Inside the Andrew Wiggins Spotlight: Kansas Star Freshman Hitting His Stride

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Inside the Andrew Wiggins Spotlight: Kansas Star Freshman Hitting His Stride
USA Today

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Three days before Saturday’s showdown with ninth-ranked Oklahoma State—the biggest game of his career thus far—Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins approached Bill Self with a question.

“Coach,” Wiggins said during Wednesday’s practice at Allen Fieldhouse, “can I guard Marcus Smart?”

Self couldn’t help but grin.

The best player on his roster—and the most talked about player in the country—is finally exuding the swagger that will be vital in a matchup college basketball fans have been anticipating all season:

Wiggins, the projected No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, versus Smart, the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year who seemed annoyed last fall when Wiggins appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated before ever scoring a point for Kansas.

“They are saying he is the best college player there is and he hasn’t even played a game yet,” Smart, a sophomore, told USA Today in October. “It’s all talk. It’s all potential. I’m not saying he can’t do it.

“But he hasn’t done it yet.”

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Three months later, no one can make that claim about Wiggins, a Toronto native who is averaging a team-high 15.8 points for a Kansas squad that’s favored to win a 10th straight Big 12 title.

Two of Wiggins’ best performances have come during the past week. He scored 22 points in last Saturday’s win over then-No. 25 Kansas State before erupting for 17 points and a career-high 19 rebounds in a victory over eighth-ranked Iowa State in Ames.

Wiggins may not be living up to the outlandish expectations of the recruiting analysts who once compared him to LeBron James, but with every spin move, deflected pass or pull-up jumper in traffic, Wiggins is showing the hype that followed him to Lawrence was justified. 

“I talked to him last week and said, ‘It’s time to do what you do,’ ” Wiggins’ father, Mitchell, said in a phone interview from Toronto on Thursday. “He’s starting to hit his stride. He’s starting to show people what he’s capable of.”

Confident as he is entering Saturday’s nationally televised game against Smart and Oklahoma State, Wiggins’ transition to the college game—and college life—hasn’t always been seamless.

During an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report this week, Wiggins reflected on his first seven months at Kansas, his chosen pit stop on the way to the NBA.

“It isn’t what I thought it was going to be,” Wiggins said. “It’s a lot harder than I expected.”

***

The beach and swimming pools were a short walk from his hotel room in the Bahamas, but Andrew Wiggins didn’t seem to care. The night before, against UTEP in the Battle 4 Atlantis, he’d scored a season-low six points against a triangle-and-2 defense.

In a land of ecstasy and eden, Wiggins was miserable.

“Is it always going to be like this?” Wiggins asked assistant coach Kurtis Townsend. “All of these defenses are geared to stop me. I’m not getting any run-outs. I can’t get a good look. I can’t get a good shot.”

Townsend chuckles as he tells the story two months later.

“I think he thought he (would) just come here and score 20 points a game and have a blast,” he said. “There’s a ton of stuff he wasn’t ready for.”

Indeed, the UTEP game was among a handful of frustrating moments for Wiggins, who said he was surprised by the complexity of college basketball.

“Everything was moving so fast for me at first,” Wiggins said. “Coach would get on me for not being aggressive or not running the floor hard every possession. He was hard on me. He was hard on everyone. He doesn’t care who you are.”

Both in practice and in games, Wiggins had a tendency to drift on the perimeter and, at times, disappear.

He’d score six points early in the first half and then wouldn’t be heard from until after intermission. No one in college basketball is better at attacking the basket— “He can get to the rim anytime he wants,” Wiggins’ high school coach, Rob Fulford, said—but he often found himself settling for mid-range jumpers or three-pointers.

Wiggins said he was also shocked by the physicality of the game and didn’t always react well to being bumped or hit.

“In high school, he could do what he wanted, when he wanted,” said Fulford, who coached Wiggins at Huntington Prep in West Virginia. “If he had to he could jump over everybody.

“But now he’s having to score through contact. Getting hacked and bumped by a 16-year-old high school sophomore isn’t the same as getting hacked and bumped by a 23-year-old college senior. It’s been good for him. It’s humbled him a bit.”

The main obstacle for Wiggins, though, was the opposing defenders who were trying to make the most of their one chance to guard the potential No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft and the most high-profile player in recent memory.

“Having that ‘No. 1 recruit’ tag on your back can be tough,” Self said. “You get everyone’s best shot. In order to be able to take everyone’s best shot, you’ve got to be mentally focused and ready to go every game. That’s something he needed to be more consistent in understanding.”

Underwhelming as he was at times, Wiggins showed plenty of flashes of greatness, too—usually against high-profile teams.

