Will Andrew Wiggins Live Up to the Hype in Cleveland?
The hype train for Andrew Wiggins has traveled many miles and even more kilometers (that’s how metric conversion works, after all) and has finally arrived at the station.
It's been running since the kid was still in middle school, making countless round trips from Vancouver to St. John’s along the way, covering Wiggins’ home and native land of Canada from bottom to here in the process (in my metaphor, there’s a train that traverses the Atlantic Ocean to the island of Newfoundland on the far east, bear with me).
Once the cross-Canada tour was done, the locomotive broke the border and picked up steam in Kansas, where Wiggins was a one-and-done with the Jayhawks. The train and all the attached hype finally arrived at its destination of Cleveland on Thursday night, when the Cavaliers selected Wiggins first overall in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Wiggins, the most touted prospect since LeBron James, has been projected as the top pick in this draft (or whatever draft he would have become eligible) for practically half a decade.
Now, we can stop all the speculation about which team he’ll fit best with and the tireless “Riggin’ for Wiggins” talk and start looking at how he fits in with the Cavaliers. The ruminating over just how good he will be will continue, of course, but at least we’re now one step closer to knowing just who this enigmatic 19-year-old Canadian prospect from Thornhill, Ontario actually is in an NBA context.
Started From the Bottom
Admittedly, the aforementioned hype train is arriving in Ohio with just a few more dents and scratches than expected.
After averaging 23.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.3 steals, and 2.7 blocks per game in two years at St. Joseph Prep School in Huntington, West Virginia, Wiggins was expected to take the NCAA by storm when he joined up with other top prospect Joel Embiid in Kansas. The Jayhawks didn't live up to the lofty expectations, falling to a much lower ranked Stanford in the Sweet Sixteen. After an up-and-down campaign in his lone year as a Jayhawk, Wiggins shouldered a lot of the blame for the loss.
That’s the burden that comes with being known as “The Canadian LeBron” or “The Sidney Crosby of Basketball” before you can drive a car or legally drink a Molson; the critics grow extra harsh if you can’t live up to the hype (just ask the Cavs' first overall pick from 2013, Anthony Bennett, about not living up to expectations). If you carry the kinds of superlative titles that Wiggins has and don’t dominate your college competition handily, suddenly people have a hard time believing that you can do it against the bigger and faster NBA breed of basketball player.
Games where you rack up 41 points, 8 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 4 steals - as Wiggins did against West Virginia in the final game of the regular season - are quickly forgotten when you only put up 4 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 turnovers in the game your team goes out on two weeks later.
Even with the criticism in mind, it’s not like Wiggins had a terrible year in Kansas. His numbers were admittedly solid across the board.
Although he didn’t lead the nation nor the Big 12 in any one category, he was near the top in a lot of important ones within his competitive conference. In terms of raw numbers, he ranked ninth in the Big 12 in field goal percentage and sixth in points per game. On the advanced side of things, Wiggins was 13th in the conference in player efficiency rating (21.4), 7th in points produced per game (16.1), 8th in offensive win shares (3.2), 7th in defensive win shares (1.7), and 7th in overall win shares (4.9).
Say what you want about his inability to dominate, but ranking among the conference leaders as a freshman in all-encompassing stats like win shares on both sides of the ball - when you play and share the load with another top-three pick - is pretty darn good. Besides, the Cavaliers didn’t necessarily draft Wiggins for what he’s doing right now, it’s for that unmatched and unlimited upside.
Jabari Parker, by just about every account, is the more NBA-ready body out of the two (or anyone else in the draft, for that matter). The Bucks got someone who will contribute more immediately (and they need it), but the Cavaliers got the player whose ceiling is practically limitless.
So, how will Wiggins fit in?
Now We’re Here
What Wiggins brings right now is sky-high athleticism and the ability to guard just about any wing player in the NBA. His offensive game is still largely unrefined, but the kid gets out and gets things done in transition and can hit a set-shot jumper when he’s open. The offensive prowess and shooting ability should come with time, but he can make an impact on the Cavaliers from day one.
Wiggins can play the shooting guard or small forward position, but the 6’8”, 200-pound frame and 7’ wingspan screams small forward and most people have him pegged as such. The Cavs had Luol Deng playing that position last year, but he becomes an unrestricted free agent this coming Tuesday and appears to be on the outside of Cleveland’s plans.
Our nERD score for players denotes how many wins a player would be estimated to contribute if he were the starter on a league average team. Considering that Gee (-2.3), Karasev (-0.9), and Hopson (-0.2) all finished with a negative nERD score in 2013-14, there’s little doubt that the Cavs made this pick with the full intention of entrenching Wiggins in the starting role as soon as possible. Gee only averaged 4.0 points per game last season and Karasev and Hopson combined to play a total of 163 minutes. Wiggins is probably in the role come opening night
For all the speculation leading up to the draft about teams trying to trade up for this pick, the Cavs were probably wise to take the player that they thought was the best available and to run with him.
The Cavaliers were in the middle of the pack in pace last year, finishing 18th in the league at 95.7 possessions per 48 minutes. With Wiggins in the fold, new Cavs Coach David Blatt could certainly decide to push the tempo Euro-style and leave behind former Coach Mike Brown’s slow, plodding offensive schemes.
Furthermore, Wiggins should certainly help Cleveland improve on their 17th-ranked defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 104.8 and in shutting down opposing three-point shooters, where the team ranked 22nd in the league for allowing 36.7% from beyond the arc last year. An athletic wing who can finish in transition and defend the perimeter is exactly what the draft doctor ordered for Cleveland.
The Cavs only fell five games short of making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference last year, and with the flurry of free agent moves and trades on the horizon, there’s a chance that the East gets even weaker this year. Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert has been selling the “win now” attitude for a while and they might finally have their shot. They may have lucked into a second consecutive first overall pick in the draft, but they were actually ranked 22nd in team nERD at 41.0, the second best among non-playoff teams in the East.
The combination of Kyrie Irving and the most exciting prospect since LeBron James on the marquee certainly won’t hurt ticket sales and the strong core of youth and upside in Cleveland could even help the team lure a decent free agent this offseason. Even if that doesn’t end up being the man who originally spurned this franchise for South Beach, the future is plenty sunny in Ohio.