Andrew Wiggins likes to say that he is not thinking about the NBA. Doesn’t listen to speculation about where he’ll be picked, or what he needs to prove to be the first player selected in the upcoming draft that he’s all but officially declared for.
It’s a nice enough thing to say when the cameras are on, theold college try
narrative that plays well for a sound bite, but it’s also completely untrue.
Wigginsis thinking about the NBA. He is asking people around him if he can still be the first pick after a year of seeing teammate Joel Embiid at the top of most mock drafts — and this is
good for him and Kansas basketball.
There is no animosity between Wiggins and Embiid. They are teammates. Friends. At least a small part of Wiggins’ decision to come to Kansas was in Embiid’s presence. Neither man would wish an injury on the other, but the stress fracture that may keep Embiid on the sideline for the rest of the season is an unsolicited gift for Wiggins.
Most mock drafts (though not all
) have Embiid going first and Wiggins second. The salary difference between those two spots is more than 10 percent, or $3 million assuming team options are picked up.
More importantly to those of us not in line to benefit from Wiggins’ coming wealth, this is a custom-made opportunity for him to be remembered in KU history for more than wild talent and a strong freshman season.
Starting today, with the Big 12 Tournament, and then next week, with the NCAA Tournament, this is Wiggins’ chance to be Danny Manning. If you’re not old enough to grasp that reference, this is Wiggins’ chance to be Carmelo Anthony or Kemba Walker.
It’s all here in front of him. He has the potential to make a major star-turn by evolving from fascinating talent to the driving force behind a brand-name college basketball power advancing deep into America’s March obsession.
All season, Kansas coach Bill Self has been harder on Wiggins than anyone else (Naadir Tharpe being an occasional exception) because Wiggins can do more for Kansas than anyone else (a healthy Embiid being an occasional exception).
There was a time that Self thought he needed to make Wiggins angry to bring out his best, but the coach now sees the player’s emotional consistency as a strength.
Wiggins didn’t need to be angry to go for 41 points (on just 18 shots), eight rebounds, five steals and four blocks against West Virginia, for instance. That’s about as good as a college basketball player can be, and the fact that Wiggins did it from ambition and not anger is the best sign that his dominance is sustainable.
In a lot of ways, Wiggins is the antithesis of what basketball fans have come to expect from AAU stars. He is more of a sweet kid than a basketball pitbull, which makes him a wonderful teammate but sometimes leaves his coaches and fans wanting more.
When he was being recruited, coaches quickly learned Wiggins was more interested in gathering information than hearing compliments or promises about shots. And when he announced his college decision, he did it in private, among teammates and friends and one hometown reporter.
This is his personality, his nature. But in the twisted world of high-level basketball, this lack of unreasonable ego has often been used against him. Wiggins has given this line of criticism some fuel, too, because until recently he has often been too content to fit in.
All season, in fact, that’s been a point of contention between KU’s coaches and Wiggins. A player with this kind of talent can be selfish by being unselfish, the basketball saying goes, and among the coaches’ most consistent talking points is for Wiggins to let his otherworldly talents show.
KU’s coaches (as well as those whodo
stand to benefit from Wiggins’ coming wealth) hope this is Wiggins’ new normal — that there is a correlation between a season’s worth of encouragement, Embiid’s injury, and Wiggins going all Teen Wolf against West Virginia.
Wiggins is the only one who knows for sure if this is true, and it hasn’t been in his nature to be very introspective about these things. But at least on the surface, the pieces fit.
Underneath that full-faced smile and easy-going demeanor there is an edgy ambition to Wiggins that comes out every once in a while. Under the right circumstances, the kid who’d rather play video games than go out on Friday night turns into the unstoppable basketball force you’d expect from someone with his talent.
In high school, he saw a critical story on a national website and a few hours later scored 57 points (on 28 shots). In his first national moment at Kansas, he made a step-back jumper and dunk that pushed a two-point lead to six in the final moments of a win over Duke. He scored 26 points at Florida, and went for 17 with 19 rebounds at Iowa State, which might’ve been the Big 12’s most-hyped game of the season. Then he played one of the great individual games in KU history against West Virginia after Embiid’s injury.
Wiggins is talented enough that those types of games can be his baseline. He’s had a season’s worth of hearing about it from his coaches, and now comes the realization that his only season at Kansas will likely be remembered for what he does this month.
Wiggins is not normally comfortable being the go-to guy for long stretches. Then again, he’s never been in this situation before, where it is so obviously in the best interests of both him and his teammates to play more selfishly.
Every ingredient is here for the kind of March run that will be remembered for years.