The Andrew Wiggins hype machine was overwhelming. Now let’s watch him play basketball.
By: Joe Mags
I first saw Andrew Wiggins on YouTube. Viewed more than 4.7 million times since it was uploaded last March, the famous Hoopsmixtape of Wiggins spinning around, jumping over and dunking on frightened young men in basketball uniforms is astonishing. The video is terrifically efficient, its message clear: Andrew Wiggins is phenomenal.
Unlike LeBron James, who was touted on Sports Illustrated and ESPN before he could vote, Wiggins wasn’t everywhere. But he was present – in conversation, on social media, on the minds of even the casual basketball fan. Well you’ve seen this kid Wiggins on YouTube, right? He’s the next big thing. He’s the next superstar. He’s going to Kansas for a year, and then he’s going to be the No. 1 pick.
At my internship this past fall, a man who worked on my floor had a stack of Sports Illustrated issues that piled up on his desk from September to January. Which magazine was on top of the pile indefinitely after it came out? The Andrew Wiggins cover from October. I passed by it multiple times each day, and just like the YouTube video, it was hypnotizing.
Here is this budding star, younger than I am, being compared to Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning, the all-time greats of Kansas basketball, by the most creditable source in sports media. The video, the cover - Wiggins MUST be the real deal.
Then they started playing basketball games. He did some things well and struggled with others, and so did the team; Kansas began the season just 9-4. He was as athletic as advertised but he failed to take over full games or even entire halves. He could disappear.
That was so unlike the Wiggins “we knew” – the Wiggins from the loud, intense mixtape or elegant magazine cover. Was he not an “alpha dog?” Where was the “phenom?” Where was the next LeBron?
That player never came. And so mock drafts and basketball experts began supplanting Wiggins at the top of their big board with Jabari Parker, and eventually even with Jayhawk teammate Joel Embiid. Dante Exum was nowhere to be found over the last ten months but he parlayed being an international mystery man into a Top 5 selection. (I’m sure Exum will be a really good player; I’m equally confident playing Division 1 basketball would have better prepared him for NBA competition than whatever he was up to in Australia this year.)
All the while, Wiggins finished his season at Kansas averaging 17.1 ppg (six points higher than Embiid) and 5.9 rebounds, and was unquestionably one of the best defensive players in the country. That still managed to earn him doubters and, at the time, a possible demotion from the top overall selection. If High School players could go pro, he would have been the No. 1 overall pick in 2013, and suddenly playing college basketball – as he is virtually forced to do – hampered his stock entering the NBA.
Then a few things broke the right away for Wiggins’ camp. (No, I’m not talking about Drake’s “Draft Day.” Although, I won’t lie, I enjoyed that track. A lot.)
Cleveland won the lottery, again, despite only have a 1.7 percent chance of doing so. Milwaukee, maybe the only team that would have taken Parker no matter where they were selecting from, landed the No. 2 pick. And just over a week ago, a foot injury to Embiid ended any debate over which Jayhawk the Cavaliers should take with their top pick.
Funny enough, there was still some banter about whether or not Cleveland should draft Parker over Wiggins, or if they should trade the pick – which is to say, trade down and out of the pick – instead of calling Wiggins’ name on Draft night.
I didn’t quite understand it. In basketball terms or in terms of the coverage of the Draft. The Cavaliers were a terrible defensive team last season; their roster as currently assembled is a glut of shoot-first players who need the ball in their hands to succeed. Throwing Parker into that mix smells like a three-way fist fight between Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Parker.
Drafting Wiggins, however, is adding a player who can guard multiple positions – including the best guy on the other team – and the Cavaliers can use his athleticism to make plays around the playmaking of Irving and Waiters.
The media continued to spin “Cleveland’s front office has no clue what they are doing” and “Dan Gilbert is fighting team personnel over who the team should draft” stories, even though they largely seemed untrue. The Cavs had the top pick: (A) they had full control over whoever they wanted to take; (B) if the owner wants one player over the other, the owner is going to get who he wants; and (C) the feverish efforts, reportedly, by Orlando and Utah to trade up for the No. 1 pick were of minor bleeping importance if Cleveland wanted to keep the pick the entire time.
So where were the stories coming from? And why? Is it because the media thinks they can push Cleveland around? Is it because the media thinks it can alter the course of one team’s decision making?
— Dan Gilbert (@cavsdan) June 25, 2014
Whether Gilbert is being 100 percent truthful or not matters little. Ever since LeBron James came through that organization, the media has taken funny approaches to covering the Cavaliers. The franchise is often portrayed as this sour mix of Sonny and Fredo Corleone: too stubborn and hot-headed to think logically and function properly; too “smart” and weak to ever get what they wanted.
(Sidebar: Yeah, you bet I threw a True Romance and Godfather II clip into an Andrew Wiggins article.)
But Cleveland doesn’t have to be a franchise pathetically tied to a basketball player who left town four years ago. They have made some poor choices over the last four years; they are not alone. To paint them as the worst basketball franchise out of all the basketball franchises because they draft players that don’t always perfectly fit together is singling them out in a league full of copy-cats.
The bottom line is Cleveland was always going to keep the pick and was always going to take their top guy. And maybe that was Embiid, at one point, earlier in the process. Ultimately, for Cleveland, it was Wiggins.
Cleveland has many questions to address this off-season. Are they giving Kyrie a max-level extension or trading him? What do they do with Dion Waiters? Who will take Jarrett Jack off their hands? (These are just the questions that pertain to the guard positions.)
With Wiggins, however, they finally have some answers. They have an elite talent under contract on the rookie scale, a valuable asset in the simplest of ways. Wiggins will guard the opposing teams best player, and will rebound the heck out of the basketball. He can score points as a secondary option, and depending on what the team does at other positions, he’ll only need to be a secondary option.
While Tristan Thompson, Waiters and Anthony Bennett may never live up to their Top 5 picks – and furthermore, Irving may never earn the superstar treatment he expects while under contract as a Cavalier – Wiggins is a sure thing to be one of the best talents at the small forward position. With organizations/players like Indiana and Paul George and San Antonio and Kawhi Leonard as role models, Cleveland has quite the catch in Wiggins.
Cleveland and Wiggins are an excellent match. A team and a player who have been skinned alive by the 24/7 media world that we live in, and a pairing that make sense on the court in spite of all of it.
Now when I look back on that YouTube video and that Sports Illustrated magazine, I realize I bought into the hype of a player before knowing anything about how they play. I still enjoy Wiggins dunking over all those high schoolers, and the excellent use of color and caption on the magazine cover. But as I watched Wiggins play basketball for real, and dodge the LeBron comparisons for real, and wear suits like this for real, I like the actual Andrew Wiggins more than the virtual one.
Cleveland made the right choice this time. One in a row.