LOS ANGELES — The Hollywood stage provided an appropriate setting for perhaps Andrew Wiggins‘ best dramatic performances on consecutive nights. The picturesque, hanging jumpers, the sweet, slashing finishes—all stirringly familiar as glamorous trademarks of past NBA icons.
Wiggins earned Kobe Bryant‘s private respect and public praise Tuesday and then shocked the Clippers with 31 efficient points in a 108-102 Minnesota win Wednesday, including a tie-breaking post fadeaway shot in the final minute.
But like a lot of things in Hollywood, things are not always as they seem. Go behind the curtain on this Timberwolves team, and it’s apparent that its step forward this season is something—and someone—totally different. It hasn’t reached public awareness yet, but it most certainly will eventually.
Karl-Anthony Towns is better than Wiggins right now…and will be far more so in the future.
That’s not to dismiss Wiggins‘ talent and likely All-Star career. It’s just that Towns has the qualities of a likely Hall of Famer at this early juncture. Not only is he already doing almost everything on the court, but he’s also doing it comfortably.
Dig further behind the scenes, and you’ll find the truest reasons for faith in Towns, transcending his size and skill: He is willing to take criticism and advice—and use it for fuel to improve—yet that open mind is anchored by big blocks of self-confidence and work ethic.
When Towns lost control of some rebounds early in the season, he adapted to reach back with both hands when boxing out and locate his man. He recently committed to being a great passer, and after averaging 0.8 assists per game in November, he just finished a January in which he posted 2.2 assists per game. The patience, timing and touch on Towns’ top-of-the-key pass for Zach LaVine’s layup before Wiggins‘ fadeaway Wednesday was the sort of little thing that Towns, 20, already does regularly, except in so many different ways.
“Every night it seems he shows us something that he can do—shoot a three, make a pass, lead the break sometimes,” Minnesota coach Sam Mitchell said. “It’s hard to say anything to him because nine times out of 10, he makes the right decision.”
That dependability is where Wiggins, even with his experience and 2015 Rookie of the Year award, comes up short. One of the keys to Minnesota’s future success is for Wiggins, 20, to be strong enough to be a full-time small forward and open up the shooting-guard position for LaVine, also 20. Team insiders, though, lament how many weightlifting sessions Wiggins skips, and the supposedly slim-fit, sleeved jerseys the Wolves love to wear show the ample room to grow in his arms.
The half-speed way Wiggins goes through his pregame workout, when others such as LaVine are so on point with their game simulation, is another bad habit. And unlike Towns, Wiggins is sensitive to harsh criticism, getting hung up on a tone he might find unpleasant as opposed to listening to valuable information. It’s one reason Towns is thrilled to have fire-breathing Kevin Garnett—and perceives him as almost a personal coach—but Wiggins keeps a safe distance.
When you’re projecting a talented young player’s level of future greatness, his ability to make improvement upon improvement throughout his career is the root. The drive to make that happen comes from within; consistent refinements simply cannot be forced on someone.
That’s not to say Wiggins is a petulant baby squirming away from the feeding spoon. He is learning to fight through some minor issues with his body right now and still perform. Beyond these 30-point games on consecutive nights, progress is evident just in how he asked out of the game last Friday in Utah because of fatigue but pushed harder through it Wednesday against the Clippers.
After helping his team beat the Clippers to end a 12-game road losing streak, Wiggins pointed out his main goal is “trying to stay consistent.” He is aware of what changes the team needs from him—including shifting away from ball-stopping tendencies and cultivating the passing necessary for teammates to trust him more. (Wiggins’ assists have actually dropped from 2.1 per game last season to 1.8 now, though Mitchell’s simplistic offense and Minnesota’s dearth of shooters play a part in that, for sure.)
Wiggins worked on his ball-handling and finishing at the rim last summer; the three-point shot figures to be on tap for the coming offseason. More dynamic rebounding should also come with added strength.
Wiggins‘ developmental process, for someone so young, is normal, but it accentuates how amazing it is that Towns already stands as clockwork excellence midway through his rookie year.
His basketball IQ and outright hustle are both consistently elite. Any concerns about this free-thinking kid lacking love for the game have been brushed aside the same as any infatuation Flip Saunders might have had for Jahlil Okafor’s post moves before seeing Towns’ predraft workout for the Timberwolves.
Maybe he’s a little slow on some defensive rotations or tentative against bigger bodies, but those are the most logical areas for simple NBA experience to make a difference. Remember, Towns played only 21 minutes per game in his lone college season.
But in holding himself accountable already for his performances, Towns has won over teammates young and old, who also have been charmed by his easy smiles and happy nature.
On Wednesday night, Towns demonstrated the humility to deflect praise to his teammates, gushing how appreciative he was that Wiggins lit it up in the first half while he had foul trouble and felt slow from a bout of insomnia the previous night.
“Andrew’s on another level,” Towns gushed.
Towns made no mention of the team running more and more offense through him in the second half. And even though the young Wolves have staggered to 15-36 this season as one of the league’s worst-coached teams, they can rightly muse about a one-two punch that beautifully fits the mold of so many past NBA champions: a wing who can create his own shot at one end while being a lockdown defender at the other and a big man who can both post up and protect the rim.
It’s already obvious, however, that Towns can do much more than the latter two things.
So whether Wiggins commits to frequenting that weight room or the Timberwolves can get a quality free agent or two (Ryan Anderson?Joakim Noah?) to take their money and accelerate the franchise into real contention, we can draw a few conclusions already.
Wiggins might well be great. Towns absolutely will be.
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