Andrew Wiggins Is Starring In His Role For The Golden State Warriors
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It certainly doesn’t feel as if Andrew Wiggins has spent eight years in the NBA. Tracing his progression from a rookie in 2014 to a critical starter for a Western Conference favorite in 2022, you realize the importance of having top-notch leaders throughout any professional journey.

Drafted nearly a decade ago by the Cleveland Cavaliers and subsequently traded to Minnesota, Wiggins would jump directly into a high-usage role for a struggling Timberwolves unit and immediately learn from one of the greatest competitors in the sport’s history. Kevin Garnett was about to transition into his retirement tour, but still felt obligated to take the young Timberwolves under his wing. Wiggins may have just been a 19-year-old kid from Toronto, but he was getting an earful during every practice.

There was arguably no better mentor for Wiggins in his first two years, considering Garnett had first-hand experience as a teenager in the NBA. It was an early taste of how physically demanding and mentally daunting the league could be, but it would prepare him for the later stages of his career.

As a 22-year-old, Wiggins became teammates with another tireless worker and king of the ‘gym rat’ culture, Jimmy Butler. Minnesota’s team success might have been cut short because of financial disagreements, but by all accounts, Butler and Wiggins had a great relationship. Butler could see the raw talent and two-way potential from day one.

Flash forward five years, and Wiggins is now labeled a veteran, as wild as it seems. But he’s still under the guidance of well-respected leaders and highly-touted defensive gurus, namely Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

Upon landing in San Francisco in Feb. 2020, Wiggins still didn’t have the greatest reputation in the league. Despite learning from Garnett and Butler for a brief period of time, Minnesota needed him to play a role that he wasn’t exactly suited for. It should be okay to admit that now.

He was a 20-point per game scorer on subpar efficiency, often falling in love with too many contested pull-up twos. He was rarely showing any playmaking chops, and losing focus too often on the defensive end.

Because Minnesota isn’t a free agent destination, the Wolves maxed Wiggins at the Rookie Maximum Extension in 2017, giving him a five-year, $147.7 million contract. They traded him three years later to help build a more cohesive team around Karl Towns.

To this day, as Wiggins has one more year under contract at $33.6 million before hitting free agency in July 2023, he’s still viewed as an overpaid talent. Although that’s fair, what ultimately matters is how the Warriors feel about him. Owner Joe Lacob is the one cashing the checks. He’s the one scheduled to pay a record-breaking number in luxury tax and repeater tax penalties this season.

Public perception of Wiggins, as a player, doesn’t internally affect the team. The only thing Golden State cared about when Kevin Durant bolted for Brooklyn is getting back something to help them continue the dynasty. They always knew D’Angelo Russell wasn’t going to be the answer. The front office was playing the long game, waiting until a young wing became available on the market.

When the possibility of acquiring Wiggins became apparent, it was a no-brainer. If you put a dynamic 25-year-old wing into your system, knowing he still hasn’t reached his prime, the ceiling is absolutely worth the cost.

We are less than 170 games into his Warriors career and Wiggins is a dramatically more impactful player. Compared to his previous seasons, he’s moving the ball quicker and not settling for bad shots. He’s cutting hard off the ball, moving with a purpose, and making himself available when teammates are trapped.

His decision-making elements, particularly of when to shoot versus when to attack off the dribble, are sharper than before. Perhaps that’s his natural maturity and progression, which you typically expect from someone learning from their early twenties.

However, you do have to point to the altruistic, team-first environment he’s been around on a daily basis. This is his second full year being ingrained into the Warriors’ read-and-react offense and high-IQ defensive schemes. Luckily for him, there is a leading voice on both ends of the floor. Whether it’s a question about offensive movement or help with a defensive rotation, he’s picking up tendencies from all-time greats.

“It helps me see a different side of the game,” Wiggins said. “Being here (with) the culture, the people, the organization. Most importantly, just being around winners. On a winning team, with future Hall-of-Famers. It’s been great.”

Earlier this season, when I asked Warriors head coach Steve Kerr about the biggest changes he’s noticed from Wiggins since the trade, he was clearly impressed by the decisiveness and enhanced shooting.

“He’s fantastic defensively night after night,” Kerr said. “But the biggest change I see from him, offensively, is not the cutting or movement. It’s just catch-and-shoot. I think the ability to just catch-and-shoot is really key in a motion offense. You’re trying to keep the ball moving and trying to free up guys for open shots. And if you’re open, you just shoot it. As soon as the ball stops and players go into their dribble-moves, the game kind of stops. I think that’s an area where Andrew has made dramatic improvement. I haven’t really looked at the numbers, but it feels like he’s just in a much more comfortable place when he’s just catching and shooting, keeping the offense going.”

Kerr added that when you play in such a free-flowing manner, you have to be locked into the details and that it’s not an overnight process.

