Andrew Wiggins is a fabulously talented basketball player and the truth in there can be explained simply in one sentence. As a freshman, he is the leading scorer and best defender on a top 10 college basketball team, and a lot of people can’t stop talking about how he stinks.
Danny Manning, as a freshman at Kansas: 14.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.
Blake Griffin, as a freshman at Oklahoma: 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds.
Jay (back then it was Jason) Williams, as a freshman at Duke: 14.5 points and 4.2 rebounds.
Antawn Jamison, as a freshman at North Carolina: 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds.
Manning played four years in college, Jamison and Williams three, and Griffin two. Each eventually won the national player of the year award, and was selected no lower than fourth in the NBA Draft.
Wiggins, halfway through his only season of college basketball, is averaging 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds.
So can we stop talking about him like he’s somehow failing?
“People have been too hard on Andrew,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “And I think it’s strictly because of expectations.”
The rules are different for Wiggins, and this is not his fault and not his doing. But it is his lot in life. There is no sympathy for him, and that comes with fine reason. He is the son of two loving parents, the recipient of an absurd amount of natural athletic ability, 18 years old and a few months away from being a top NBA Draft pick and a shoe contract that will give him generational wealth.
So there needn’t be any sympathy for him, but there is something in here to learn and remember — for both sides.
For fans and media, it is that expectations can completely warp how we see things. Wiggins’ skills and confidence — and especially his aggressiveness — have not caught up with his ability, but this is still a potential NBA superstar we are watching at the college level.
He scored 26 points at Florida, perhaps the best team KU has faced. He had a double-double in his first road game against a top 10 team — before halftime.
Basketball people talk about his second jump the way teenage boys talk about Mila Kunis. Watch Wiggins closely, and you will see the talent that would have already made him rich if not for the NBA’s age restriction. The spin move that’s as quick as your blink. The maestro confidence in transition. The 6-foot-8 height and the 7-foot wingspan and the point guard’s speed.
The other day in practice, Wiggins jabbed to his right, drove hard to his left around his defender, picked up the dribble and carried his momentum through a second, then elevated off his left foot, finishing with his right hand over a third defender. He was fouled at least twice, but this was a part of practice where it’s not a foul unless the cops are called. The whole thing took, maybe, a second and a half.
There are not many human beings who can do what Wiggins did, and when the ball went through the hoop, practice just sort of stopped for a second, like everyone wanted to remember what just happened.
Think about it like this. The surface, popular, mainstream story of this Kansas basketball season so far has mostly been about Wiggins underperforming expectations and teammate Joel Embiid overperforming them.
But what if their roles in our basketball drama were reversed? What if Embiid was the one who came in with the magazine covers? What if instead of the Wiggins-LeBron comparison, what if the one that took hold was Embiid-Olajuwon? What if Wiggins was the mostly overlooked player, the one who began the season coming off the bench?
Because as good as Embiid has been — and he’s been fabulous, the odds-on favorite to be the NBA’s top pick — he’s averaging 11.1 points and 7.5 rebounds. Basically, just a bit less than Jeff Withey’s numbers last year.
“Andrew’s going to have to get 22 and 12 for them to talk about him in the same breath they’re talking about Joel’s 15 and eight,” Self says.
So that’s the first lesson, and it’s for fans and media: remember perspective. Expectations can turn gold into bronze, and it is far too easy for pack-criticism to pick up speed and feed on itself.
The second lesson is for Wiggins, and it’s the tougher one: welcome to the real world, kid.
Wiggins wants to be great. He tells his coaches this. Tells his teammates this. Tells his friends and family. This is a good thing. It shows drive, shows ambition, shows a desire to be as good as his absurd talent will allow.
But if that’s the case, Wiggins needs to back it up. Because there is another level he can get to, one that might not satisfy the most unrealistic expectations of him but would be plenty for what is ahead. He can be the best college player in the country.
Self’s preseason talk about Wiggins being “an alpha dog” hasn’t come true, at least not yet. There is too much drift in Wiggins’ game, and not enough drive. His coaches have told him this. His teammates have told him this. He knows that people in the NBA are talking about this.
Wiggins knows it, and even as the transition to college basketball hasn’t been as smooth as he may have expected, he has to know he is the only one who can shift the narrative back to his skills and away from expectations.
In a kind of shorthand, Wiggins never plays mad. Some of this is because he is such a gifted and smooth athlete that his game speed can look like another player’s practice effort. But Wiggins’ energy not matching his talent is becoming a major part of his reputation.
“As good as he’s been,” Self says, “he’s the one area where we can get a lot better. We tell him that. ‘You can get better, you can make us a much better team.’”
Wiggins can do this in a lot of ways. The quickest would be to make layups. He has missed far too many shots around the rim, especially for a player with his length and athleticism. And this is a good way to get into the second way he can improve both his NBA scouting report and the team around him: take advantage of that athleticism.
Wiggins is hampered by not having a play-making point guard to get him easy shots. But Wiggins is talented enough that he should be able to do plenty on his own against college players. He is getting better, but he is still too focused on fitting in instead of standing out.
That moment in practice? The jab-right, go-left, finish-high move that went around, through or over three defenders? Coincidence or not, it came after a considerable riding from Self. The new basketball world Wiggins is still adjusting to does not want to see a player with that kind of talent need any extra motivation.
Wiggins did not create this situation, and he did not choose it.
But he can choose to rise up to it.