Andrew Wiggins' Debut Will Serve as Prelude of What to Expect This Season
In a sports culture rapt with repetition—endless, mind-numbing debates from talking-head shows, the ever-encroaching days of statistical analyses shattering our assumptions, Tim Tebow, etc.—it's become increasingly rare for something to feel unique.
That 24/7 news coverage has essentially beaten that adjective out of our sporting events. Things are analyzed, reanalyzed and then rehashed as air-filler 20 minutes later. With multiple generations now having grown up post-cable, we live in the been-there, done-that culture.
And that, in a weird way, is why Andrew Wiggins' impending collegiate debut is so special. Set as the backdrop to the man whom he's most often compared's start to a possible three-peat, Wiggins' Kansas Jayhawks will open their exhibition season against Pittsburg State at Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.
The game itself is meaningless. The Jayhawks will run layup lines against the small, Division II school; merely playing against Andrew Wiggins will be the highlight of a majority of these players' careers. Same goes for Kansas' other exhibition contest, a Nov. 5 clash against Fort Hays. These games are merely a nod to a couple in-state schools and a chance to tune up for the season.
Kansas' regular season opens Nov. 8 against UL-Monroe. That game will receive the ample attention it deserves—and probably then some.
But Tuesday night will serve as a preview to what should be one of the most intriguing individual and team college basketball seasons in history.
For Wiggins, some of the story is foretold. We know that he's going to declare after his freshman season, barring some unthinkably catastrophic injury. We know that he's probably going to be the No. 1 pick in next June's NBA draft. We know that he'll throw down the type of rim-rocking dunks that get on SportsCenter and create a national epidemic of stank face.
Figuring out the rest is going to be a whole hell of a lot of fun. Because, despite our weird obsession with becoming sports one-uppers, we've almost unarguably never seen anything like Wiggins Hype.
From the film I've watched and the conversations I've had with people I respect, Wiggins is a once-in-a-generation talent. You all have heard the hype stories, watched the dunk mixtapes and likely couldn't stop yourself from following every quote and every near-decision on his recruiting trail. The fact that he's very good is not lost on anyone.
But Wiggins' decision to attend Kansas also made one thing very clear: This is his college basketball season. No one else's. Joel Embiid is a good player, but he chose to avoid joining the best recruiting class in history and easing the personal pressure at Kentucky. He also chose against following in his parents' footsteps at Florida State, looking to carve his own legacy at one of the nation's preeminent programs.
If you think using "legacy" is hyperbole, well, you haven't been watching very closely. For their first taste of the Wiggins catnip, school officials had to shutter Allen Fieldhouse to avoid overcrowding. Bill Self estimated that 9,000 people were sent away. Nine thousand! To watch a halfhearted scrimmage, some stilted dancing and to get a glimpse of a man who's supposed to single-handedly dominate the college basketball landscape.
“It’s time to hang one more banner,” Self told the crowd, per the Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd, sending expectations even a smidgen higher for the sixth-ranked Jayhawks.
And this all lands on Wiggins. Self knows that if things go poorly, he'll be second in line for criticism behind the oft-hyped superstar. That we'll wonder what we were ever thinking getting so excited about a player before he ever set foot on a collegiate floor.
Wiggins is so often compared to LeBron James that we ignore some pretty huge differences between the two. Notably: LeBron didn't attend college. And while that allowed him to see an increase in competition on a nightly basis and arguably helped him in his growth process, it also took his feet away from the fire.
Few cared when LeBron shot 41.7 percent from the floor or missed the playoffs or even started planting the seeds that would get Paul Silas fired one year later. We were more excited that this kid was starting to scratch the surface of his prodigious hype—that he could someday be the man we see right now.
By virtue of the one-and-done rule, Wiggins' margin for error is smaller. His competition is worse, but we'll be much less patient with any growing pains. Wiggins isn't expected to be very good. Fans were sold an instant superstar. Anything less, and we'll hear the common refrain referencing Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and others, guys who made good on their hype by astounding with their individual excellence.
The situation is all at once patently unfair and totally understandable. Wiggins has holes in his game that teams can exploit. He's not a great off-the-dribble shooter yet, preferring (like many young players) to force his way to the rim rather than develop any nuanced, space-creating fakes. He'll probably turn the ball over more than you'd like. His court vision and passing skills are about average.
Those will be all the complaints you hear throughout the season. And they'll all be out in public. Wiggins already has over 110,000 Twitter followers, and I suspect that number will increase exponentially over the course of the season. The one rule of social media, of course, is that for every one person telling you that you're great, there are 10 telling you that you suck.
With a massive shoe deal coming once he leaves school, Wiggins isn't the type who can retreat and move away from social media. There will be enough people in his camp seeing dollar signs that he'll be encouraged to be more open with his personality, not less.
How will Andrew Wiggins fare this season?
These are things his predecessors never had to deal with. LeBron went straight to the league and never had the social media problem. The Durant era was pre-Twitter, and he had Greg Oden taking attention in Columbus as a pseudo costar. Davis is somewhat comparable, but The Brow's rise from mostly ignored point guard to shot-blocking phenom was sudden—not preordained for almost a half-decade running.
That's what makes Wiggins' situation so unique. We've never seen anything like this before. The pressure could be enough to crack a soft-spoken teenager from Canada, foisting him onto the pages-long list of prep stars who never lived up to their potential. Or the eyeballs could embolden him, with Wiggins realizing the power he wields and unleashing a Heisenbergian dominance the likes of which we've never seen.
The answer? I have no clue.
The journey? It starts Tuesday night.
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