KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Andrew Wiggins rose. But when gravity pulled a trio of Oklahoma State defenders back to earth, he kept climbing.
Wayne Selden Jr. could have thrown that pass anywhere and Wiggins would have grabbed it and flushed that breathtaking alley-oop in the second half.
If there was anyone in the Sprint Center who could stop Wiggins, one of the most hyped freshmen in the history of the college game, he never emerged. If any doubts about Wiggins' assertiveness remained prior to his effort on Thursday in Kansas' 77-70 overtime win over Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals (30 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals), they’ve probably ceased.
Wiggins is excelling now with a clear confidence and a swagger that might not be obvious on the outside, but have been proved in recent months by his performances.
Throughout his methodical dissection of the Cowboys, however, Wiggins never screamed at the guy guarding him or pumped his fists. He never glared at the cameras, popped his collar or slammed the ball on the floor. He just stood there and dominated as injured center Joel Embiid watched from the bench.
That calm was the element of his game that Bill Self wanted to tweak when Wiggins arrived in Lawrence, Kan., last summer. The coach recognized how dominant the top recruit in the 2013 class could be -- we all did -- but he worried that his persona would affect his game.
“I thought coming in that we needed to try to change him and change him in a way where he was outwardly, visibly more energetic, passionate, because he is a stoneface on the court,” Self said the day before Wiggins led Kansas to the win over Oklahoma State and a semifinals matchup against Iowa State on Friday. “And that would have been the worst thing we could have ever done.”
LeBron James was the worst thing that ever happened to Wiggins. Michael Jordan’s aura was contained by a TV world that didn’t air Chicago Bulls games on national TV three or four times a week. His highlights weren’t accessible through YouTube, and he didn’t offer 140-character updates about his life via Twitter or drop freestyle raps on Instagram.
James is the most tangible superstar in NBA history. We know more about him and his everyday life than we knew about the greats of past generations. He’s the best player in the world and the type of player who must be monitored every second he’s on the floor.
He’s appealing and relatively accessible through various channels.
As a result, there is this expectation that our greatest athletes must boast the most engaging personalities. They have to connect with us somehow. We prefer shameless arrogance over timidity. There’s something attractive about cockiness. There’s an intriguing quality about the guy who brags about his Bentleys and his women. Even if we hate his ego, we’re still drawn to him -- ask Floyd Mayweather Jr. We love the outwardly emotional athlete.
Wiggins doesn’t have any of that. He just plays basketball, talks quietly in postgame news conferences and leaves.
And that has been a major concern about him.
He had stretches in the first chapter of the season that weren’t brilliant. He didn’t attack enough or demand the ball when he should’ve, which is no longer an issue.
But a portion of the criticism has centered on what Self described. We wanted -- want -- Wiggins to show more fire.
I know I did.
And I was wrong.
Wiggins deserved better. I had no business suggesting that he had to play the way that we -- I -- wanted him to play. He deserved an opportunity to just be Andrew Wiggins, even though the preseason hype asked for so much more.
When he’s assessed according to that standard -- that he’s his own man --it’s much easier to see how good he is right now. Wiggins is one of the most unique and effective freshmen we’ve seen at this level, a statement backed by his 41-point outing against West Virginia Saturday and Thursday’s follow-up.
“I'm always open to new things,” Wiggins said. “Coach [Self] teaches me new things every day. Just preparation and practice. Always play hard, run the floor, defend your man and he just made me a better player.”
He might not be LeBron. Or Kevin Durant.
But he’s still special.
When Kansas needed a defensive play against the Cowboys on Thursday, Wiggins blocked shots and stayed in Markel Brown’s face. When the Jayhawks required offense, he scored. Jump shots, 3-pointers, dunks and drives. Effortless.
When Self’s program had to have a play in overtime, Wiggins dove on the floor for loose balls and hustled up the floor, even as 45 minutes of action zapped his lungs.
There are no guarantees that Embiid will return in the postseason after this week’s diagnosis of a stress fracture in his back that will not require surgery. Wiggins, however, accepted the new responsibilities and pressure.
The Jayhawks can still go far with him.
“As the season goes on, you see how much better he’s getting, how much more assertive he’s being,” said Selden, who finished with 14 points. “How much he’s scoring, how much he’s rebounding and blocking shots. He’s just making a case for being the best player in the country.”
Between now and the end of the season, Wiggins will continue to grow and be more decisive. And that should be a scary thought for the young men responsible for limiting him in the coming weeks.
He won’t smile much, though. He won’t suddenly become the vocal leader that the Jayhawks might need. He won’t stomp his feet and talk trash.
He won’t reveal much.
And that’s OK.
“His demeanor allowed him not to have highs and not to have lows,” Self said Wednesday. “He’s been pretty steady. He’s had a few highs, but his lows haven’t been low. He’s been pretty steady in large part with how he’s handled the situation because he doesn’t really care about anything going on outside. He only cares about what’s going on inside.”
Toward the end of Kansas’ news conference Thursday, Wiggins finished a response to a reporter’s question with an awkward “Um, yeah” and a smile. Then, he put his head down and giggled. The rest of the room joined him.
There’s certainly a personality there.
It’s just not the one that we might crave. And that’s our problem. Not his.