Andrew Wiggins coolly handles the pressure of being the country’s top basketball prospect
By Brandon Parker,
Just a few minutes into the second half of Sunday’s contest between Princeton Day and Huntington Prep (W.Va.), David called out Goliath. The faceoff was bound to happen, what with the 5-foot-7 Aquille Carr known for his trash talk and fearless play and Andrew Wiggins bringing the No. 1 ranking in his class and plenty of hype to DeMatha’s gym for the National High School Hoops Festival.
“You can’t guard me,” a smiling Carr yelled at Wiggins as he slowly dribbled near halfcourt. “You can’t guard me.”
The soft-spoken Wiggins could only laugh, wiping the bottom of his shoes in preparation for the latest opponent to challenge his lofty reputation. These days, everyone from opponents to recruiters seem to want a piece of Wiggins, a long 6-foot-8 senior forward whom some are calling the best recruit since LeBron James. But with a mom — Marita Payne Wiggins — who holds an Olympic track medal and a father — Mitch Wiggins — who played in the NBA, Wiggins learned long ago how to endure the pressure of the spotlight.
Last year, he moved from Canada to play at Huntington Prep, a basketball academy known for its national schedule and heavy recruiting. Expectations have only swelled since then, with Wiggins hastening the hysteria by reclassifying from a junior to senior this past summer and reportedly cutting his college list to Florida State, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina.
“I know people expect a lot from me and want to see certain things when I play, but it’s not really any pressure for me,” said Wiggins, who played Sunday in front of several college coaches, including Ohio State’s Thad Matta. “I guess I like the attention. . . . well, I mean, I don’t mind it. Sometimes it can be a lot. I deal with it, though.”
But for every recruiter fawning over Wiggins, there are a handful of opponents who would rather not see Wiggins succeed, and Sunday, Princeton Day was eager to play the role of spoiler. Large crowds are nothing new for Carr, who is nicknamed the “Crimestopper” for his ability to draw people off the Baltimore streets and into the gym, and it appeared he’s taken Sunday’s draw as a personal challenge.
“I’ve seen [Wiggins] the last three weeks and seen people throw everything at him, from two or three smaller guys to big guys,” said ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep. “Everyone thinks being in this position is unbelievably fun, but it can take its toll. I like how he’s keeping his head about him, staying humble and he hasn’t been overly frustrated.”
Carr attacked the rim with reckless abandon, drawing several “ooos” from the crowd with his deft dribbling and acrobatic drives en route to 18 first-half points.
Meantime, Wiggins struggled offensively, misfiring on several drives to the rim and contributing just seven points to the Express, who were down at 35-30 at halftime. Still, Wiggins’s face showed no sign of frustration.
“He’s super-athletic and he’s patient; he lets the game come to him,” said Team Takeover director and president Keith Stevens, who is in his sixth year as tournament organizer. “Being number one, people are going to take shots at him and he took a couple hard fouls, but through all of that, he stays poised.”
“I knew about Aquille and wanted to see him, but I moreso wanted to see the No. 1player since they say he’s the best since LeBron,” said Wilbert C. Bostic, a 52-year-old spectator from Elkridge. “I saw his athleticism in the first half, but I want to see a little more to know that he’s the real deal.”
The second half brought more cold shooting for Wiggins, who as a result shifted his focus to Carr’s defensive challenge. Using his long arms and deceptive strength, Wiggins helped limit Carr to six second-half points. In the fourth quarter, the Express rode the three-point shooting of Xavier Rathan-Mayes (19 points) and Wiggins’s 7-of-10 showing at the free-throw line to hold off Princeton Day, 75-69.
“I just try to bring it every night in whatever way I can,” said Wiggins, who finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds. “Like tonight, my shot wasn’t falling and I couldn’t really get going offensively, but I felt like I stepped it up on defense.”
Of course, Wiggins is well aware that fans will always demand more, especially on a night that produced 4-for-16 shooting and zero dunks. But that didn’t stop one young fan, who bumrushed Wiggins for an autograph after he emerged from the locker room. Wiggins obliged before zipping up his jacket and walking toward the team bus, into the night’s cold rain and, for at least a few hours, away from the ever-watching eye of the basketball world.