Raptors' hot run cools Wiggins hopes | Basketball | CBC Sports

NBARaptors' hot run cools Wiggins hopes

Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 | 03:26 PM

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Canadian Andrew Wiggins's status as the consensus No. 1 NBA draft pick could be in jeopardy, while the Toronto Raptors suddenly look like a possible playoff team. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images) Canadian Andrew Wiggins's status as the consensus No. 1 NBA draft pick could be in jeopardy, while the Toronto Raptors suddenly look like a possible playoff team. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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It's interesting that the Toronto Raptors' hot run of late comes at a time when critics of Andrew Wiggins's game at Kansas seem to be growing in volume.
When an aging George H.W. Bush was president of the United States, there was a macabre joke that dim vice president Dan Quayle was just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

Now, the Toronto Raptors are not the presidency, and sliding out of the NBA playoff picture wouldn't put a guy who misspelled potato or picked a fight with a fictional TV character in their place.

Yet, even in a historically atrocious Atlantic division, it's worth keeping in mind that the Raptors are still only a couple of heartbeats away from ninth place or lower in the NBA's Eastern Conference.

The point of this is not to pour cold water on what's been a feel-good month-and-a-half for the Dinos. Going into Wednesday's game in Boston, the team sat at 19-17, winners of 12 of their last 16, and in first place in the Atlantic with the softest part of their schedule ahead.

As I speculated here the day Rudy Gay was traded, Toronto is a much better team minus the ball-stopping forward and plus the bench help of players like Patrick Patterson and John Salmons.

Kyle Lowry, free agency looming, is playing the best point guard of his career. His troops, free of the jamming shackles of Gay, are also now prone to pass. The increased ball movement has freed up Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson inside, and given the team the luxury of further developing Terrence Ross on the wing. The Raps are winning first and third quarters, getting away from their old bad habit of coming out flat after halftime. And DeMar DeRozan, so long as he's not playing the second part of a back-to-back, has put up all-star calibre numbers.

Add Drake's marketing bonanza vs. Brooklyn last weekend, and the Raptors have rediscovered relevancy in a city that has been savagely beaten down sports-wise in the past few years. If the intent of Raps GM Masai Ujiri was to test what this team was capable of after dealing Gay to Sacramento, then they have passed the test.

While the team's recent success has many Raptor fans putting the silly tanking notion in the rearview mirror, it does beg the question: What if this team slides out of the playoff picture, either due to a deal or a losing streak? While tanking itself is a deeply flawed theory, it was generally understood that the absolute worst-case scenario for Toronto this season would be to finish 9th or 10th -- just out of the playoffs, and well out of the draft lottery's wheelhouse.

Wiggins's stock falling

It's interesting that the Raptors' run of late comes at a time when critics of Andrew Wiggins's game at Kansas seem to be growing in volume.g. After all, let's face it: While it's a stacked draft class, most of the Canadian fantasizing related to tanking was and is focused on the Vaughan, Ont., kid once christened "Maple Jordan."

On Wednesday, ESPN's Chad Ford revised his 2014 NBA draft rankings, moving Wiggins out of top spot for the first time this year. His replacement at No. 1? Jayhawks teammate Joel Embiid, the seven-footer from Cameroon who is playing in beast mode. The day before, I spoke to Ford's colleague at ESPN, Fran Fraschilla, the former NCAA coach turned analyst. And he offered some unusual measure amid the endless hype.

"I honestly don't think there's anybody in this draft that's worth tanking for," Fraschilla told me from Dallas. "It's unfair for Andrew, [Duke's] Jabari Parker, [Kentucky's] Julius Randle and these other guys that we compare any of them to LeBron [James] or Kevin Durant."

Forget Parker's hot start that got tongues wagging as if Wiggins was in rivalry with the Duke forward, or Embiid's emergence. Fraschilla believes the comparisons of this draft to the storied ones of 2003 and 1996 are pure hyperbole.

"Durant was head and shoulders above these guys as a freshman at Texas [in 2007]. Having said that, I think there's a chance that a number of these players are going to be NBA stars, including Andrew," said Fraschilla. "But I don't get the tanking thing because we're not talking Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, we're talking about really good young prospects," he said, accentuating the final word.

'A work in progress'

As anyone who's watched Wiggins play this season can attest, the Canadian has had up and down games. Heck, the play of another Toronto-area freshman, Tyler Ennis, has been more consistent on a better team, No. 2 Syracuse.

Yet if there's a specific knock, it's that Wiggins defers too much. The Jayhawks are a far more talented team than their 12-4 record and No. 15 U.S. national ranking suggests, but there are too many stretches on the floor where Wiggins is uninvolved.

Of course then, just as you are wondering where he is, he serves notice of his otherworldly athleticism by flying to the basket in transition. You can see that athleticism at work in his defence as well, but he also might shoot 30 per cent or below, as he has done in four of his last seven games.

"He's still a work in progress," said Fraschilla, who specializes in evaluating international players. "His desire to want to be a guy who fits in can get in the way of reaching his maximum potential."

That's not to say Wiggins isn't listening or growing. Fraschilla, who is close with head coach Bill Self and the Kansas staff, mentioned something that happened this past weekend. On Saturday, the Jayhawks thumped in-state rival Kansas State 86-60. Wiggins scored 22. But before Monday's Kansas-Iowa State game on ESPN, Fraschilla and the producers did a video breakdown that showed Wiggins avoiding contact when going to the basket against K-State.

"When he goes to the basket, he kind of shies away from contact," Fraschilla told me Tuesday. "And he's at his best when he's going to contact and absorbing contact."

'A heat-seeking missile'

Now, before anyone goes and invokes the name of Vince Carter on the 18-year-old Ontarian, consider what Fraschilla said next:

"I asked the coaching staff if [Wiggins] had seen that clip, and interestingly, when they were showing ESPN video of the game to the team, [Wiggins] didn't hear what I said, but he saw the clip. We had [effected] the video so you saw him almost bailing out on contact."

Against Iowa State and fellow Canadian Melvin Ejim, Wiggins pulled down a career-high 19 rebounds to go with 17 points. Yet it wasn't just his reckless abandon on the glass that caught Fraschilla's attention.

"I was impressed how aggressive he was ... I just thought he was a heat-seeking missile. I thought he attacked the basket as hard as he has all year."

Nobody has a crystal ball, and it's not always easy to cut through the hype machine when evaluating players. But to tie it back to the Raptors, Fraschilla concluded with an interesting observation.

"[Wiggins] kind of reminds me of DeMar DeRozan when DeMar was in college. He certainly has DeMar's athleticism and then some, but that would be my comparison."

That is just one man's opinion, but if it's anywhere close to being accurate, then it should be a fairly strong argument against whoever is left in the tanking camp.

And as far as where the Raptors go from here? Stay tuned.

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