NBA of overpaying recent lottery picks at the first opportunity. Maybe it’s about the attachment to former picks. Maybe it’s the risk of losing a young player. Maybe Minnesota is confident Wiggins will be a star, which is still quite possible.

But in a salary cap league, you can only really fit two or three huge contracts. If one of those contracts belongs to Otto Porter, or Victor Oladipo or present-day Andrew Wiggins, your title odds are zilch. At some point, a team in this situation will just say no. They’ll choose cap flexibility and no player over luxury taxes and a decent player. That team won’t be the Wolves.



All statistics are from Basketball-Reference.

Edited by Julian Boireau.

SQuiz
Which of these players did Minnesota draft in 2014?
Created 8/12/17
  1. Tyus Jones
  2. Shabazz Muhammad
  3. Adreian Payne
  4. Zach LaVine

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