2022 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Celtics

Renewed and reborn, Andrew Wiggins savoring Finals journey with Warriors

Once viewed as a disappointment, former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins has seen his image soar during Golden State's playoff run.

Andrew Wiggins' play on both ends of the court has proven to be integral for Golden State.

SAN FRANCISCO — Andrew Wiggins was born in the year 1995, reborn in the year 2022. His time in between tick-tocked between riches and ridicule, steep projections and curious rejections, and of course, losing and winning, basketball lifespans that are every bit the polar opposite.

And now he has landed here, on the doorstep of championship glory, the place he seemed destined to be but not after a detour through a cold, cold place — OK, Minnesota. This arrival was noticeably stamped with a moment of rage a week ago that revealed how the journey frustrated and then renewed him.

He grabbed the ball, drove the lane, gathered himself on two feet, launched, soared, and soared some more, and dunked right on Luka Doncic’s cranium. And right then Wiggins did something totally out of character — he roared, to let you know.

Even then, after his made-for-YouTube slam in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against Dallas became an instant snapshot, Wiggins still couldn’t get all the respect he deserved. He was initially charged for pushing off, an offensive foul that was later overturned on replay.

Take an all-angles look at Andrew Wiggins' massive dunk on Luka Doncic in Game 3 of the West finals.

“They tried to take it away from me,” Wiggins said with a half smile, incredulous and perhaps also weary from so many years of being accused of related basketball violations that actually stuck.

The biggest one, obviously, is how he was unworthy of being a No. 1 overall Draft pick. The story of how this small forward found a home with the Golden State Warriors cannot be told without explaining how it wasn’t quite right for nearly six years with the Timberwolves. Comebacks are like that, and it’s what makes these tales endearing, and the person in question easy to root for, and what lies in the future — in this case, the upcoming 2022 NBA Finals — so intriguing.

“I’m thankful,” Wiggins said. “It’s a beautiful story. Lots of ups and downs.”

In 2014, he was the top prize of the Draft. In such instances, the player drafted is immediately saddled, or perhaps cursed, with widespread anticipation of greatness. And in the case of Wiggins, those high hopes weren’t too far-fetched if only because they seemed like an organic destiny.

He is the offspring of former Olympian Marita Payne, who still ranks among the quickest sprinters in Canada’s history, and Mitchell Wiggins, who was a rotation player for the Rockets when they reached the 1986 NBA Finals. All that fast-twitch fiber found its way to Andrew, who became the most celebrated Canadian-born prospect ever — “Maple Jordan” was the catchy anointment — and who had a good one-year college stopover at blue-blood Kansas, where he was considered a better NBA prospect than his teammate, future Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid.

Being here, being around these guys, I just learned a lot. These are winning players, this is a winning system. And I’m winning. Finally.”

— Warriors swingman Andrew Wiggins

The Cleveland Cavaliers had the first pick and took Wiggins, but also reclaimed LeBron James from his four-year stint in Miami. So they sent Wiggins to Minnesota in exchange for the ready-to-win-now Kevin Love. Wiggins was fine at first, winning Kia Rookie of the Year honors, and followed up with better numbers for two straight seasons, averaging 20.7 points and then 23.6 ppg while teamed with Karl-Anthony Towns, another No. 1 overall pick and eventual Kia Rookie of the Year winner.

Then his production and efficiency dropped after Wiggins signed a rookie max extension for $148 million, making him Minnesota’s highest-paid player since Kevin Garnett. Except he didn’t deliver anywhere near the level of the former MVP. The All-Star appointments never came. Hell, not even a single Player of the Week award.

Wiggins was decent enough. He just wasn’t great, and that was his crime. Had he been the No. 10 pick, for example, nobody would care. And, true to his easygoing nature, Wiggins wasn’t fiery or very expressive on the floor, bringing the unfair assumption that he didn’t care.

Andrew Wiggins' full potential is being realized in Golden State.

There was also that team practice one infamous day in 2018 when Jimmy Butler and four bench players whipped the other Minnesota starters, with Butler claiming in a fit of rage that those starters — which of course included Wiggins — were “soft” and implied he couldn’t win with them. Butler subsequently leveraged a trade to Philadelphia.

Speaking of that: The Timberwolves kept losing, going 174-285 with Wiggins. They didn’t make the playoffs for 10 years before him and made it just once in their 5 1/2 years with him. As a franchise, the Timberwolves stayed stuck in reverse, still an NBA afterthought.

