Minnesota Timberwolves out to fuel Andrew Wiggins' rise to stardom

Timberwolves players, coaches driven to turn phenom into two-way standout

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

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MINNEAPOLIS — It’s not Andrew Wiggins’ fault that he had the disadvantage of being drafted 29 spots higher than Jimmy Butler.

Butler’s story is the stuff of current NBA lore. Born and for a spell raised in the small Texas town of Tomball. Thrown out of the house at 13 by his single mother and sleeping on neighbors’ and friends’ sofas. Neglected by college recruiters, spinning a season at Tyler (Tex.) Community College into Buzz Williams’ first scholarship at Marquette. Drafted with the last pick of the first round in 2011, thrown scraps at the end of the Chicago Bulls’ bench …

Until he works and wills himself into a starter, the Kia Most Improved Player in 2015, a five-year, $95 million contract, three All-Star appearances, one of the league’s most complete two-way players and now the leader of a young and hungry Minnesota Timberwolves team.

Wiggins is one of the cornerstone talents of that team, and his backstory hardly could be more different from Butler’s.

The son of elite athletes — his father, Mitchell Wiggins, played six seasons in the NBA and his mother, Marita Payne, was a Canadian Olympic sprinter – the Wolves’ forward inherited a rare bundle of skills and capabilities. He was touted not just by his hometown but by an entire country, dubbed “Maple Jordan” as Canada’s latest, greatest hoops hope.

Butler spent a year in junior college just to earn a scholarship. Wiggins spent a year at NCAA powerhouse Kansas, eschewing his final three seasons to enter the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick in 2014. He was coveted enough, without having played a minute in the league, to be traded for an All-Star when LeBron James made his surprise return to Cleveland that summer and tabbed Kevin Love to be part of a new Big Three with himself and Kyrie Irving.

The kid is so talented. … That’s what I want him to understand – you’re one of the most talented players in the league. Don’t take any possessions off.”

Jimmy Butler, on teammate Andrew Wiggins

Thus, Wiggins joined a forlorn Minnesota organization 10 years into what has become a 13-year playoff drought. He cruised to the NBA’s Kia Rookie of the Year award on a team that won just 16 games that season. The Wolves upped that to 29 and 31 victories the next two seasons, Wiggins boosting his scoring average to 20.7 points per game and 23.6 ppg while often failing to bust a gut or break a sweat.

That, at least, was the reputation he developed, borne from his own admission in high school that he picked and chose the opponents and matchups against which he locked in. If only Wiggins played hard on both ends of the floor, they said. If only his motor revved high every night. If only he relied less on his talents and more on tenacity. If, if, if.

Time of essence for Wolves’ young star

Butler wants to change Wiggins’ ifs to whens. And the way Butler is wired, when means now.

“My job is to show him what it takes to win at both ends of the floor and how hard you have to play,” Butler said over the weekend, four victories into what has grown to the five-game winning streak as Wolves face the defending-champion Golden State Warriors tonight.

“The kid is so talented. Everything comes so easy for him. When he gets the mindset that, ‘no matter how talented I am, I have to bring it on every single possession,’ that’s when you’ve got to start talking how great can this kid be. That’s what I want him to understand – you’re one of the most talented players in the league. Don’t take any possessions off.”

Butler is a plow horse who always lets you see him sweat, who got where he is today by dint of hard work. Wiggins is a thoroughbred to whom things seemingly have come easy, no straining necessary beyond the drills, workouts and games asked of any player.

Neither characterization captures Butler or Wiggins in full, but both are close enough that the Wolves — and much of the NBA — are watching to see what how much of Butler rubs off on the younger man.

“I think I bring it every night,” Wiggins said casually, not at all defensively, about the criticism he hears most frequently. “This year, we’ve got a good team. So, if someone else is going, someone else is going. But I always bring my game.”