“I think he got much more comfortable last year, in his first full season with us, with the way we play,” he said. “The way Steph and Draymond play is very unique, so he got used to that. Like everybody who comes here, it’s a learning experience and takes a little bit of time. But he picked it up pretty quickly and had a great season for us (last year).”

To Kerr’s point, the Warriors have helped Wiggins simplify his game. With Curry and Green on the floor, there is no longer a need for multiple isolations in a row or contested pull-ups. Since Wiggins arrived in the Bay, 36.3% of his shot attempts have been three-pointers – a huge jump from his 21.5% attempt rate in Minnesota.

Out of his 874 three-point attempts during the last two seasons (including playoffs), 618 have been of the catch-and-shoot variety. He’s bordering 40% efficiency on those opportunities, which is a significant step up from the type of shooter Wiggins was perceived to be.

For context, Wiggins shot better than Curry (!) on catch-and-shoot threes during the regular season, and almost five percentage points higher than Klay Thompson.

Just in this 2022 playoff run alone, Wiggins is 18-of-46 on threes without taking a dribble. Although 39.1% isn’t lighting the arena on fire, it’s more than enough to be considered dangerous in the halfcourt when surrounded by Curry, Thompson, and Jordan Poole.

Wiggins is a more explosive and reliable option than Harrison Barnes was for Golden State’s best lineups, and his spot-up shooting is making teams pay the same way. On dribble-handoffs, if you send two defenders to Curry on the ball, Green is rolling into open space and finding shooters on the weakside.

Here, that’s Wiggins, properly lifting from the corner to ensure no Dallas defender can rotate to him on the catch:

“He’s understanding the nuances of what winning basketball is,” Curry said after Game 1 of the West Finals. “Just how to key in on the little things, in terms of consistent effort on defense and taking those one-on-one challenges. Being aggressive on the offensive end, using his athletic ability to get to the rim if he needs to. Confident shooting the three, being comfortable within our offense.”

Part of those nuances, as Curry detailed, is reading his teammates and just knowing where to be. It also helps that Curry is leading by example, making hard cuts with the knowledge that defenders will collapse and leave the perimeter open. These are the shots Golden State needs Wiggins to take (and knock down), and he hasn’t been shy:

He’s also tapping into his on-ball creation skills, especially when the Warriors are facing a switching scheme. In this series, the Warriors will take a page out of Phoenix in the first two games of the previous round. They won’t let Luka Dončić off the hook. Wiggins will try to get Luka switched onto him. He realizes he’s faster, and can easily get into the paint:

And if the Warriors’ primary actions with Curry and Green lead to nothing, or if Dallas is being super aggressive on those ball-screens, Wiggins is content with hanging out on the weakside until he’s needed.

As a second-side creator and post-up threat, Wiggins is definitely not Kevin Durant. But he’s adept at using his body and high release point to his advantage. Sometimes, the Dubs can just clear out and watch him operate:

Frankly, there isn’t a role Wiggins is uncomfortable playing – at least this version of him.

“There’s a lot of different things he’s understanding that this playoff run requires, and the joy that comes with that,” Curry said. “It’s not like he’s out there scoring thirty every night — it’s the other things that help you win.”

You could argue Wiggins’ defensive pressure is more of a boost to Golden State than his offense right now, which is mightily impressive based on his reputation in Minnesota.

Tasked with the assignment of a 6’7” Dončić, a guy who seemingly walks into 30-point triple doubles against any defense, there isn’t a greater test for Wiggins’ discipline on that end.

Kerr and the Warriors’ message to their two-way wing is simple: Be an unrelenting pest from the moment Dončić picks up the ball on the inbound. Force him to exert more energy than anyone else. Let the opposition know you’re in better shape and more equipped to handle the physical toll every possession will have on your stamina.

Wiggins is staying attached to Dončić on the hip, latching onto the dynamic ball-handler and not allowing him to cross halfcourt undeterred. Once Dončić is orchestrating the first action, the Warriors are making it a priority to funnel him into the help. Notice here, how Wiggins “ices” this ball-screen (by Dinwiddie), which means to force the ball away from the screen and divert the action toward the sideline:

This is spectacular help defense by Golden State — first with a quick show or “stunt” by Curry, then Otto Porter stepping over to make Dončić pick up his dribble. Even Kevon Looney has rotated down for a contest, if necessary.

But, it’s still Wiggins who clouds his vision, disrupting the kick-out pass and forcing the Mavericks’ wizard into a turnover.

Here is Wiggins earlier in the third quarter, meeting Dončić at halfcourt and not allowing him an inch of separation. He’s physical, absorbing every bump and dissuading him from using the ball-screen from Reggie Bullock. Notice how Curry comes up to “show” at nearly halfcourt, essentially forcing Dallas’ offense to the left side:

That possession illustrates exactly why Wiggins feels comfortable playing so close to Dončić — he doesn’t have to worry about being blown-by on a drive. Wiggins is faster and more athletic, and this isn’t a small, shifty guard that he’s hounding. It’s a bigger wing that isn’t threatening Wiggins with north-to-south action, particularly in one-on-one scenarios.

