On Thursday, Andrew Wiggins became the first Canadian to win the National Basketball League’s prestigious Rookie of the Year award.
An athletic small forward, Wiggins plays for Minnesota Timberwolves and lived up to expectations after being selected first overall in the NBA Draft last summer. The Wolves are a woeful team that won just 16 games against 66 losses this past season, yet the 20-year old Canadian quickly became the team’s brightest light.
NBA teams during down years often build around young players before becoming contenders. If the Wolves can keep Wiggins after his rookie contract expires – which would devastate Toronto Raptors fans who want the Canadian to come home – Minnesota could build something truly special with another Toronto-area first overall pick (2013), Anthony Bennett, 22, also on the roster.
Wiggins was only 19 when he entered the league. With the sports landscape now at a virtual civil war between traditional scouts and analytics-based number crunchers that design predictive models, the Canadian teenager (who turned 20 in February) attracted particular negative attention ahead of the 2014 NBA draft.
Advanced stats analysts used Wiggins’ only college basketball season at University of Kansas to painstakingly illustrate how he would be just an average player in the NBA and wasn’t worth the first overall selection. One analytics guru said using a high pick on Wiggins is “downright irresponsible.”
Halfway through his very first professional season as the player was earning praise from NBA coaches for showing flashes of brilliance that could propel him to becoming a legitimate scoring and defensive threat, Wiggins was still being discounted by stats pundits. One headline and article on Christmas Eve compared Wiggins to former NBA role player and journeyman James Posey, suggesting – with an illustrated statistics model – the Canadian didn’t belong in conversation among the game’s elite.
With Thursday’s announcement, the advanced stats brigade officially lost the Wiggins battle. The Canadian is a star, managing to overcome his critics’ charts and derisive headlines.
Using the simpler stats that are frowned upon by the new era of sports mathematicians, Wiggins’ numbers improved month-over-month from October to December. Then an eye-opening January had the Canadian increase his scoring by five points per game from the previous month. His rebounds, assists, and steals also went up.
Wiggins’ last month of the season was by far his best, April started with him dropping 25 points against his hometown team Toronto. Another feature emerged toward the end of season with Wiggins getting to the free throw line more than ever in April, showing that he isn’t afraid to attack the rim often against older, more experienced players. On a team that ended the year with a 12-game losing streak, the rapid rise of Wiggins was the only thing worth watching.
The season finished with Wiggins playing all 82 games for Minnesota, averaging 39 minutes, 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per night. Originally selected by Cleveland, Wiggins was then traded to Minnesota so superstar LeBron James could have the team he wanted on his return to Ohio.
That James-initiated trade has worked out for Minnesota in terms of having a key player to build around. Whether they can keep him long term is another matter. Right now though, Wiggins has delivered, which is very good news for Canadian basketball.
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