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Andrew Wiggins, K-pop star BamBam and the NBA’s all-star voting problem

Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins earned a starting spot in the 2022 NBA All-Star Game after getting a big assist in the voting from a K-pop star. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Andrew Wiggins was awakened from his pregame nap Thursday by his daughter, who excitedly relayed the news that he had been selected as one of 10 starters for the 2022 NBA All-Star Game.

“It was mind-blowing,” Wiggins said. “I thought I was dreaming for a second. I was like, ‘What is going on?’ ”

The Golden State Warriors forward wasn’t the only person asking that question when TNT revealed the starters for next month’s showcase. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo were all headed to Cleveland as expected. But Wiggins?

In the Bay Area, Wiggins’s selection was cast as a just honor for his dependable two-way play for a leading title contender and as a long-awaited payoff for a former No. 1 pick who has never quite lived up to that top billing.

“The journey he has traveled has been rocky at times,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “To see how hard he’s worked and to see all the work rewarded, I just could not be happier for him. The whole organization is glowing right now.”

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That sentiment wasn’t exactly universal among basketball fans on Twitter or media members who participated in the voting process, many of whom met Wiggins’s selection with confusion and frustration. How did such a carefully crafted voting system produce such a wonky result? And how should the NBA balance its need for credible selections against its desire for maximum fan engagement?

Wiggins, who has averaged 18.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, ranks 36th in win shares and 103rd in ESPN’s player efficiency rating. He has shot 41 percent on three-pointers and played strong defense for the West’s No. 2 seed, but he trails Curry and Draymond Green on the Warriors’ pecking order and has never previously earned an all-star selection, an all-NBA nod or even a player of the month honor during his eight-year career.

The door opened this year for Wiggins because a long list of Western Conference frontcourt candidates such as Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Anthony Davis faced injuries and because his teammate Klay Thompson missed the first two months as he recovered from an Achilles’ tear. Wiggins’s case was also helped by the NBA’s decision to split its media ballot into “backcourt” and “frontcourt” categories, leaving voters unable to select guards such as Luka Doncic, Chris Paul and Devin Booker over Wiggins.

Players who fit Wiggins’s bill as a complementary option on a winning team are typically left to fight for one of the last few all-star reserve spots. That’s exactly what would have happened if the starters were selected by the media or the players; both groups cast more votes for Green and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert than for Wiggins. In the media category, it wasn’t even close: Gobert received 65 votes, Green received 20, and Wiggins got just four. The players had 58 votes for Green, 52 for Gobert and 46 for Wiggins.

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But the NBA’s convoluted, weighted voting procedure gives fans a 50 percent share of the vote, with the media and players getting 25 percent each. The fans’ push for Wiggins held sway — he raked in 3.5 million votes, topping the combined totals of Green (2.4 million) and Gobert (767,000). That margin, coupled with just enough mentions from the media and his fellow players, lifted him into a starting spot.

What was so striking about Wiggins’s fan vote tally, which ranked ninth among all players, is that he has never been nearly this popular before.

Wiggins pulled in 771,000 all-star votes last year — just 22 percent of this year’s tally — and didn’t place among the top 15 in jersey sales in the NBA’s most recent rankings. While he is one of the league’s highest-profile Canadian players and Golden State has one of the largest and most engaged fan bases, Wiggins still has just 519,000 Twitter followers, placing him below both Green (1.6 million) and Gobert (574,000) and well behind A-listers such as James (50.7 million) and Curry (15.8 million). Known for his quiet personality, he was an all-star afterthought before a trade that brought him from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Warriors, never topping 250,000 votes from 2017 to 2020.

One key driver of Wiggins’s overnight ultra-popularity: an influential new supporter. BamBam, a K-pop star with 9.6 million Twitter followers and the Warriors’ new “global ambassador,” tweeted Jan. 7: “He is one of the best two-way players! Wiggs deserves to be an All-Star, vote Andrew Wiggins into the 2022 NBA All-Star Game.”

That endorsement became a top trending topic in BamBam’s home country of Thailand, the Athletic noted, and garnered 37,000 retweets, all of which counted double because they were cast on a “2-for-1” voting day that the NBA uses to spur engagement. To get a sense for BamBam’s massive reach, consider that Justin Timberlake netted 4,800 retweets for a similar endorsement of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant.

The NBA has taken steps in the past to ensure the fan vote won’t produce wholly undeserving all-star selections — such as Zaza Pachulia’s out-of-nowhere 2016 candidacy — but now must decide whether it wants its process to devolve into an influencer arms race. Will fans of smaller-market teams feel like their favorite players are getting a fair shake when the Warriors, who were recently ranked by Forbes as the NBA’s second-most valuable franchise at an estimated $5.6 billion, used a shrewd celebrity partnership to lift Wiggins?

There are several potential fixes to consider. First, the NBA could devalue the fan vote’s share from 50 percent and put it on equal footing with those of the media and players. That change would have delivered a welcome result by lifting Green over Wiggins.

The NBA also could eliminate the “backcourt” and “frontcourt” designations from its ballots so that a rash of injuries or a relative lack of talent in one category wouldn’t elevate less-deserving candidates. If media voters were allowed to pick five players from the West regardless of position, Wiggins might not have received any votes at all. On the flip side, the Phoenix Suns, who hold the NBA’s best record, would have had a much better chance at landing Paul or Booker in the starting lineup.

The best solution, though, would be to strip the ballot of positional categories and conference designations, which have both become less relevant over the past five years. With so many power forwards playing on the perimeter, so many point forwards serving as lead initiators and so much blending between shooting guards and small forwards, the “backcourt” and “frontcourt” labels remain too restrictive. Meanwhile, the NBA replaced the traditional East vs. West All-Star Game with a format that uses two captains to pick teams in 2017, eliminating any practical need to select candidates by geography.

If fans and influencers can vote for their favorite players regardless of position or conference, media voters should be able to recognize the league’s most deserving players in a similar manner. Wiggins — and future candidates like him — would have a harder time slipping through the cracks if media members were allowed to pick a pure top 10.

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