So that’s the backstory. And while the Warriors are saying all the right things now about Wiggins, there was a sliver of doubt when they traded D’Angelo Russell for him in February of 2020. Why else would the Warriors demand a protected No. 1 pick in the package? Smart negotiating, for sure. But they wanted insurance as well … just in case. And the Wolves were so desperate to dump Wiggins that they actually said yes to the pick (which became Jonathan Kuminga in 2021).

When Wiggins arrived to a franchise that reached the NBA Finals five straight years, the Warriors subsequently started losing. It wasn’t Wiggins’ fault; this was during the two-year Klay Thompson Recovery Odyssey, and Stephen Curry pulled up lame, too.

During this time, Wiggins was a bit better than Golden State anticipated. His 3-point shooting improved. He meshed with the system. Nothing stupendous, but still. Wiggins averaged 18.6 ppg in his first full season with the Warriors (2020-21) on a career-best 47.7% shooting.

“Wiggs has an understanding of the nuances of winning basketball and how to key in on the little things,” Curry said. “Consistent effort on defense, 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, confidence shooting the 3. It’s the things that help you win.”

Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins express their mutual appreciation after eliminating the Mavericks.

All this goodwill and promise nearly unraveled when Wiggins hesitated to get the COVID shot prior to this season, then relented at the last minute when he realized that, being based in California, he’d only play a fraction of games. And then, the payoff: Wiggins was named an All-Star starter this year, pushed heavily by the fan vote.

“I thought I was dreaming for a second,” he said. “I was like, what’s going on?”

With the Warriors back at full strength, Wiggins settled in as a secondary option who at times played better. Unlike in Minnesota, he didn’t need to save a franchise or be an alpha dog or fulfill anyone’s outsized expectations.

As Draymond Green said: “We want Wiggs to be Wiggs.”

Then in these playoffs, “Wiggs” was something else: He went to work. All the breathless athleticism and bounce and reflexes came together, especially in the Dallas series where Wiggins was the first line of defense against Doncic. He also had furious stretches of scoring, with pull-up jumpers and drives off the dribble. He played wisely, seldom forcing shots, searched for his comfort zone and seized opportunities to strike.

“On the biggest stage,” Green said, “he’s come through.”

With his two-way ability, Wiggins at 6-foot-7 and just 27 years old is the new (though not as accomplished) Andre Iguodala, a wing defender with the ability to guard primary scorers and also get buckets when necessary.

“If they need me to score, I’m going to score,” he said. “If they need me to defend, I’m going to defend, rebound, whatever.”

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Thompson is still trying to regain his defensive chops after his injuries, which only raises the level of importance for Wiggins, who’ll get the Jayson Tatum assignment in the Finals which normally would go to Klay.

“I told him, wow, you make my job easier,” said Thompson. “I don’t have to chase these guys around like I once did. We have a defender like you.”

The Warriors did their due diligence before obtaining Wiggins in terms of how to trigger something within him. There’s been no tough love; instead, the dialogue from the coaching staff and teammates was a steady stream of encouragement and getting him to understand his mistakes won’t be magnified while his outstanding play will be glorified.

The atmosphere put in place, by the Warriors and by winning, has worked, especially in the playoffs, where Wiggins had only been once before, and never this deep. Being part of a winning team makes for a more confident player. Green took a swipe at the Wolves when he recently assessed the turnaround in Wiggins’ image.

“That’s a guy that has been criticized for being lackadaisical,” Green said. “No one talks about teams that guys are on or organizations that guys are in. No one ever talks about that. It’s always the player’s fault.”

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The evolution of Wiggins is nearly complete, then. He was never as dreadful in Minnesota, on a franchise with a rich history of misery, as the murmurs and local fan base indicated. And just as well, he isn’t the prime reason the Warriors are back in the Finals after a two-year absence.

But his acquisition and subsequent fit have made the Warriors more athletic and more complete, allowing coach Steve Kerr to utilize a smaller and quicker lineup comparable to the “Death” lineup of championship teams past. Therefore, when it comes to Wiggins, they sing his praises whenever asked. He cost them virtually nothing in the Minnesota trade, a lopsided one in hindsight.

“It’s just so fun to see Wiggs playing at this level, and getting his due,” said Kerr.

The Finals will explain a lot about Wiggins. It’s the ultimate proving ground, where one cements his legacy … or steps on a banana peel. If nothing else, he’s in a better place, performance-wise and team-wise, and this is the tonic he always craved. And in a coincidental twist, he can become the first player selected in the first round of his Draft class to win a ring (former second-round pick Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the 51st overall pick, accomplished that feat first). In a sense, this former No. 1 overall pick has a chance to finish first, again.

“Being here, being around these guys, I just learned a lot,” Wiggins said. “These are winning players, this is a winning system. And I’m winning. Finally.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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