The best 121 days of his life
His NBA future is a given, but Andrew Wiggins isn't wasting his time in Lawrence
ESPN The Magazine: Andrew Wiggins Feature
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 11 College Basketball preview. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 11 College Basketball preview. Subscribe today!
KANSAS IS USED to attention. But Andrew Wiggins is a special case. Ever since his mid-May commitment to the Jayhawks, curiosity about the guy NBA franchises are willing to tank for has the school fielding interest from traditional sports rags to fashion mags. Which is why the staff has managed the flow of media, allowing select national reporters to watch the 18-year-old freshman's early-September workouts with the team's other wings, just a few per day.
So out of courtesy to the kid being gawked at, and out of respect for the rules -- KU staff discourages leaking any of the specifics of practice -- let's just say that in one recent skills-focused workout, things looked a little rough.
When (redacted coach) calls out "100 shots!" players scurry to their personal halfcourts for the drill -- five types of cuts, performed 10 times from both sides of the basket, each cut ending with a jump shot -- 100 shots in 10 minutes. (Redacted player) starts on fire, hitting (redacted) of his first (redacted) shots in the first three minutes. Midway through, (redacted)'s upper body forms the same Durantian sling, but his feet drift on each shot. Dripping sweat, (redacted) doesn't slack off when coaches remind him to always take the cheat step. But he punctuates a string of (redacted) misses with at least (redacted number) F-bombs.
It's not exactly the kind of performance that's been heralded by mock drafts since last July, when Wiggins ate Julius Randle's lunch at the Nike Peach Jam tournament. (He put up 28 and 13 on the taller and stronger Kentucky commit, who's now widely expected to go second in next year's NBA draft.) Yet dominating a summer travel game is one thing; an exhausting 100-shot drill is another. Repeatedly snapping off jumpers while maintaining impeccable shooting motion -- it wore Wiggins out.
No matter. Regardless of today's session, the Canadian kid they call Maple Jordan headlines a freshman class that's been deemed sizable enough, explosive enough and savvy enough to play professionally. Right now. Wiggins' prep performances, size (6'8", 200 pounds) and elastic limbs (a 7-foot wingspan and a 44-inch vertical) guarantee that NBA execs will hover. It means that teams like the Celtics and the Suns will pledge their seasons to the cellar -- gutting their rosters in the offseason -- for the chance to put Wiggins in their uniform. And he hasn't even played a second of college ball.
Still, watching him struggle in the gym, it says something about a kid who's fixated on sharpening a skill he won't really need to dominate college competition. Wiggins could dunk and shot-block his way into the lottery without that damn drill, but you wouldn't know it by the intensity and frustration on his face. His place on an NBA team may be inevitable, but it's clear he wants to spend the year continuing to earn it.
"It's our job," says Kansas coach Bill Self, "to do everything we can from a maturity standpoint, from a strength-training standpoint, from a skill development, from a competitive standpoint, to put him in a position so that he can be as complete as he can be within the next year. We think we can put him in that position."
That may sound like rah-rah boilerplate, but not to Wiggins. His willingness to engage in Kansas' improvement plan is not only what keeps college from being a purgatory for one-and-dones, it hints that he might actually become the franchise savior worth failing for.
IF YOU BELIEVE in foregone conclusions, then the Andrew Wiggins hype is no surprise. He is, after all, the third son of a pair of elite athletes. Dad Mitchell Sr. played six seasons in the NBA, and mom Marita won two Olympic silver medals in track for Team Canada in the '80s. But to say his dominance and competitiveness owe simply to genetics would be shortsighted.
Andrew has been on a court since he could walk. When Mitchell left the NBA in 1992, he went to play professional ball in Greece and later moved the family with him. There, 2-year-old Andrew would join him at practice, following the plays rather than roaming the stands. Once Andrew got older and the family settled in Vaughan, a middle-class suburb north of Toronto, Andrew hooped in the driveway against older brothers Mitchell Jr. (now a junior guard at Southeastern) and Nick (a senior guard whose Wichita State team ran to the Final Four last season), and later against his three sisters. "We grew up so close," Wiggins says. "I can talk to anybody. My little sister, Taya, just started high school, and I can lie in my bed and talk to her the same as I can my older brothers."
As tight as the family was, Andrew and Nick both went to high school in the States to ensure that their toughest rivals weren't always in the driveway. In 2011 Wiggins went to live with a host family in West Virginia while he attended Huntington Prep, a high school program that plays a national schedule. It was already his third high school. (The first one folded, so he spent almost two years at his neighborhood school in Toronto.) The plan was a five-year prep career to get his grades in order and to give him an extended run against top-level high school competition.
Then plans changed. In summer 2012, Wiggins dominated his peers at the LeBron James Skills Academy -- a triumph that spread on YouTube with a reel of him attempting a dunk so hard during one scrimmage that King James himself jumped out of his courtside seat. Two months into his junior year, 17-year-old Wiggins decided he didn't need the extra time. "I wanted to see if I was ready or not, and after I played my first couple of games I was ready," he says. "My senior year of high school, I probably wouldn't get so much out of it as if I went to college."
