The flight to Madrid had dragged on for nearly half a day, cramped and mind-numbing. Then came a three-hour bus ride. By the time the Canadian teenagers arrived at the basketball gym in Spain, they were jetlagged from the trans-Atlantic travel and stiff from a claustrophobic journey across the Spanish countryside.
Roy Rana, the coach of the Canadian U-17 national team, had modest expectations for this pretournament matchup with Spain before the start of the 2010 World Championships in Hamburg, Germany. If his boys could break a sweat and survive the day, that would be fine.
But as a quiet and lithe 15-year-old walked into the gym, Rana sensed a different vibe from the youngest player on the team. Andrew Wiggins was playing in his first international event for his home country, and he wasn’t about to slough off a game on the world stage.
“That first game,” Rana said, “Andrew went up and blocked two shots. Not by blocking them, but by actually grabbing them with two hands out of the air. I’d never seen it done once, and he did it twice in one game.”
For basketball men like Rana, who doubles as the head coach at Ryerson University in Toronto, this story serves as something of an introduction to the Wiggins they watched grow up.
“When the biggest stage comes,” Rana said, “he always arrives.”
But for those who have watched Wiggins in his freshman season at Kansas, leading the Jayhawks to a 10th straight Big 12 championship, the big-game reputation can feel closer to a loaded compliment.
If Wiggins can rise to the occasion, playing his most beautiful basketball against the most high-profile opponents, why doesn’t he turn it on more often?
“I don’t think his mind-set has ever been to be a scorer,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I think his mind-set is to fit in.”
Two days before the start of the Big 12 tournament, Self stood in Allen Fieldhouse, his Jayhawks season at a crossroads. Freshman Joel Embiid probably will be out until the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament because of a stress fracture in his back. On Thursday, his Jayhawks open the conference tournament at the Sprint Center, a precursor to the most defining weeks of the year.
The stage will get bigger in the coming weeks, and for those who know Wiggins, they say that suits him. For as fantastic as Wiggins’ freshman season has been thus far — 16.8 points per game, Big 12 freshman of the year, myriad KU records — Self is hoping Wiggins can take one final step before his one-year college career ends.
Four days ago, Wiggins scored 41 points while Embiid sat out a loss at West Virginia. Maybe it was a sign.
“You know he’s got it in him,” Self said. “He’s proved that.”
In the eight years since the NBA instituted the modern age-limit rule, begetting an era of one-and-done stars, 12 college freshmen have been selected in the top three of the NBA Draft.
The list is an eclectic mix of guards, forwards and centers — Kentucky’s John Wall, K-State’s Michael Beasley, Ohio State’s Greg Oden and so on.
The legacies these players left in March is even more of a crapshoot.
Four of the top-end one-and-done players advanced to the Final Four. Four played to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Four cashed out in the opening rounds.
There is no predictive model to glean from the one-and-dones who came before Wiggins, but there is a lesson: Even for players who stay in college just one season, a career can be made in March.
A brief history lesson: When the NCAA Tournament began in March 2008, then Memphis guard Derrick Rose had recorded a solid freshman season, averaging 13 points and more than four assists per game. His draft stock was secure. He was a first-round talent.
But six games later, all that had changed. Rose averaged 21 points and six assists in the Tigers’ run to an NCAA title game loss to Kansas, cementing himself as the No. 1 pick in the draft.
History will look back more fondly on Rose’s year at Memphis than, say, Bradley Beal’s solid freshman year at Florida in 2012. And the theme aligns with how Self likes to look at March success.
“You can have a great season winning the conference,” Self said, “But in order to have a special season, you need to do it when the stakes are the highest.”
The end is coming soon, no matter how much Wiggins tries to slow down time. The stages are getting bigger, too — no matter how much Wiggins would like to quash his plays-great-when-it-matters rep.
“I play every game like it’s my last,” Wiggins says.
Still, there’s more to accomplish. The Jayhawks have won sixth of the last eight Big 12 tournament titles, and they can add to that haul this week in Kansas City. They can also solidify themselves as a solid No. 2 seed with Embiid on the shelf.
But for Wiggins, the next few weeks will come with a senior’s urgency. Most Kansas freshmen get to experience March for the first time, knowing that they’ll be back. Wiggins won’t.
In the days after Wiggins scorched West Virginia for 41 points, Self wanted to impart another message before the Big 12 tournament began. In this case, Self wanted to talk about wind sprints.
During practices, Self said, Wiggins will run past his teammates during the first round of running. But when the last sprint comes around, he will slow up just slightly, letting another teammate win.
For Self, the lesson is simple: If you prove you can win once, why not do it all the time?
“That’s kind of what I told Andrew,” Self said. “He’s shown us he can do it, regardless of the point production or the energy level and things like that.
“So anything less than that, I think, would be unsatisfactory.”