Actually, everything Wiggins has experienced or accrued so far has come from his potential. He was drafted for it, traded for it and most recently paid for it — a five-year, $148 million “max” contract extension that starts in 2018. Team owner Glen Taylor took some grief for wanting to meet with Wiggins face-to-face before signing the deal, to make sure the budding star keeps growing his game.

Now Taylor will notice Wiggins looking his way after hitting a tough shot or making a defensive stop, and smiling. Their contract is secure.

Wiggins quietly, confidently raising game

Wiggins’ on-court demeanor flows from his personality, a mostly quiet nature that can make him seem aloof. Close friends and teammates can draw him out when they catch him laughing, but that side rarely shows at Target Center or under the lights of the league’s 28 other venues.

“Wigs is just laid back off the court,” said scorer Jamal Crawford, another veteran player and influence newly added by Minnesota coach and basketball boss Tom Thibodeau. “He’s not one who craves attention. He just comes, does his job, goes home. He’s really, really quiet in that regard. But he brings it — he has no problem making the big play or taking the big shot. He’s not scared to fail, and that’s a sign of an up-and-coming great player.”

Said Wiggins: “There are a lot of personalities on the court. Some people look like they’re working hard but they’re not. Some people who are working hard don’t look like it.”

Butler trusts what he can see. As Minnesota’s undisputed leader and updated version of Kevin Garnett as the Wolves’ 24/7 jumper cables, he doesn’t believe a player can modulate his performance against Golden State one night, Dallas the next, without getting bit.

“Can’t have it,” Butler said, the home dressing room otherwise empty after Saturday’s victory over the Mavericks. “Everybody in this league is an NBA player. That’s where he has to grow. He’s a terrific kid, human being, basketball player. But you’ve got to have that killer instinct in this league. You’ve got to have it, man.

“It’s not certain matchups, it’s not against certain teams, it’s not taking things personal. You take it to every team, every matchup. Where you match up to kill and to help this team at all costs.”

I think he’s made a conscious effort to do more than just score. He’s rebounding, he’s playmaking, his defense has improved. And with the game on the line, he can make the play.”

Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, on Wiggins

The more success the Wolves have, the more they crave. At 7-3, they’re off to their best start through 10 games since 2001-02. Should they beat the Warriors, they would have the franchise’s first six-game winning streak since late in the 2003-04 season – which also happens to be the last time Minnesota reached the playoffs.

Wiggins, at 22, has shown signs of making every game an occasion to which he rises. During the winning streak, he has scored 20 points or more three times. Already, he ranks third on the Wolves’ all-time list for scoring 20 or more with 143 such games, behind only Love (167) and Garnett (534).

His game-winning, glass-assisted 3-pointer as time expired at OKC last month, sprung by Karl-Anthony Towns’ dubious midcourt pick, might have been a fluke. But the work he put in against the Thunder five nights later was not; Wiggins startled his teammates and coaches by diving twice to the floor for loose balls, grunt work for a diva. Thibodeau and his staff preach and document “first to the floor!” but Wiggins only recently has become that guy.

“You see Wigs diving on the floor, you’re like, ‘Oh man!’ ” Crawford said. “Everybody kicked it to another gear and it changed the complexion of that game.”

Against the Mavericks Saturday, Wiggins scored 23 points but worked diligently at guarding both Harrison Barnes (17 points) and Wesley Matthews (five) in a defensive tandem with Butler. Twenty-four hours later in blowing out Charlotte, he finished with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting and nailed three consecutive jump shots in the third quarter. But he drew praise for hustling back on defense to thwart a 2-on-1 Hornets break, the Wolves already leading by 20.

Defensive development next on to-do list

In Thibodeau’s and Butler’s world, Wiggins soon will match the former Bulls’ defensive intensity, finally making good on the predictions when he was drafted in 2014 that he’d be an instant defensive force. It has taken awhile, partly due to the culture of a losing operation, partly from what seemed intentional energy rationing by Wiggins.