As you can see above, Wiggins takes the body bumps. He welcomes the off-arm nudges. The end result is Dončić driving into traffic, with Green helping off the strong-side corner to strip the ball out of his hands. Typically, helping off the strong side is something you don’t do. But with Draymond’s position and stance, he can effectively guard two people at once.

On every possession, the primary objective is to make Dallas think twice about every offensive action or movement. You hear it all the time when players repeat the phrase, “Just make him work,” as Wiggins did after Game 1.

By doing that, you’re removing any easy looks for Dončić and baiting him into longer, tougher shots. If those can also occur in the final seconds of the shot clock, the fatigue is ultimately going to catch up to Dallas.

The Mavs took 16 threes with seven or fewer seconds on the shot clock in Game 1, shooting only 18.8% on those looks. Golden State, however, only took four triples in that portion of the shot clock. While the Warriors look to attack early on most possessions, Dallas is always going to have the slower, more isolation-based approach.

Wiggins has to provide multiple efforts on Dončić and cause him to burn the clock. Any defense will live with this type of shot after forcing a reset, especially if it means Dončić is shooting over a seven-foot wingspan:

The agitation of Wiggins constantly staying in front of Luka didn’t go unnoticed. All year long, his teammates have been thankful of his youth, energy, and defensive skills on the perimeter.

“Wiggs was relentless, every possession he was out there on him,” Curry said. “That’s all we really want. Even if Luka has his numbers, at the end of the day, you just want to feel like he had to work for everything he got. And not get anything easy. We have to be able to help him, on the backside and with our rotations.”

Defensively, Wiggins is facing a similar dilemma that Andre Iguodala had to deal with deep into the playoffs from 2015 to 2019, which was sticking on the opposition’s main threat. According to who you ask, Dončić is the best player in this series.

In many ways, he presents the same challenge James Harden and LeBron James gave the Warriors for years. They will bring the smallest defender on the court (in this instance, Curry or Poole) into ball-screen action at the top of the arc. They will hunt the mismatch and try to get those guards switched onto Dončić. Like in the past with Harden and LeBron, it’s not always to score over or against them. Most of the time, the objective is to draw help from other spots on the floor if Curry or Poole require it, and generate open shots from there.

The Warriors know this better than anyone.

“They want to try to bring me and (Poole) into the pick-and-rolls,” Curry said. “Just communicate to Wiggs and let him know where it’s coming from and be on a string. But, at the point of attack, Wiggs was awesome. He’s showing what he’s capable of on that end of the floor.”

Their answer? Try to deny the switch as frequently as possible. Kerr doesn’t want his team to “soft switch,” which means just gifting the opposing player a switch without any resistance.

Instead, they want Wiggins to do precisely what Iguodala did in the 2018 West Finals against Houston before getting injured, and in the previous NBA Finals matchups with Cleveland. If the Warriors are in their “show and recover” scheme, Curry has to hard hedge on any pick-and-roll and tag Dončić, then retreat back to his original man. Wiggins has to make sure he fights through every screen and get back in front of Dončić as soon as Curry is retreating. The timing has to be perfect.

It’s an interesting chess match because it’s hard to determine who that fatigues more. While the physical exhaustion is undeniably on the defensive player because they’re covering so much ground and taking the hits, there’s also a mental aspect to it. If you’re Dallas, it has to be frustrating when you’re fighting for 10 seconds to get a switch and the opponent is unfazed.

Dončić is seeing Wiggins on every play when they’re both on the floor, and Wiggins is holding his ground through all of the body contact.

According to NBA.com’s matchup data for Game 1, Wiggins spent 43 possessions as the primary defender on Dončić. On those 43 possessions, Dončić made just four baskets and turned it over three times. Here’s the most satisfying part for Golden State: During that time, there was only one free throw attempt for Dončić with Wiggins draped all over him.

He really couldn’t get away from Wiggins. The Mavs even tried to get their star going off the ball, with Dinwiddie setting a wide pin-down for Dončić to catch the ball in motion. However, it was too weak of a screen and Wiggins zoomed over the top, using superb footwork to get back in front of his man:

It may have been a layup attempt, but those are difficult, unbalanced layups with a lengthy defender in his path.

Klay Thompson, who always has the responsibility of guarding elite ball-handlers in Golden State’s playoff run, knows a special talent when he sees one.

“That’s why he was the No. 1 pick,” Thompson said. “You can’t teach that athleticism. You can’t teach that length. You can’t teach his timing. I’m just happy the world is getting to see who he really is, and that’s an incredible wing player. He will be like this for the next 10 years.”

Will this type of burden eventually get the best of Wiggins and his lungs as the series progresses? If you ask Wiggins himself, he’s not ready to offer exhaustion as an excuse for anything.

“I mean, I feel like I’m still young,” he said. “I don’t really get too tired when I’m locked in and motivated.”

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