Wolves' Wiggins: ‘I want to be a big-game player’
By Andy GrederSt. Paul Pioneer Press MINNEAPOLIS -- For Andrew Wiggins, the basketball court wasn't always a rectangle. Playing with his two older brothers as a child in suburban Toronto, Wiggins seemed to be competing in a circle of hell. Mitche...
By Andy Greder
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS - For Andrew Wiggins, the basketball court wasn’t always a rectangle. Playing with his two older brothers as a child in suburban Toronto, Wiggins seemed to be competing in a circle of hell.
Mitchell Jr. and Nick wouldn’t give an inch on the court, much less let little Andrew win, and often knocked him to the ground. Whether it was on the driveway, the outdoor court behind the elementary school or inside the community center, the plot remained the same.
Did Andrew tell on his brothers?
“Yes, quite a few times,” said Wiggins’ father, Mitchell Sr., “but then the next day he was back playing.”
Mitchell Wiggins Sr., who played professional basketball for nearly two decades and was a member of the 1986 Houston Rockets team that upset the Lakers to make the NBA Finals, called it “tough love.”
“They basically taught him how to play,” he said. “They took no shortcuts on him.”
Outside the Wiggins wringer, Andrew was on the fast track. As a teenager, he dominated the AAU circuit, cruised through a stint at an elite prep school in West Virginia and had a one-and-done season at Kansas.
He starts his NBA career with the Timberwolves on Wednesday in Memphis after coming to Minnesota as the centerpiece in the blockbuster trade that sent all-star forward Kevin Love to Cleveland.
Turner Sports broadcaster and former NBA guard Greg Anthony believes Cleveland could have made that trade without giving up a prized asset such as Wiggins, the first pick in the 2014 NBA draft - and probably should have.
“I just think Andrew Wiggins has a chance to be a true superstar in this league,” Anthony said. “There are not many guys that have his gifts at this stage.”
But the trade’s judgment day is years from now.
While Love begins a quest for an NBA title with LeBron James and the Cavaliers, Wiggins, 19, remains a promise.
Andrew’s parents, Mitchell Wiggins and Marita Payne, met as college students at Florida State. They had sports in common.
Mitchell was a 6-foot-4 shooting guard for the Seminoles and went on to play six seasons for three NBA teams: the Rockets, Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers.
Marita was a sprinter and went on to win two silver medals as part of Canada’s 400- and 1,600-meter relay teams at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
When Andrew was still in diapers in the mid-1990s, his father played in Greece. During one pre-game shootaround, Mitchell told his son to watch how a young Serbian named Peja Stojakovic shot the ball.
“I said, ‘This is one of the best shooters you’re every going to see. Watch that stroke. Watch that rotation,’ ” Mitchell recalled.
Stojakovic went on to have a 13-year NBA career, mainly with the Sacramento Kings.
“I don’t know if Andrew remembers all of that, but he remembers Peja now,” Mitchell said. “(Andrew) grew up with basketball around him and in the gym. In Greece, I had a lot of success playing, and I think he fell in love with the game then.”
The family settled in Vaughan, Ontario, north of Toronto, site of those epic court battles among the Wiggins boys.
“It was tough, but then I got bigger and better and kept learning from them and my father,” Andrew said. “Until I was their height; then I was beating them.”
That came at about 16 - three years after Andrew became a YouTube sensation for his dunking and blocking highlight reel titled “Best 13 Year Old In The Nation.”
When Mitchell Jr. played at NAIA Southeastern (Fla.) University, and Nick at Wichita State, Andrew was still in high school - and drawing comparisons to James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
Jordan first saw Andrew play when he was 15. Mitchell Sr. told Fox Sports that Jordan asked him if the player literally leaping over the competition was his son. When told he was, Jordan said, “Ooh, he’s got a little something.”
“Then, I started looking at him a little differently,” Mitchell told Fox Sports.
Near that time, Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend went to Orlando to watch an AAU tournament. Townsend was in attendance to recruit another kid on Canada’s 16-under CIA Bounce team and “stumbled” upon Wiggins.
“This kid looked like Kobe Bryant to me,” Townsend said. “He was in high school. He was flying down the lane, dunking, spin dribble, knocking down little short jumpers. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ … I fell in love with him then.”