“But shortening his prep school stay cut off the chance for college coaches to make inroads with the player they thought they had a whole year to sweet-talk. Most, Wiggins says, assumed that because his parents both starred at Florida State, Andrew would follow in their footsteps. But Wiggins made it known that his future wasn't set. He told his high school coach, Rob Fulford, to let the college guys know that his recruitment was wide open but that recruiters needed to respect two guidelines. First, they should be talking to his coach, himself or his parents -- no middlemen, "uncles" or "mentors." And second, coaches shouldn't hold their collective breath waiting for a callback or return text.
His place on an NBA team may be inevitable, but it's clear he wants to spend the year continuing to earn it.”
"He was a terrible communicator," Self says, "but he was bad with everybody. He wasn't being disrespectful. He told us, 'Hey, I'm not into this.' He was a unique recruit in that he didn't have to be recruited. He just wanted to get information and make a decision."
Seated in the KU basketball offices after his workout, headphones clasped around his neck like a choker, Wiggins is still straightforward, if not forthcoming. Teammate Wayne Selden Jr. admits that all the preseason buzz hasn't changed Wiggins' demeanor at all. The two had been matched up in prep battles, Selden's Tilton School team against Wiggins' Huntington squad, and Selden remembers jawing at the top recruit in hopes of getting a retaliatory peep out of him. Now that they're wearing the same uniform, Selden figured he'd finally see Wiggins drop his guard. Not quite. "He's focused -- quiet and focused," Selden muses. "He has a poker face the whole game. It takes a lot for him to show emotion."
Even with the draft talk heading into its fifth month, Wiggins is really just a big kid -- he plays Call of Duty and loves taking road trips. In fact, in the car is where the quiet freshman is getting to know his teammates. Perry Ellis, a sophomore forward, schleps the carless Wiggins to see his brother Nick in Wichita. Wiggins' roommate, Tyler Self (Bill's son, a walk-on), shuttles the freshman around Lawrence. "He likes to take in a situation," Tyler says. "He's not just looking at this as a steppingstone to the NBA but as more of an opportunity to get better and to be a part of a team."
It could seem cliché coming from the coach's son, but one of Kansas' big selling points for Wiggins was that the team actually hung together and wasn't splintered into cliques according to shots attempted. "When I say that Kansas all rolls as one unit, they all roll as one unit. Like, everyone," Wiggins says. "They never leave anybody out." It reminds him of his family, where the bond among all six Wiggins kids is equally strong.
How strong? Wiggins admits that proximity to Nick was the tipping point in his final decision. "That was the other really, really, really important thing. What does Kansas have that UNC doesn't have? My brother's an hour and 30 minutes away."
ROLLING AS A unit with his team will be critical for Wiggins as the season kicks off. Under the Wiggins development plan, Kansas will provide enough cover for the star recruit to ease into (and sometimes opt out of) the attention. As part of a loaded freshman class, he'll share media scrums with five-star guard Selden and seven-foot Cameroonian center Joel Embiid, who both draw legit lotto buzz in their own rights.
On court, though, Self can't just tiptoe him into the lineup. The Jayhawks lost all five starters from last season, and this season's schedule has them facing heavy hitters Duke and Florida early in the year. So Self and Wiggins came to an agreement about what skills they could add in a single year that will not only make Wiggins a more effective pro but also help keep Kansas a title contender. Like Wiggins himself, the skill syllabus is a work in progress.
When he took his official visit, Wiggins saw Ben McLemore catching dunks at the rim as the team thrashed Texas Tech, and coaches promised Wiggins he could make noise finishing 'oops the same way. But that alone won't improve either party. If there's a knock against the scouts' darling, it's that Wiggins comes alive only in the air. He's built to be the type of defender the NBA loves: long and quick but also a great repetitive jumper. He's usually in the air for a second grab at a rebound while other players are still waiting to launch.
Earthbound, though, there are possessions -- stretches of games, even -- when he drifts through plays. Self's teams have been in the top 10 in defensive efficiency every season since 2005, so it's a given that Kansas won't run unless it also defends. Wiggins can't wander for long, and even he sees the mutual benefit of being a better team defender. "I've never been screened off my guy before," he admits. "I know that that's coming. In the NBA, if you can't defend your position, they're going to go at you over and over again."
Without being a deep threat, Wiggins is still a mismatch for most of the college guys who will guard him in the post. He's too quick for most brutes, too long for wings. Even if he didn't add the jumper, Wiggins would still get buckets; but with it, he'll create a mismatch on the outside too. If he can't hit it, then it doesn't matter who's defending him. If he can, he'll pull a big man away from under the bucket, which opens the lane for a teammate on future possessions. And it makes his game a little more like the NBA's elite.
That's all the Jayhawks can really promise Andrew Wiggins this year: that they have a few small but concrete steps that will help him develop into a pro who can actually play. What can Wiggins promise in return? Not to take the No. 1 draft pick mantle for granted. "If I don't go No. 1, then it just wasn't meant to be," Wiggins says. "Someone else just had a better year and deserved it more. But I'm still going to work as hard as I can. If I'm not No. 1, it's not my fault, because I did everything in my power to be No. 1."
In eight months, if fate allows these two plans to strategically collide -- an NBA team failing in order to win, Kansas sending Wiggins on his way with skills to spare -- then Wiggins will have done something even more spectacular. He'll have transformed the one-and-done, creating a blueprint for future pros-in-waiting: the one-and-never-done.