Andrew Wiggins keeps his emotions hidden, tucked away behind his veneer of calm. Occasionally, something bubbles to the surface. But often he doesn’t look like what he feels, or what he’s thinking.
For that, you need to watch Draymond Green and Golden State Warriors player development coach Jacob Rubin. They tend to personify what’s going on inside of Wiggins.
It’s usually going well when they’re yelling at him. That’s when he’s doing what they expect from him, and they let him know emphatically. That he’s Andrew bleep-bleep Wiggins.
But sometimes, more often this season, they are in his ear trying to get more out of him. Imploring aggression. Trying to breathe confidence into him. Telling him they need more. Echoing the voice he’s hearing in his head. He knows when he needs to give more, too.
“They both stay on you,” Wiggins said, breaking out in a smile. “They both hold you accountable at the highest level. The highest level.”
The Warriors’ last big trade-deadline acquisition, the one that paid major dividends, was getting Wiggins in 2020. This year, the Warriors are hoping their big acquisition is the return of the old Wiggins.
As the trade deadline neared, and the chatter grew, Wiggins was aware of the possibility he could be moved. He was perhaps even dreading it, as he was pretty clear he didn’t want to leave the Warriors. He loves it with Golden State. Perhaps his poor play to start the season helped him to that end because his value wasn’t high enough to solicit an enticing offer for the Warriors. Certainly, we can conclude the Warriors deemed nothing on the market they could get for him was more hopeful than the potential of Wiggins’ upside.
He got his wish to remain with the Warriors. His reward is five months to reestablish himself as a keeper in the core. The Warriors punted the tougher decisions about their roster to the offseason. They will for sure revisit then.
Wiggins’ emergence was a key reason the Warriors had enough to win the 2022 championship. His decline was a key reason they now find themselves in this current hole. He needs to be a massive reason if they’re going to get out of it. The Warriors not adding another wing, or a rim-protecting big man, or another reliable scorer, puts significant faith in Wiggins. They are relying on his point-of-attack defense and his scoring to relieve pressure on Stephen Curry.
He’s shown signs of life lately.
“At one point,” Wiggins said, “I told myself, ‘It can’t get no worse than this. Keep swinging and you’re gonna get out of it.
“Sometimes in the NBA, in basketball itself, it can be a roller coaster. Roller coaster of emotions, doubt, uncertainty. But it can also be great things, success. It’s a roller coaster. I’m glad I’m feeling better. On the court, I’m in a greater rhythm.”
The bet — perhaps wish is more appropriate — the Warriors made this trade deadline was that Wiggins can find his way back. He’s not all the way there yet. Not where they need him to be.
But based on how dreadful his season started, he’s gotten back enough of his game for optimism. He’s won his starting job back. He’s closing games again. That’s progress for Wiggins, who looked like a completely different player earlier this season.
One of the critical areas where Wiggins became suddenly inept was in the restricted area. He proved massively valuable for the Warriors because he was counter to their primary style of shooting 3s. Wiggins is an athlete who puts pressure on the rim. A player who got the tough 2s.
But before Wiggins was taken out of the starting lineup in December, he was shooting just 56.9 percent in the restricted area — lowest of any Warriors rotation player. Everyone else was 62.1 percent or above. This was a big issue because Wiggins took the second-most shots from the restricted area at that point. Last season, Wiggins made 72.3 percent of his shots from the restricted area.
Since the turn of the calendar, Wiggins is at 71.7 percent in the restricted area. He’s been supplanted by Jonathan Kuminga (80 percent on 105 attempts) as the Warriors’ premier rim attacker. But his effectiveness at the rim is critical. The Warriors’ rejuvenation is tied to Kuminga and Wiggins playing together, upgrading the Warriors’ athleticism, on-ball defense and paint scoring.
“What we need is an aggressive Andrew Wiggins,” Green said, “looking to get downhill, raising up to shoot the ball with confidence. He’s been doing that lately. There was never a doubt for me on what level he can play at. We know what he’s capable of. It’s just about getting back to that. I know what it’s like to struggle with confidence. All of a sudden, you hit a rough patch and confidence starts to wane.”
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What hasn’t returned is his shooting. Wiggins has had some games speckled here and there, but he hasn’t gone on a significant stretch where his outside shot is clicking.
The clear divide was his absence last season.
Throwing out his Warriors numbers from the 2019-20 season, when he was acquired from Minnesota the year Golden State went 15-50, Wiggins had become a consistently good 3-point shooter as a Warrior. But then he left the team for personal reasons last February, which caused him to miss the final 25 games of the regular season. His 3-point shot hasn’t come back with him yet.
From the start of the 2020-21 season to Valentine’s Day of last year, Wiggins shot 38.9 percent from 3 during the regular season. Since returning from that hiatus, Wiggins is shooting 31 percent from 3.
If he gets his 3-point shot back clicking while his inside game is productive, that would be closer to the Wiggins who became an All-Syar.
Defensively is where Wiggins most looks like himself. The Warriors are back to putting him, needing him, on the opponents’ best players.
Since Green returned from suspension, the Warriors have the fifth highest-rated defense in the NBA heading into Saturday night’s showdown with Phoenix — allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions. Obviously, Green is a significant difference maker. But Wiggins being able to defend the best perimeter player is critical to the surge in the Warriors’ defense. It looks as if Wiggins has his quickness and aggressiveness back, perhaps a sign of his confidence having returned.
“I knew I would get out of it,” Wiggins said. “I didn’t know when. But I knew. I know what I can do on the court.”
He’s got five months to prove it all over again.
(Top photo: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)