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The redemption of Andrew Wiggins is all about expectations

The redemption of Andrew Wiggins is all about expectations

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Wiggins was long viewed as a disappointment, but now a change of scenery has shifted the perception of him as the Warriors fight for a championship.

When Andrew Wiggins was voted an All-Star starter this year, it was a little silly and not fully deserved.  Though at the same time, it also was a long-delayed coronation that most had stopped hoping for years ago. Perhaps it is odd to call an All-Star appearance from a No. 1 overall pick unexpected, but aside from some high-volume, low-efficiency scoring, there were few signs during the first seven years of his career that he had the star potential that had long been imagined.

Yet his time in Golden State has allowed people to transform Wiggins from a disappointing young player into an underdog who had fought back against early career disappointments to make good on his initial potential. While his success with the Warriors is a testament to his own evolution, much of the rhetoric surrounding it is a testament to how the expectations placed upon a player, along with their context, can shape perception of them.

Andrew Wiggins entered the NBA in 2014 as one of the most hyped prospects in years. He was being hailed as the Maple Jordan (a nod to his Canadian roots) and while that nickname was deployed perhaps a bit ironically in light of the extravagant praise already being lavished upon him, it still spoke to just how much was expected of him.

Wiggins won Rookie of the Year in 2015 but, as it often is, the reward was given more due to his volume than his actual production. The raw numbers themselves looked good but there were questions about his future that astute Timberwolves watchers would have picked up on immediately. Despite his much-heralded athleticism and touted potential as a defender, he did not often show the inclination to be the player he could be on that end. Also, he was too often content to settle for contested jumpers or mid-range attempts rather than driving to the hoop.

During his years in Minnesota, Wiggins was a uniquely frustrating player. Fans could see that, yes, he was not likely to ever be the star that was promised and hoped for, but it was also clear that, with a few shifts in emphasis, he could easily be more than he was. This all culminated in the Wolves giving Wiggins a max contract extension that was justly pilloried the moment it was offered. But team owner Glen Taylor was quick to clarify that he would not offer such a contract until he personally met with Wiggins and got him to promise to try hard to improve. It was all very silly, and if you’re looking for a single example of why the Wolves have struggled so much during the Taylor era, you could do worse than highlighting this.

Andrew Wiggins is really the same player working in a different role

When the Warriors traded for Wiggins in 2020, it felt like the Timberwolves trying to get off of Wiggins’ contract more than it felt like the Warriors actively trying to acquire the former number one pick. The consensus was that the Wolves wanted D’Angelo Russell and the Warriors wanted a lottery pick and Wiggins was a throw-in to make the salaries match – a throw-in that allowed the Wolves to conveniently get out from under his contract in the process.

And yet, Wiggins has come to be much more important to the Warriors’ present, if not necessarily their future, than that pick has been. It is not that Wiggins suddenly transformed into a star when he arrived in Golden State. He has not emerged to become a player who can lead a team to glory on his own, but he has become a very good supplementary piece when surrounded by stars and more dynamic players who can take pressure off him. Simply put, if Andrew Wiggins is your team’s best or second-best player, they’re probably not going to be very good. But if he’s third, fourth, or fifth, things are looking much more promising.

Though Wiggins has not transformed into a new player in the Bay, it is disingenuous to say that nothing has changed. He has played both smarter and more aggressively since arriving in Golden State. He is a more consistent and thoughtful defender than he ever was in Minnesota, to say nothing of the tenacity he’s shown as a rebounder. Also, the long 2s have mostly vanished, replaced by catch-and-shoot 3s. The reduced role means that the fat has been cut from his game, leaving only that which he did well while.

For Wiggins, it’s a choice between getting yelled at by people on the internet for scoring an inefficient 20 points per game on a losing team or scoring less and getting lauded for doing less on a contender. I would imagine that’s an easy choice to make for most players. It’s not that he did not do any of this in Minnesota, but that it was less meaningful in that context. Sometimes less is more.

It is not surprising, in light of his pre-draft hype, that Wiggins is an essential piece of a championship contender. What is surprising is how. Even though he never quite became the player that many prognosticators originally imagined, being a vital cog of a Finals team must be considered a success regardless. If the Warriors do take the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to the Bay, Andrew Wiggins will be a major reason why. His path to becoming the player he is today was much more roundabout than initially expected, but sometimes, when the destination is this good, the route doesn’t matter so much.

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