SAM MELLINGER

KU’s Andrew Wiggins glimpses his reality in win over No. 4 Duke

Updated: 2013-12-09T18:36:32Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

— He walked into the biggest moment of a life that will have many bigger ones with all the tenseness of a happy hour and, actually, that’s not really accurate. Andrew Wiggins did not walk from the locker room into this moment on the court. He danced into it, hopped into it, smiled into it.

There are nerves underneath, of course. College basketball’s most-hyped star in years is OK admitting that, because how could it be any other way?

He is the magazine cover boy, his name in sentences with everyone from Wilt Chamberlain to LeBron James. He’s an 18-year-old from Canada unveiled to a mainstream American audience for the first time in front of millions. Dick Vitale and Mike Krzyzewski and some 60 NBA scouts watched what turned out to be a 94-83 win for No. 5 Kansas over No. 4 Duke here on Tuesday in the Champions Classic, which has become the unofficial kickoff of college basketball.

“The hype was big,” Wiggins says. “I saw it all over TV. I tried to block it out.”

Wiggins will tell you the nerves got to him. Early, at least. He admits sweating it all, but the folks who stayed to the end saw what started all that hype. A glimpse of it, anyway, when Wiggins hit the kind of step-back jumper in isolation that coaches will run for him in the NBA, then a breakaway dunk with less than two minutes left that pushed KU’s lead to four, then six.

“I (saw) a lot of people packing the lane, waiting for me to drive” Wiggins says of the play that led to the jumper. “So that was off-limits. I had confidence in my jumper. That’s what I’ve been practicing.”

For most of the 38 minutes before, Wiggins wasn’t the best player on his team, let alone the game. That this could be the case and Wiggins still finish with 22 points (on 15 shots) and 10 rebounds is a testament to his ludicrous talent, but Perry Ellis scored 24 points and led an effort that kept KU close and then ahead of Duke with Wiggins (and Tarik Black) in foul trouble.

Duke freshman Jabari Parker, who beat Wiggins to Sports Illustrated’s cover by a little more than a year, stole the scene, going for 27 points on an NBA star’s Rolodex of jumpers, dunks, transition finishes and midrange game. Parker was the star for most of the night, the one with the bounce, sort of like what happened to Wiggins two years ago when he dominated a summer showcase.

Ever since, Wiggins has been treated like a star far beyond his accomplishments. The LeBron comparisons are a good example, more a game of telephone than anything legitimate. One person says he’s the best high school prospect since LeBron, the next says he’s as good as LeBron, and the next thing you know he’s posing for GQ before thinking twice and asking his coach out of the media machine.

This is a different experience for Wiggins, and it’s only to grow more extreme. Depending on who you talk to around the KU program, there is a feeling that the hype grew too quickly. For the first time, he is being chased by something instead of chasing.

Maybe you can see some of it in his game. Outside the comfort of that moment with his team outside the locker room, just them, there is hesitation. Adjustment. A need to figure out which moves to tweak against better and bigger competition. Maybe it’s telling that most of Wiggins’ best moments against Duke came with backdoor cuts, filling lanes in transition, and guiding his own miss into the basket.

On this night, at least, Parker was the best player and now takes back some of the attention and hype that’s been Wiggins’ for much of the last two years.

Wiggins is an elite talent, a freakish athlete even by NBA standards. But that’s not enough, which isn’t necessarily fair — but it is reality. Even in basketball circles, you can hear the beginnings of a backlash to the hype that Wiggins never asked for.

He’s not LeBron.

He needs to get stronger.

Needs to improve his jumper.

The world Wiggins now lives in moves fast. NBA scouts and stars watched this game, curious like everyone else, and their opinions are shaping.

Is Wiggins an NBA star like Kevin Durant (who Wiggins compared himself to in that GQ interview)? Or is he an NBA star like Rudy Gay, uber-talented but somewhere below the game’s true upper class?

This was Wiggins’ first of many nationally televised chances to tell us this season, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the message was mixed. It will be missed by a lot of people that Wiggins could score 22 points, including two key baskets down the stretch, and still not match a ridiculous set of expectations. But that’s important to remember.

So is this: Wiggins’ teammates are good enough that he doesn’t have to be LeBron or Durant right now. He can be himself, picking spots, surrounded by his friends, dancing, hopping, smiling into one season’s worth of big moments.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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