Andrew Wiggins was once hailed as the best high school prospect since LeBron James, compared to Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning before ever playing a game at Kansas and has heard so much about how good he was that he never had to worry about how far he had to go to reach such acclaim. His special athletic gifts brought Wiggins to this point, but he was always going to need more to be a star in the NBA.
Now, he has the ultimate source of motivation – a rejection from the game’s best player and proof that his omission from James’s homecoming love letter to Northeast Ohio wasn’t a mere coincidence. The Cleveland Cavaliers are prepared to send Wiggins, the No. 1 pick last June, Anthony Bennett, the top pick in 2013 and a future first-round pick to Minnesota for Kevin Love as soon as Saturday, when Wiggins will finally be eligible to get traded.
No matter how good Wiggins can eventually become, James will be 30 in December and didn’t have time to wait on a 19-year-old to figure it out.
James needs Love now.
Wiggins needed his heart broken.
The game’s greats have excelled by using real or imagined slights to push their talents to extreme levels. And this was a special sort of slight. Wiggins is about to become the first No. 1 overall pick since Chris Webber in 1993 to be traded before ever suiting up for the team that drafted him. In prior situations in which he was challenged and forced into action, Wiggins responded with brilliance.
His best high school game – he scored a career-high 57 points – coincided with an unflattering Sports Illustrated article that examined his flaws and the past struggles of Canadian players in the NBA. His best collection of successive games at Kansas – he scored 41 against West Virginia, 30 against Oklahoma State and 22 against Iowa State – came after fellow top-three draft pick Joel Embiid sustained a back injury that ended his season prematurely.
With the trade to Minnesota, Wiggins’s NBA career begins in much the same way – with doubts and more responsibility.
Wiggins had an uncomfortable interview with ESPN last month in which he squirmed in his seat and responded to a question about whether Cleveland wanted him by stating, “Yeah … I hope so.”
The Cavaliers wanted to acquire Love without surrendering Wiggins because they were excited about Wiggins’s tremendous potential. In workouts and practices with the team, Wiggins had already revealed his considerable talent and an ability to make exceptional plays look routine. He also had natural instincts that could help him quickly become a solid, NBA-level defender and an elite defender in little time. But Minnesota scoffed at any package from Cleveland for Love that didn’t include Wiggins, and so the sacrifice had to be made.
The Timberwolves have made it a habit of squandering the talents of special players. So Wiggins isn’t landing in an environment with a tradition for grooming big-time winners. Minnesota has been better at preparing stars to help their next team win.
Kevin Garnett won an MVP award and reached the Western Conference finals in 2004 with Minnesota but was inevitably forced to bail because of the organization’s inability to surround him with suitable talent to compete in the West. He won a title in Boston in his first season with the Celtics.
In his six years with the Timberwolves, Love never had an all-star – or even borderline all-star — teammate, never reached the playoffs and will now have to prove that he can do more that stuff the stat sheet.
Wiggins could have benefited from being in Cleveland to receive daily lessons on work ethic, leadership and personal brand management from James. He also could have had enjoyed winning right away, something only a rare few No. 1 picks get to experience.
But Wiggins also could have spent so much time deferring to James or even Kyrie Irving that he’d never actually develop into the player that his talents would suggest.
Consider how much confident, established all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had to subjugate their games to play with James. Wiggins has long been criticized for failing to impose his will and dominate more often, and those opportunities simply wouldn’t come in Cleveland. Or more likely, Wiggins would have been more reluctant to take advantage of them.
Wiggins told his college coach, Bill Self, that he wants to be in Minnesota, which he pretty much had to say with that state appearing likely to be his home for possibly the next five years, at least. But Wiggins is on to something. He should want to be in Minnesota.
With the Timberwolves, Wiggins won’t have much choice in the matter – he will be expected to lead and perform and his mistakes will be more tolerated than on a team with championship aspirations. What Wiggins is truly made of will be revealed in a place where he will be free to explore the limits of his talents and won’t be limited to slot into a role.
After reports surfaced of his impending move to Minnesota, Wiggins went to Instagram to post a lyric from the rapper Fabolous that should excite any Timberwolves fan disappointed about losing another all-NBA Kevin to a championship contender in the Eastern Conference: “I’m here to beat the odds that was set against me, wished the worst luck to anyone who bet against me.”
Wiggins continues to be surrounded by hype and otherwordly expectations, but he now has much more to prove — to himself, to his new team and to the team that didn’t have the patience to find out what he will become.