Wiggins’ short list of college finalists included Florida State, North Carolina and Kentucky, but he chose Kansas - in part to be close to Nick, who was three hours away playing for the Shockers.
“I thought he was the best player in the country overall,” Townsend said. “I guess I got lucky and got him in the end.”
Although Andrew was the top high school recruit in the country, with tremendous bloodlines and lofty comparisons, he was wary of the spotlight that came with it.
At Kansas, Sports Illustrated wanted to put a photo of Wiggins in a spread next to an old picture of former Jayhawks and NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain.
“He would come in here and ask me, ‘Coach, do I have to do this stuff?’ ” Townsend said.
Townsend’s answer was yes. ESPN, GQ and other national publications came calling, too.
“He’s like, ‘I haven’t done anything yet. I want my teammates to get all the credit,’ ” Townsend recalled.
Wiggins’ deferential demeanor on the court wasn’t always welcome. Jayhawks coach Bill Self once told CBS Sports that Wiggins might be “too nice,” and that he would have liked to see “that alpha dog in him more often.”
“I don’t think he was like Kobe, who is like an assassin and will rip your heart out,” Townsend said. “He doesn’t have that personality because of the person we were seeing off the court. … He was competitive enough that he made sure no one got the best of him. He proved that.”
Mitchell Sr. was 27 and a reserve for the Rockets when they played the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Finals. The following February, he tested positive for cocaine and was suspended for two-plus seasons.
“That part of my life is an open book, and we talk about that,” Mitchell Sr. said. “Andrew is not (me). He is a great kid. He’s the kind of kid that does everything right, and he’s been a blessing. There are no issues with him.”
At Kansas, Wiggins could be electric and an enigma.
In front of former high school classmates, Wiggins poured in 41 points in the regular-season finale at West Virginia. Two weeks later, he scored only four points as Stanford eliminated the Jayhawks from the NCAA tournament. Afterward, he said he let his team down.
At Wolves practice this week, Wiggins said he wants to be a go-to player.
“I feel like I want to be a big-game player,” he said. “The best players do their work in the big games.”
Wolves coaches have been in Wiggins’ ear about what is about to happen. Being the No. 1 overall pick, assistant coach Sam Mitchell said, means opponents will use you “as a litmus test.”
“They’re going to feel like if they outplay you, or play well against you, that raises their stock and value,” Mitchell said.
Teammate Corey Brewer plays the same small forward position as Wiggins and said he’s been testing the rookie in practice.
“I do give him a hard time, do little things to mess with him and help him,” Brewer said. “I grab and hold a little bit: a couple of vet moves.”
Brewer was the seventh overall pick by the Wolves in the 2007 NBA draft and played three-plus seasons in Minnesota before stops in Dallas and Denver. He returned last season and wants to provide Wiggins with the thoughtful leadership he didn’t receive in his first stint in Minnesota.
“When I got here, nobody helped keep my confidence up,” Brewer said. “If he misses a shot or does something wrong, I try to teach him and tell him what he’s supposed to do. He’s not going to be the best player right away, but he has the opportunity to be the best player.”
Mitchell said a coach wants swell guys off the court, and salty guys on it.
“If that means having a little (jerk) in you, that means having a little (jerk) in you,” said Mitchell, who played 13 seasons in the NBA -10 in Minnesota.
“When you step on the floor, you have to transform yourself and become what is necessary for yourself and your team that night.”
Already, the Wolves believe Wiggins can be a shutdown defender. He is long (6 feet 8, with a 7-foot wingspan), quick and springy (44-inch vertical jump). But he needs to learn the favorite moves, shooting ranges and the dominant hand for the NBA’s best scorers.
“We’re hoping he can accept that challenge,” Mitchell said.
On offense, Wiggins was again deferential early in the preseason. Coach Flip Saunders said his best preseason game came against Oklahoma City on Oct. 19, when he was assertive about putting the ball on the floor to create offense.
Former NBA coach and ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy is going to let Wiggins play before anointing him.
“I would be surprised if he wasn’t an elite defender and rebounder for his position. I think the question marks right now are offensively,” Van Gundy said. “What is his game? And what can his ceiling be at the offensive end?”
Wiggins said he knows what’s at stake.
“People are going to try to come at me, and I have to be ready for it and be competitive the whole way,” Wiggins said. “Stay humble. If I do that, the sky’s the limit.”
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