Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins answering coach's challenge
Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler are molding Canadian into more than just a scorer
TORONTO — When Canadian Andrew Wiggins was drafted No.1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, many thought he was a can't-miss star.
The Vaughan, Ont., native was soon traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves and the man dubbed "Maple Jordan" was expected to lead the franchise back to prominence.
However, since winning 2014-15 rookie of the year honours, the Minnesota fan base has developed mixed feelings and were divided when Wiggins signed a five-year, $150-million US extension. Some felt he should be further along in his development given his athletic skill set.
His scoring numbers have dropped from a career-high 23.6 last season to 18.2 entering Tuesday night's contest against the Toronto Raptors and with the off-season acquisition of Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler, the 22-year-old had to adjust from being a primary offensive option to a secondary one.
But Wiggins isn't concerned as it's all part of the process.
"To make that next step as a team, we can't be [all about] one guy. We have to be [about] multiple guys that can make plays and affect the game in a lot of different ways," Wiggins said.
Thibodeau challenges Wiggins
The Timberwolves currently sit fourth in the Western Conference. Barring a collapse, they should end their league-high 13-year playoff drought.
While the boxscore may not reflect it, Wiggins has played his role in rising to the challenge put forth by head coach Tom Thibodeau to become a more complete player.
"He's starting to see things, make plays. He's always been a gifted scorer, but he's making other people better. His impact on winning has been far greater this year than it was last year," Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau understands that fans want to see more out of Wiggins but says players first need to learn what it takes to be successful in the NBA and that takes time.
"I think we all tend to forget the steps that players go through. The challenge for every talented player is not only to bring the best out of yourself but the best out of your group. To win big, everyone needs to be willing to sacrifice and put the team first," Thibodeau said.
There aren't many players who know this better than Butler, who played four seasons under Thibodeau. As a rookie, the four-time all-star entered a 62-win Bulls squad but found playing time sparse on a team loaded with wing players.
But when Butler did play, he found his role as a defensive stopper and eventually earned a spot in the starting lineup the following year.
"Jimmy's progression was a lot different. He came in as more of a defensive guy and then his offence got better year after year. In Andrew's case, the scoring has been there and now it's all the other things," Thibodeau said.
As one of the leaders of his new team, Butler has taken it upon himself to help Wiggins and the young Timberwolves become a more cohesive defensive unit.
"Jimmy's all over the place [defensively]. He holds everyone accountable and makes everyone guard," Wiggins said.
Teammate Aaron Brooks echoes Butler's strong influence on the defensive end.
"You've got a guy that's got success in the league and brings the kind of intensity you have to match. He's teaching these young guys how to be pros. All in all, they've done a good job changing their games just a little bit to fit together," Brooks said.
As an associate head coach, Thibodeau was the defensive mastermind of the Boston Celtics' championship 2007-08 squad that led the NBA in several defensive categories and kept Kobe Bryant in check in the Finals.
He continued that philosophy when he moved on to become head coach of the Bulls, where he spent five seasons. Under his watch, Butler made the NBA all-defensive second team and he hopes having Butler alongside Wiggins on the wing will help unleash the Canadian's full potential on the defensive end.
Entering Tuesday's game, Wiggins was fourth on the team in defensive rating, which measures an individual player's efficiency at preventing the other team from scoring points.
He's had shutdown performances like he did against Paul George, holding him to just 5 of 14 shooting in a game earlier this month against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Wiggins is also averaging a career-high 3.1 defensive rebounds per game — well aware that takes away second-chance point opportunities for opponents.
In the 109-104 loss to the Raptors, he had a sequence where he forced Toronto centre Jonas Valanciunas to pass out of the post and proceeded to box him out on the ensuing jump shot.
Butler's veteran experience is paying dividends midway through his first season with Wiggins, and Thibodeau can't stress the importance of his addition to the young core.
"The best leadership that you can have are things that you do everyday on and off the court — how you get ready, prepare, and practice? Are you concentrated in a [team] meeting?" Thibodeau said.
"And of course when you're out there playing – to not take any possessions off and understand how important intensity is, concentration, and to be able to count on each other and understand what goes into winning."