“When he learns to use the angles and his athletic ability and his God-given length of his arms and his big hands,” Butler said, “he’s gonna be a helluva defender. Offense, he’s got it all. Now we’ve got to get him to think, ‘I’m gonna be as aggressive on defense as I am on offense.’ That’s when you’re talkin.’ ”

Said Thibodeau: “I see a progression. He’s learned a lot from all his experiences. He worked incredibly hard all summer. He spent a lot of time here, in and out, and stayed focused on basketball. I think he’s made a conscious effort to do more than just score. He’s rebounding, he’s playmaking, his defense has improved. And with the game on the line, he can make the play.”

Reflecting both Wiggins’ development and Minnesota’s makeover, the 6-foot-8 wing has a positive net rating for the first time in his career at 109.6/108.3. He is averaging 19.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists, though he sometimes still needs to have his switch flipped.

“He still hasn’t even scratched the surface,” forward Taj Gibson said. “He can turn it on when he wants to turn it on. The [Oct. 30] game in Miami, I remember Jimmy telling him to just dunk the ball. And the very next play, he dunked it. And the play after that, he almost got poster-of-the-year for how high he jumped. He missed it on his own, that’s how crazy it was.”

Who does he play like? … He’s definitely one of those guys — I would go back to an early 2000’s, late ‘90s type of guy. I’m not sayin’ McGrady but those type of guys, where the game comes really easy to ‘em.”

Jamal Crawford, on Wiggins’ game

At times, a misunderstood star

Wiggins is said to spend much of his free time playing video games or hanging with his dog Cassie. He doesn’t pull back much of the curtain in interviews, perhaps as a way of tamping down requests. He’s cordial, business-like and maddening to the Wolves media types who sift through his responses in search of sizzle.

He defends the intensity of his defense since arriving in Minnesota, but without bristling. Questions about his tendency to fill the points column on score sheets, while sticking small numbers in the other columns, get deflected easily. Wiggins concurs when it’s pointed out that Thibodeau is the first coach he’s had for consecutive seasons since back in high school, but he offers only a shrug of a comment about it.

“My first year here, I kind of established in my mind where I would fit on the court,” Wiggins said. “The best areas for me on the court and recognizing how to get in those positions. Now I’m just here.”

“Sometimes Andrew is misjudged,” Thibodeau said. “He’s a quiet sort of guy, but he’s a very confident guy. It’s easy to look at Jimmy and say ‘He’s this, this and this.’ But you tend to forget where Jimmy was his first and second years, his third year, his fourth year. I think you can look at a lot of players in the league – a guy like Kawhi [Leonard], same thing. Every year they got a lot better but there were steps they had to take. And if you look at Andrew, every year he’s made a big step. And he’s still just 22 years old.”

Wiggins has been compared to some of the NBA’s brightest lights, at least as far as his potential. Tracy McGrady is frequently mentioned. One Wolves team member, a little embarrassed, suggested Julius Erving. Crawford has been grasping for the perfect answer.

“Who does he play like? I’ve been trying to figure it out, but I haven’t thought of one yet,” Crawford said. “But he’s definitely one of those guys – I would go back to an early 2000’s, late ‘90s type of guy. I’m not sayin’ McGrady but those type of guys, where the game comes really easy to ‘em. I’m thinking of a wing who can really create and make plays, and the game was so easy for him, and he did things so effortlessly.”

Doing difficult things effortlessly and making it appear so are two different things. That’s why the education of Andrew Wiggins continues, with Butler committed to barking until his protégé turns in reliably strong performances as a muzzle.

“You tell him over and over and over again,” Butler said, “until he gets tired of hearing it coming out of your damn mouth and he buys into it and he does it. That’s what I’m doing. We’re always smiling and joking around on the floor, because we love playing with one another. But at the end of the day, I think it’s my job to make sure everybody shows up, every single night.

“You hope he see where it takes this team, and how his level of play is going to [raise] everybody’s level of play, and how it’s contagious. That’s the next step we have to have.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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