You've heard about him, and maybe watched this ridiculous YouTube video, or this one, or this one, or this one. He's Andrew Wiggins, the 18-year-old basketball phenom who's already been called the next LeBron James. Last May, Wiggins committed to the University of Kansas, where he'll likely stay for one year before making the jump to the NBA. His debut is tonight, in the Jayhawks' season opener. Here's what you need to know.
Who is Andrew Wiggins?
Andrew Wiggins is what happens when an NBA player and an Olympic sprinter fall in love. He's 6-foot-8, has a 7-foot wingspan, and a 44-inch vertical. He's also terrifyingly strong, fast, and agile. Even if Wiggins never picked up a basketball, he would still be one of the most physically impressive specimens on the planet. But he did pick up a basketball, which is why we've been following him since he was a 13-year-old with a dunk mixtape. Nowadays, scouts and fans already refer to the 18-year-old as "Maple Jordan" or "the Canadian LeBron."
Yep. The hottest basketball prospect in years comes from the mean streets of Thornhill, Ontario. Wiggins was born in 1995 to Mitchell Wiggins, who played parts of six years in the NBA before finishing his career in Europe, and Marita Payne-Wiggins. She silvered twice in the 1984 Olympics, in the 4x100 and 4x400 relays. The family moved to Greece soon after Andrew was born; there, he and his two older brothers inhaled the game from an early age. (He also has three sisters.)
The Wigginses moved back to the Toronto suburbs when Andrew was a little older, and the six kids often played against each other. When Andrew's older brothers Mitchell Jr. and Nick were old enough, they were shipped off to American high schools where there was more competition. They now both play college ball. Andrew started high school in Canada, and spent three years at two different schools (one was closed down) before moving to Huntington Prep in West Virginia in 2011.
West Virginia? That's random.
Huntington Prep is an up-and-coming basketball factory that takes in the best teenage players from around the world, takes them around the country to play the nation's best high schools, and spits them back out at Division I schools. Prep opened its doors in 2009, and has already produced one pro in Gorgui Dieng (who went to Louisville and was drafted by the Utah Jazz this year), and highly-recruited prospects like Florida State's Xavier Rathan-Mayes, West Virginia's Elijah Macon, and Memphis's Dominic Woodson. Because it's a prep school, a lot of its players are on the five-year plan, which lets them stay in high school for an extra year to improve their games and grades. Wiggins was, too, but somewhere along the way, he realized he didn't need another year, and committed to Kansas.
Because he's spent his high school career in Canada and at Huntington Prep—which excels at shielding its players from media and, perhaps just as important, overexposure—he remains something of a mystery. We've heard of him, but very few have actually watched him play an entire game. He's the perfect Youtube star.
But in those two-minute long stretches, Wiggins looks unreal. He looks more polished, more explosive, and more fun than any high schooler we've seen since LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School 10 years ago.
So Wiggins is the next LeBron?
Not exactly. They're both small forwards, but when LeBron was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, he was around Wiggins's height, but outweighed Wiggins by about 40 pounds. He was also a point guard.
Wiggins is more of a scorer, and in a recent GQ interview compared his game to Kevin Durant's. But there are some loose similarities between Wiggins and James, the main one being that they're long-limbed, ball-handling, quick-shooting freaks of nature. Take this video from the 2012 Peach Jam, for example:
Wiggins is one of the biggest kids on the court, but you see him outrun and outmaneuver kids a head shorter than him both in traffic and in transition. You see his leaping ability from the very first play, when he's jumping so high that his head is at or above the rim, and with his seven-foot wingspan, he's reaching into another stratosphere. On offense, this ends in obscene slam dunks. On defense, this translates to an impenetrable wall of limbs as he almost hovers in midair, above the court, waiting to reject the ball out of bounds. You see his already legendary double-jumping ability, in which he can jump, land, and get off his feet again for the rebound or tip slam faster than most players can complete their first leap. You see a burgeoning midrange game, and the potential of a long-range shooting touch. You see him muscling thicker centers in the post. You see a guy who's just too much.
