Wiggins completes transformation from frustrating youngster to essential wingman

Wiggins completes transformation from frustrating youngster to essential wingman

The clocked ticked toward another Golden State Warriors title, perhaps the crowning achievement of this remarkable run due to the depths they plummeted to before rising again, and Andrew Wiggins looked to the sideline to get subbed out.

His work in these NBA Finals was done. His improbable ascendance to a player worthy of being Steph Curry’s wing man was complete. There waiting for him as he jogged to the bench was Andre Iguodala, the revered veteran who had forcefully and publicly challenged him earlier in the series when he was having one of those nights he was known for having too often in Minnesota.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr inserted Iguodala into the closing moments of Game 6 with the result — and the team’s fourth championship — in hand as a hat tip to Iguodala’s leadership and standing as one of the building blocks of this dynasty. As Iguodala crossed paths with Wiggins, he met him with three daps and a bear hug, the final indoctrination into this championship organization.

The talent was never in question with Wiggins. The heart he showed in these finals against the Celtics, the toughness and tenacity to do all the dirty work needed to support Curry’s brilliance, that’s what was missing in Minnesota. And now, there he was, putting on the black NBA champions T-shirt, hugging Curry and showing that wide smile of his after a series in which he was, indisputably, the second-best player on a championship-winning team.

In moments of triumph like this one, a player often will proclaim that no one believed in them. Even Curry, the two-time NBA MVP and four-time champion universally regarded as the best shooter to ever live, bellowed, “What are they gonna say now?” after scoring 34 points and winning his first finals MVP. But the doubters and the haters were real for Wiggins. And for a long time, they were deserved. In five and a half seasons with the Timberwolves, he constantly left executives, coaches, teammates and fans wanting more.

In Golden State, with a trio of Hall of Famers to absorb the attention from the media and opposing defenses, Wiggins no longer carries the weight of an entire franchise on his shoulders. But he also became a different player in the Bay, no longer coasting on his God-given athleticism. He is now a player who makes life miserable for First Team All-NBA scorers, who battles for rebounds in traffic and feasts on the open looks that come with a defense’s focus on the Splash Brothers. It is a transformation that few saw coming, a player resented or dismissed for not taking advantage of his prodigious talent now outworking everyone on the court and doing all the little things to buoy a veteran team that, deep down inside, had to wonder after it went down 2-1 if it had what it took to keep up with the younger, more athletic Celtics.

“It’s a feeling I can’t describe,” Wiggins said after scoring 18 points, hitting four 3-pointers and racking up six rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks in the 103-90 clincher in Boston. “Every day, that stuff is motivating. That put fire in my eyes. I just wanted to prove everyone wrong. Now I’m a world champion. Everyone is going to have something to say, regardless. Whatever they say, they gotta say I’m a world champion, too.”

For years in Minnesota, it seemed like Wiggins simply did not care what anyone said about him. Not the media who crowded around his locker after each one of the 170 losses the Wolves took in his first three seasons looking for answers for when they would turn the corner. Not teammates like Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, who loved Wiggins’ carefree spirit when they were hanging out away from the court, but twisted themselves in pretzels trying to keep the pilot light lit for games that did not come against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that traded him weeks after taking him No. 1 overall in 2014, his hometown Toronto Raptors or, for reasons unknown to this day, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Not coaches like Flip and Ryan Saunders, who tried everything they could think of — from inviting him to weddings to calling him soft as Dairy Queen ice cream — to try to motivate him. Not the fans, who cheered his dunks on Rudy Gobert and Ömer Aşık and booed when he settled for contested fallaway jumpers and missed free throws in big moments.

The frustration was born of the belief that Wiggins had everything he needed to be great, except for that fire in his eyes of which he now speaks. It is why the Cavaliers drafted him No. 1 ahead of Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid. It is why Flip Saunders waited the Cavs out when then-general manager David Griffin initially declined to put Wiggins in trade talks for disgruntled All-Star Kevin Love shortly after LeBron James decided to leave Miami and return home to Cleveland.

“Griff isn’t the one making the decision,” Saunders told me with his trademark playful smile during one point in the negotiations.

It is why Wiggins was the runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year award in 2015, was averaging a gaudy 23.6 points per game by his third season and was given a max contract extension to stay in Minnesota even though the Wolves had never sniffed a playoff berth during that time.

It is also why the late Kobe Bryant blessed Wiggins with a remarkable stamp of approval on a cold December night less than two months into Wiggins’ rookie season. The Los Angeles Lakers star had spent his whole life chasing Michael Jordan, patterning his jumper after him, mimicking his speech cadence, anything to get closer to the greatest to ever do it.

On Dec. 14, 2014, Bryant had finally caught him, surpassing Jordan for third place on the NBA’s career scoring list. He was 36 years old, with one and a half seasons left in his Hall of Fame career, and the significance of the accomplishment — which came in a 100-94 victory over the Timberwolves — put Bryant in a reflective mood. After the game, sitting in a cramped, makeshift news conference room at Target Center, he pulled back the curtain on the competitiveness that it takes to even dare to set a goal of scaling a mountain that high and marveled at the ovation he got from Timberwolves fans when he passed Jordan, a gesture that caught him off guard after so many years of being viewed as the villain.

As his session came to a close, a smile crept across Bryant’s face as he thought about his opponent that night, featuring a high-flying 19-year-old.

“I remember being Andrew Wiggins,” Bryant said then. “I remember playing against Michael my first year. To be here tonight, and playing against him and seeing the baby face and the little footwork and little technique things that he’s going to be much, much sharper at as time goes on, it was like looking at a reflection of myself 19 years ago. It was pretty cool.”

