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Scott Howard-Cooper

Why Andrew Wiggins will go No. 1 ... and why he may not


Posted May 31, 2014 9:19 PM

The case for Andrew Wiggins to go No. 1 in the 2014 Draft was made two seasons ago, really, and maybe even the one before that, not 2013-14. Definitely not 2013-14.

The native of suburban Toronto was finishing his high school career in West Virginia, a prodigy with athleticism that left NBA executives so slack-jawed that he almost certainly would have been the top pick after the junior prep season. Wiggins had the kind of high ceiling that wasn't so much a ceiling as a place where others needed oxygen masks and flew Mach I. His resumé included winning a bronze with Canada in 2010 at the under-17 world championships in Germany (MVP: Bradley Beal of the United States) and another in 2012 at the FIBA Americas under-18 tournament. He had the head start on publicity as the son of Marita Payne-Wiggins, a Canadian sprinter in two Olympics, and Mitchell Wiggins, who played six seasons with the Bulls, Rockets and 76ers.

As a freshman at Kansas, though, he often struggled, and not just against the backdrop of the expectations impossible to meet. There were long shooting droughts, which could easily be explained away as typical rookie moments. But there was also the growing concern from front offices that Wiggins was not playing hard all the time and the reality that some quickly rated fellow freshman Joel Embiid as the best Jayhawks prospect, not the electric wing only recently the consensus No. 1 college recruit. In his NCAA tournament debut, Wiggins made seven of 13 attempts and scored 19 points against Eastern Kentucky, but when the competition increased to Stanford in the round of 32 in St. Louis, he memorably managed four points on one-for-six shooting as Kansas lost by three.

Now the years of NBA buildup have given way to weeks of final debate before the Cavaliers, Bucks and 76ers make the top three picks in the June 26. It's Wiggins the small forward vs. Embiid the center, the health risk of Embiid coming off a fractured back vs. the comedown of Wiggins' 2013-14, and untapped potential vs. untapped potential. Then there's Wiggins against Duke forward Jabari Parker, Wiggins holding a big edge in athleticism and a higher ceiling, but Parker more versatile (and a possible power forward), less of a risk and the most NBA-ready of the three.

Andrew Wiggins of 2014 is the same as Andrew Wiggins of 2012 in a bottom-line way, in other words. Still trying to get the oxygen mask to fit.

"NBA people, the media, everybody -- everyone thought this draft was going to be great," one executive said. "Look at Wiggins. He's (17.1) points a game, (5.9) rebounds. He hasn't been bad. But he certainly doesn't make you think he's walking into the NBA next year and turning your franchise around.

"He's still going to go in the top three probably. It's hard for me to say in three years he's going to be great. I don't know what anyone else feels. He should be a good defensive player. He's not a great ball handler, he's not a great passer, he's just an OK shooter. It's nothing to get excited about."

Whoa.

Andrew Wiggins. Nothing to get excited about.

"Wiggins has had smoke blown [at him], for so long, I don't know that he really looks at every possession as being critical anymore," another front-office veteran said. "And it probably isn't. He's probably right. But I have a hard time [when I watch] him disappear. Biggest game of the year and he didn't do anything. Those things bug me. That's not to say he isn't going to be a great player. But it's a bit of a character question mark for me."

What did he learn about Wiggins in 2013-14?

"That he's got a lot more tendencies of Rudy Gay than he does of LeBron James or Michael [Jordan]," the executive said. "That's not a slap at Rudy. It's just the exact same adjectives I used on Rudy Gay when he was coming up and the reports I turned in, I went back and looked and I said, 'I think I've got his stunt double here.' Passes the eyeball test, physical characteristics [everywhere]. Why doesn't he play harder? Why does his own team go away from him at times? Why? That should scare the hell out of you. It scares the hell out of me."

Part of the decision for the Cavaliers at No. 1 will be based on Embiid's medical results. Part will be based on whether they like their chances of re-signing Luol Deng as a free agent, impacting the need for a small forward. Part will be weighing Wiggins against Parker. And then, at some point, it will come down to the ultimate debate, the one teams started to have years ago, only never more than now.

Andrew Wiggins against himself.

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