He scored 22 points, snared eight rebounds and made some key baskets down the stretch in a victory over Duke, when he held Blue Devils star Jabari Parker to eight second-half points after Parker scored 19 before the break. Wiggins also had 22 points against Colorado and 26 points and 11 boards against Florida, but KU lost both games.

“He’d call and say that practices were a lot harder, games are a lot harder than he’s used to,” said Wiggins’ older brother, Nick, a senior forward at Wichita State. “In prep school he could go 1-on-5 and dominate a game. He can't do that anymore. He can’t take plays off.”

Multiple times each week, Wiggins would phone his father for advice. Mitchell Wiggins, who played six seasons in the NBA with the Rockets, Bulls and 76ers, never seemed worried.

“Andrew is one of the best talents in college basketball,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think anyone will deny that. But no one said college was going to be easy.

“You have to remember, not many star freshmen are in a starting lineup with three other future pros like Andrew is (with Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis). They needed time to adapt and mesh. It’s a big jump from high school to college, no matter who you are.”

At the same time he was getting used to things on the court, Wiggins was leading a hectic life off of it, too.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Autograph seekers tracked his flight from Canada to Kansas City and were waiting for him at the airport when he arrived in May. Some of them followed his vehicle all the way to Lawrence, where about 10,000 fans showed up a month later to watch him compete in an open scrimmage.

Students screamed his name and waved as he walked through campus, usually with his head down. During a stop for wings at the popular Lawrence restaurant Jefferson’s, Wiggins and Townsend’s meal was interrupted by people seeking signatures and pictures.

“Does this bother you?” Townsend asked Wiggins, who shook his head.

“Sometimes,” Wiggins said, “but I’m pretty used to it.”

Even though it wasn’t to this extent, Wiggins had been attracting crowds since being tabbed as one of the nation's top prospects as a 15-year-old. One thing he wasn’t accustomed to, though, was the media responsibilities he was asked to fulfill after only being on campus a few months.

By the end of September, Wiggins had conducted individual interviews with reporters from USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, CBSSports.com, ESPN Insider, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN television.

When a reporter from 60 Minutes called in October and requested an interview, Wiggins told Self he’d had enough.

“He was like, ‘Coach, do I have to?’ ” Self said. “It was just wearing him down. He’s not a kid that embraces that kind of stuff. In college, you should have a favorable experience and enjoy it. Instead all the extra stuff was making him miserable. We had to shut it down.”

Wiggins has done just two one-on-one interviews since the start of the season: one with the Associated Press in December, and one with Bleacher Report this week, when he insisted he doesn’t despise the media.

“It’s not that I hate doing it,” Wiggins said with a smile. “But I need my naps, man. I need my sleep.”

***

Tuesday afternoon, a day after her son’s 19-rebound effort against Iowa State, Marita Payne-Wiggins sent Townsend a text message.

“Hey Coach,” Townsend said it read. “Stay on Andrew to keep being aggressive. It’s not in his personality. Keep pushing to get it out of him.”

After banner performances in his last two games—and with Oklahoma State coming to town this weekend—Wiggins is confident the lack of assertiveness that defined his first few months at Kansas is a thing of the past.

“The game has slowed down for me,” Wiggins said. “I’m more comfortable now. I’m not going out there worried about putting up big numbers. I’m just letting things come to me. I’m getting better every game.”

Offensively, Wiggins was as aggressive as he’s been all season against Iowa State. Whether he was splitting defenders on his way to the basket or using a spin move to get past a power forward, Wiggins was hunting shots in full attack mode. His 16 field-goal attempts were a season high.

Defensively, he helped pester Iowa State into its worst collective-shooting percentage (31.4 percent) in three years. One game earlier, Wiggins held Kansas State leading scorer Marcus Foster to seven points—just under half his average of 13.9—on 3-of-12 shooting.

Against ranked opponents (Duke, Florida, San Diego State, Kansas State and Iowa State), Wiggins is averaging 20.2 points and 9.6 rebounds.

"He's picked his spots," Fulford said. "When he's needed to turn it on, he's turned it on."

Self still wants Wiggins to play the passing lanes better so he can score more points on run-outs off of steals. And his knack for missing a layup or two each game can be maddening.

“He needs to dunk it every time,” Fulford said. “I told him if I saw another finger roll, I was going to bust him in the throat. He just laughed and said, ‘Coach, I’m getting old, man. My legs are tired.’ ”

Townsend said Wiggins’ progress is occurring right on schedule.

“While some of the other star freshmen are plateauing, Andrew is just now taking off,” Townsend said. “It’s like we told him all along: ‘It’s a marathon, dude. We want you playing your best ball in February and March.’ I think he’s right where we thought he’d be.