As we said earlier, this is from the 2012 Peach Jam, which is relevant for a number of reasons. The Peach Jam is likely the most competitive youth tournament in the country. Some of the kids he was playing against are his peers. One of the most impressive plays takes place at the 1:15 mark, when Wiggins blocks two shots in succession. The first block was against now-Kentucky freshman Julius Randle, one of the country's top three prospects, who some say may even turn into a better college player and pro than Maple Jordan. (Wiggins again eats Randle's lunch 15 seconds later.)
The Peach Jam is also important because this is the tournament when Wiggins realized how much better he was than everyone else, when he realized he didn't need a year of prep school. He was ready for college, for the NBA then. There are plenty of NBA players, good players, who don't have a highlight reel this complete, this devastating. Wiggins did this over the course of five days.
So he can do pretty much everything. What's his go-to move?
Here's a clip, from a Huntington Prep trip to the DC area:
That's his killer move, the spin, which is almost perfect for a couple reasons. First, in his YouTube videos, you can see him already able to dunk, layup, shoot and pass off of the move. And because of Wiggins's length, the ground he covers from the beginning of the spin to the completion of the move is unreal. In the first highlight, he starts on the wing, takes one dribble, and his spin takes him deep into the paint. In the second highlight, he receives the ball in the right corner, but his spin still takes him past one defender, all the way along the baseline, and to the bucket.
What really makes his spin special is his ability to improvise mid-move. In the second highlight, the defender actually does a good job of cutting off the baseline, but Wiggins is too quick. He reacts to the defender and spins away from the hoop to beat his man, and because he has a jet pack on, still finishes at the rim. In the first highlight, his spin actually takes him in between four defenders, in the heart of the paint. In the middle of his spin, he's actually airborne with his back to the defender, yet resetting himself to explode again. Even though Wiggins is completely surrounded, he's too quick and elevates for the easy two. It's a simple move, but his athleticism—and, crucially for a teenager, his anticipation—turns it into something almost unstoppable.
Michael Jordan pointed out last year that even though LeBron James could beat opponents by driving the lane or pulling up for a jumper, he almost always drives right and pulls up off his left hand. This has to do with mechanics, but the upshot is that it's predictable. With Wiggins, every single spin move is always the same: he starts off on the right side of the floor with the ball on his right, then spins clockwise while moving to his left. It's a small flaw, but it's there, and it's exploitable.
If Wiggins and LeBron are so different, why does everyone insist on comparing the two?
Comparing Wiggins to anyone else doesn't make sense, just because they were both getting hyped so hard and so quickly. James changed everything when he landed his first Sports Illustrated cover and was anointed "The Chosen One" as a high school junior. Wiggins got his first SI cover last month. Eleven years ago, James's high school games aired on ESPN2, because the WWL thought, for some reason, that we'd watch James play against children. (We did!) This summer, we saw Wiggins play in the McDonald's All-American game and the Jordan Brand Classic. This season, Canadian sports network TSN is broadcasting every single Jayhawks game.
His senior year, James was named Gatorade's male athlete of the year. Shortly thereafter, he agreed to $90 million sneaker deal with Nike. Wiggins won the same award this year, and may or may not already have a $180 million Adidas contract waiting for him when he leaves Kansas.
Could the hype be too much?
There's the rub. It's easy to forget that LeBron was drafted two years before YouTube and three years before Twitter. James's arrival wasn't heralded by scores of videos of him rejecting shots, shattering ankles, wrecking rims, and swishing threes. Also, hyped as he was, LeBron played an entirely different position than Jordan, the greatest of all time. Wiggins can't fly under any radar, and he won't escape "at this point in their careers" comparisons to LeBron.
Because Wiggins is so much bigger, faster, stronger, and better than his peers, he hasn't actually been tested much. Maybe there actually aren't holes in his game, but we won't really be able to judge until we see him play against top college competition. We might not even know then. Still, some have already felt the need to level strong takes about why Wiggins is overhyped, why he could or maybe even will fail at the sport's highest level.
What are they saying?
Thing is, there's not a lot they can say. Outside of exhibitions and those ridiculous highlight reels, there isn't a whole lot of footage out there, which means few people have seen him be anything less than the absolute truth. But we can speculate. We can look at statistics from Huntington Prep and see that he wasn't a marvel from three or at the free throw line.