Wiggins was playing just the 23rd game of his career, and here was one of the league’s signature stars saying that Wiggins reminded him of himself, a startling tip of the cap from a legend notorious for not fraternizing with the enemy. Just two games prior, Wiggins had put up 23 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals in a win over Portland to give fans a glimpse of the player Flip Saunders boasted would one day be one of the best two-way players in the league. And there was Bryant offering the highest of compliments. Wiggins would go on to win Rookie of the Year honors that season. He would score at least 40 points eight times in his time in Minnesota.

But that is where the comparisons to Bryant would end. The mean streak, the competitiveness, the intensity that defined Kobe on the basketball court were nowhere to be found in Wiggins, and it frustrated those in Minnesota to no end. He grabbed more than 10 rebounds in a game just twice in his 454 career games with the Wolves. His shooting was inconsistent.

The stories of Wiggins shying away from the competition in Minnesota were legion. Those in and around the organization during his first two years with teammate and friend Zach LaVine — the two were dubbed the Bounce Brothers because of the pogo sticks they had for legs — would always playfully ask when Wiggins was going to challenge LaVine, a two-time slam dunk champion, at the marquee event of All-Star weekend. LaVine liked to say that he would take on all comers when it came to dunking, but in quiet moments of honesty, he would confide that Wiggins was one of the few players he was truly worried about. Wiggins wanted no part of it.

When Butler infamously blew up a Timberwolves practice in 2018, those around the volcanic star said there was another motive in play besides just making things so uncomfortable that the Wolves would be forced to trade him. Some who know Jimmy best insist he was hoping one of the Wolves’ young stars would respond to the merciless trash talk, the fiery antics, by getting into Butler’s face. Maybe even taking a swing at him. Meeting force with force certainly would have gotten the confrontational Butler’s attention. Wiggins just smiled and took it in stride, like he always did.

Against the Celtics, he wanted all the smoke. He never backed down. He played with the desperation the moment demanded, the urgency that everyone has wanted to see for so long.

Wiggins wasn’t a bust in Minnesota; he just never reached the level that a fan base and an organization desperate for a star needed. The Wolves share the blame for that. Wiggins had five general managers and four head coaches in his seasons with the Wolves, a run of volatility that made it almost impossible to get any sort of identity established. The veterans he played with were either very late in their careers (Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, Andre Miller, Jamal Crawford), had one foot out the door (Butler) or were just not good enough (Jeff Teague).

It was no surprise when the Timberwolves decided to attach a lightly protected first-round pick to get off Wiggins’ long-term contract and look for a more dynamic scorer in D’Angelo Russell. The roster construction, centered around Towns and Wiggins, simply wasn’t working, and Wiggins had done little to inspire confidence that a change was coming.

The Warriors banked on their culture and their infrastructure to give Wiggins the environment he desperately needed. In Golden State, he had one of the league’s best coaches in Steve Kerr, a bevy of stars around him to make life easier and a level of stability that he had never known before.

“They challenged me. Draymond, Klay, Steph, Andre, all the vets. They challenged me every day; every time I step on the court, they challenge me, and that’s motivational,” Wiggins said. “Those are future Hall of Famers. Whenever they tell me to do something or challenge me, I just want to get it done and prove to them and earn their respect.”

The Warriors didn’t need Wiggins to be a focal point, just another piece of the puzzle. The role suits him much better. No one looks for Wiggins to provide the answers when things are not going well in the Bay Area. Wiggins also takes a back seat when things are going well, which is just how he likes it. It is a far easier role than what he was asked to do in Minnesota. But not every player can make the transition from a 25-year-old franchise star just entering his prime to a role player asked to face-guard Luka Dončić and Jayson Tatum.

Watching Wiggins attack the Celtics all series, he was unrecognizable to the player who loafed in Minnesota. He hounded Tatum and Jaylen Brown all over the court. He grabbed 29 rebounds in Games 4 and 5. He topped 40 minutes per game in each of the last four of the series, becoming an indispensable weapon for Kerr to combat Tatum’s scoring and playmaking.

One of the plays most illustrative of the new Wiggins came at the end of the third quarter in Game 5. The Warriors were down 74-72, and Poole ended the quarter with a spectacular, buzzer-beating 3 that gave Golden State the lead going into the fourth. That was the splashy part of the play, but how the ball found him was all Wiggins. The Celtics had the ball with less than 15 seconds to play in the quarter, but Wiggins hounded Tatum the entire possession, which ended with a heave from Brown. Wiggins leaped for the rebound in between Tatum and Grant Williams, did a nifty, behind-the-back dribble to move up the court, then hit Poole with a look-ahead pass to create the shot.

Tatum had nowhere to go all series long. He turned the ball over 23 times in six games, including five in the deciding Game 6. He was 6-for-18 Thursday night, and whenever he rose up to take a shot, No. 22 was right in his chest.

As the Warriors piled onto the stage to receive the trophy Thursday, ESPN’s Lisa Salters called up the team’s stars one by one to talk about their latest triumph. First it was Curry, then Thompson, then Green. Wiggins stood right behind them all, listening intently and smiling the whole way. Those stars and this organization made life so much easier for him. But that cannot overshadow the real changes Wiggins made to his game and his approach. Without them, the Warriors may not be champions again.

The old Andrew Wiggins was tantalizing and tormenting, a player who would make your jaw drop one night and make you pull your hair out the next. The Andrew Wiggins we saw in the finals never let up. He kept coming at the Celtics, at Tatum, at Brown, at the people who never thought he had this in him.

Wiggins may not be what Kobe thought he saw back in the day. He may not have become the savior Timberwolves fans were hoping for when he first arrived in Minnesota. He did turn into exactly what Curry and the Warriors needed to reclaim the throne.

So go ahead, call Wiggins whatever you want. But first, call him a champion.


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(Photo of Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins: Kyle Terada / USA Today)


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