“He just didn’t get there as quick as everyone on the outside thought he would.”

That’s the unfortunate truth about Wiggins.

He’ll score 20 points in a game, Self said, and critics will rip him for not scoring 30. He’ll dish out an assist to an open teammate in the paint, and fans will say he should’ve taken the shot himself.

“No matter how good he does, people will always want more from him,” Townsend said. “It’s not fair to the kid.”

Townsend said he once asked Wiggins to name the last true freshman to average 16 points and six rebounds at Kansas. Wiggins said he didn’t have an answer.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“That’s because it’s never been done,” Townsend told Wiggins. “At least not in the 10 years since we’ve been here. All those crazy expectations people have for you? Those are their expectations—not ours, not yours.”

Early in the season, Townsend said he worried that Wiggins would hear television announcers criticizing him and hinting he may have been overhyped, that maybe he shouldn’t be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft or a first-team All-American.

Mitchell Wiggins said such talk will never faze his son.

“We don’t think about that kind of stuff—we don’t even talk about that kind of stuff—in the Wiggins household,” Mitchell said. “We just want him to continue to progress and be the best he can be.

“LeBron never had to go to college and adapt to a certain style. Kevin Durant went to Texas, but he played the way he wanted to there. I reminded him that, as special as both of those guys are, they're also the hardest workers on their own team. No matter how much hype you have, if you're not hungry and coachable, you'll fall short of expectations."

Self doesn’t see that happening with Wiggins. Pleased as he is with his progress, Self said his star has another gear.

“I don’t know if his numbers will get a lot better,” Self said, “but I think he’ll start to impact the game more and more. I think he’ll be as impactful player as there is in the country by February or March.

“In the end, he won’t be judged on anything that’s happened thus far. He’ll be judged on what he does from this point forward.”

***

Wednesday’s practice at Kansas has just ended, and as Wiggins saunters off the court toward the locker room, he’s stopped by assistant media relations director Alissa Bauer.

“Don’t forget,” Bauer tells Wiggins. “You have a photo shoot with CBS at 1 tomorrow.”

Wiggins plops into a nearby folding chair, tilts back his head and rolls his eyes.

Urgh,” he says. “Do I have to?”

With the race for the Big 12 title in full swing, Wiggins doesn’t want any distractions.

He rarely goes out in Lawrence, instead spending most of his time in his apartment playing video games such as Call of Duty while listening to music by Drake or Kendrick Lamar. Wiggins’ culinary skills are limited to Easy Mac and baloney sandwiches, and that’s fine with him.

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“I’m happiest when I’m hanging out at home or in my room,” Wiggins said. “Even when I was growing up in Canada, I’ve always been a homebody.”

Asked if he’s keeping tabs on star freshmen such as Duke’s Parker or Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Wiggins crinkles his face and shakes his head, as if the question were a stupid one.

“If I happen to flip to a channel and see them playing, I might watch it for a little bit,” Wiggins said. “But I don’t ever key in on anyone. I don’t worry about any of them. I just want to play my game for my team. I don’t care about anyone else.”

That includes Smart, whose comments during the preseason didn’t seem to get under Wiggins’ skin.

“Someone’s opinion,” Wiggins said. “Doesn’t mean nothing. When someone says something, and I really don’t care for the person, it doesn’t influence me or anything like that.”

Wiggins, after all, has bought into the “team” concept that has led to Kansas’ unprecedented success under Self. Townsend said Wiggins approached him earlier this week and asked how many points he was averaging and what his shooting percentage was from three-point range.

“He had no idea,” Townsend said. “He’s just focused on what we’ve got going on here and being a good teammate. He said, ‘I don’t care if I score two points or 20. I just want to win.' I told him, ‘That’s great, but if you only score two points, we’re not going to win.’"

Each time Wiggins takes the court, he said he savors the moment more and more.

“We’ve got eight more games left to play in Allen Fieldhouse,” he said, “so I’m just trying to enjoy every one of them.”

While it’d be natural to assume that Wiggins is upset with the NBA rule that forces players to wait one year after high school before entering the draft, Wiggins said that’s hardly the case.

“I’m not mad about that at all,” Wiggins said. “I love it here. This experience has been good for me. I needed it.”

Mitchell Wiggins agrees.

Supportive as his parents have been during Andrew’s moments of frustration, the elder Wiggins said he’s been impressed with the maturity his son has shown while dealing with this whirlwind of an experience on his own.

“We love the man he’s becoming at Kansas,” he said. “The best is yet to come.”

 

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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