The one talking point that seems to have gained some traction has to do with his attitude. The word on Wiggins is that he's a humble kid who doesn't really crave the spotlight. (He wrote a sweet letter to the people of Huntington upon his graduation.) This is supposedly the problem with his game. Apparently, he lacks killer instinct, defers to teammates at times, and, worst of all, takes plays off.
ESPN's Jeff Goodman has been the loudest of the Wiggins deniers. He saw the phenom practice last month at Kansas, and was unimpressed.
During one three-hour practice, Wiggins misfired on jumper after jumper, took plays off and was practically invisible. Sure, he showed glimpses of the athleticism that have some putting him in elite company with NBA superstars. He's been blessed with incredible talent — the length, quickness and athleticism that few possess even at the NBA level.
But Wiggins eventually blended in during the practice last week. It wasn't the first time he's disappeared. In fact, Kansas coaches maintain that the 6-foot-8 Canadian has yet to be the best player on the floor in any of their practices thus far. To take it one step further, he's rarely even one of the best two or three players on the floor.
Goodman went further, slamming Wiggins's interviewing skills (he seemed nervous, or uninterested), and then asked various anonymous NBA sources what they thought of the Canadian LeBron. One said he wasn't blown away, while another went more in-depth:
"He looks like just another player. I've seen him a few times in the past, and to be honest, he hasn't been off-the-charts any of those times. I love his athleticism, but I worry about his intensity — as well as other aspects of his game. He doesn't shoot it great, and he's got zero aura about him. Again, I'm not saying he can't get there — but people are making far more of this kid than they should."
The Atlantic's Hampton Stevens agrees with Goodman. He hedges a bit in his article before questioning not only if Wiggins is the best freshman in the country, but the best freshman on his own team. No, seriously.
Wiggins may not even be the most valuable freshman on his own team. New Jayhawk Joel Embiid was projected as the nation's top incoming center, but hasn't received a tenth of the attention Wiggins has. Yet Embiid could end up a better player, in college and beyond.
And really, this isn't new. Let's set aside the fact that Embiid, a raw prospect who first started playing the sport in 2011, has only been dribbling a ball for a fraction of the time that Wiggins has been projected as a future first overall. We get cold feet, because we've seen Michael Jordan cripple two separate franchises by picking Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison. We've seen what can happen if you pick Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. Darko.
But we've also heard about virtually every single great basketball prospect having some sort of "attitude" or "inconsistent work ethic" problems. (Sounds like... well, every single teenager everywhere.) People said Kobe Bryant took plays off in high school, but then we found out that he did it so opposing teams could pull a little closer and have hope of winning before he crushed their souls. People said LeBron didn't have a killer instinct, but it turned out that meant he was a willing passer who made everyone around him that much better. So whatever.
What's can we expect from Wiggins at Kansas?
Keep in mind, the criticism of Wiggins is based on preseason practices. (Also keep in mind that all the praise comes from crushing inferior high school competition.) That he can and should be the country's best player doesn't mean he will be. Bigger, faster, better, better-coached Big 12 teams will game plan to stop him every time out. And Wiggins isn't the only incredible freshman prospect. Jabari Parker, who was Andrew Wiggins before Andrew Wiggins was Andrew Wiggins, will be at Duke. There's Aaron Gordon at Arizona. Julius Randle and the Harrison twins at Kentucky. And, yes, there's Joel Embiid.
In a recent ESPN poll of 87 college basketball players, a plurality chose Oklahoma State sophomore point guard Marcus Smart as the country's best player. He just edged out Wiggins, 24 percent to 23. This poll, of course, is meaningless, but it highlights something important. It's hard to believe something without seeing it.
"A lot of people are saying he's the best player now in college basketball," Smart said of Wiggins at Big 12 media day. "All I'm saying is how can you be the best player in something you haven't even played yet?"
Smart could have been a lottery pick last year, but chose to return to school for one more season. An extra year of experience coupled with more touches due to his position could easily propel Smart to the number one overall pick.
So, is there a chance Wiggins doesn't immediately jump to the NBA?
In an interview, Wiggins came out and said as much himself. ESPN asked him what he was most excited about as a student in Kansas. Wiggins was pretty clear.
"I would say just being able to enjoy my last year of school," he answered.
So I should watch him now?
The hype's about to give way to legitimate battle-testing. You should watch him now.