Andrew Wiggins entered college saddled with unrealistic expectations.
Andy Glockner of Sports Illustrated hailed him as a possible "once-in-a-decade prospect." A Western Conference assistant general manager told SI's Chris Mannix that Wiggins "isn't quite a LeBron talent, but he's right behind him." CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb saw Wiggins "as a cross between James, Kevin Durant and Tracy McGrady," per Zach Braziller and Howie Kussoy of the New York Post.
Did he live up to those comparisons during his freshman season at Kansas? No.
Should that preclude him from being the first player taken in the 2014 NBA draft? Absolutely not.
Considering Wiggins' flaws in contrast to the other potential No. 1 picks—namely, Kansas center Joel Embiid, Kentucky forward Julius Randle, Duke forward Jabari Parker and Australian point guard Dante Exum—he remains the front-runner to be the first player who hears his name called on June 26.
What Sets Wiggins Apart?
Any discussion of Wiggins' NBA potential begins with one word: athleticism.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman says as much here:
Wiggins is 6'8" with a seven-foot wingspan, per DraftExpress, giving him the ideal frame for an NBA small forward. Combined with his estimated 40-plus-inch vertical—Scout.com has his vertical listed at 44 inches—Wiggins can reach a ball that's more than two feet above the rim, according to ESPN Sport Science.
Just look how high he got when skying for the ball in the first half of Kansas' round of 64 matchup against Eastern Kentucky:
His range, over 3,900 cubic feet, is on par with LeBron James' and more than 8 percent greater than an average NBA center's, according to Sport Science. Wherever he ends up, the "Lob City" moniker might need to come with him.
Additionally, Wiggins has an eight-foot stride, a full foot more than Kevin Durant's, per Sport Science. That freakish length allows him to drive from outside the three-point arc to the basket in just two steps. If he sees a crack in a defensive rotation, he'll be at the rim before the opposing team knows what happened.
Lastly, Wiggins' body control allows him to rotate his shoulders 90 degrees in midair in less than two-tenths of a second, according to Sport Science. He's also capable of maintaining near-optimal spin on the ball while making said adjustments, which will benefit him on drives to the rack.
Coach Roy Rana of Canada, who worked with Wiggins for a number of years, said back in 2012 that his athletic advantages make the game look effortless, per Eric Yearian of NBADraft.net:
He's a phenomenally gifted talent coupled with a super human athlete. He's got great length. It's hard at times because you look at him and the game comes so easy for him and it almost looks like he's not exerting a lot of energy. I don't necessarily think that's the case. I think as he grows as a player and a person he's really got a chance to dominate the game at every level.
Early in his NBA career, his calling card will be defense, suggests ESPN.com's Chad Ford. Kansas' opponents scored 0.09 fewer points per possession with Wiggins on the court than with him on the bench, per GroupStats, which was the best differential among any starting Jayhawk (including Embiid).
Wiggins "uses his length to give himself a cushion, but he's laterally quick enough to play closer if necessary," notes ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan (subscription required). He'll be a ferocious on-ball defender, but his length and quickness also give him an advantage when it comes to team defense.
Offensively, he's still somewhat rough around the edges. As a freshman, he averaged 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.0 blocks in 32.8 minutes per game, shooting 44.8 percent from the field, 34.1 percent from three-point range and 77.5 percent from the charity stripe. For his efforts, he earned a nod as the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and a spot on the first-team All-Big 12 squad.
Late in the season, with Joel Embiid sidelined by a back injury, Wiggins erupted for 41 points on 12-of-18 shooting in a 92-86 loss to West Virginia, followed by a 31-point night in a 77-70 overtime win against Oklahoma State.
Any questions about his ability to take over a game ended with those two contests. He clearly demonstrated the capacity to be his team's No. 1 option on offense.
However, his final college game—he scored only four points on 1-of-6 shooting in Kansas' round of 32 loss to Stanford—raised renewed concerns about his greatest perceived weakness: aggressiveness.
Just like any discussion of Wiggins' strengths begins with athleticism, any discussion of his weaknesses begins with his aggressiveness (or lack thereof).
He "is not always playing hard and motivated," an NBA scout told Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears back in November. "That scares people. That scares me a little. You need a gym rat, someone that absolutely loves it. It's 82 games. It's tough. Those guys are harder to win with than guys who love it."
When asked how to stop Wiggins, an NBA scout told ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman (subscription required), "It's all about Andrew and his energy level. If he decides he wants to really play, he's capable of dominating."
A perceived lack of motor isn't the only concern with Wiggins, however. DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony recently teased at some of his more tangible on-court weaknesses in a conversation with Bleacher Report's Howard Beck:
Scouts worry about Wiggins' ball-handling, his jump shot and an occasional lack of aggressiveness.
"His skill level really just isn't there at this point, offensively," said Givony. He added, "A lot of guys who are average ball-handlers coming into the NBA stay average ball-handlers their whole life."
Check out this clip from the Dec. 10 Kansas-Florida game to see Wiggins' ball-handling flaws in action (via Wasserman):
Wiggins "has a 'loose handle' with a high dribble and drives in straight lines, making it hard to get past defenders ('doesn't beat you off the bounce') and create his own shot, a make-or-break skill for NBA superstardom," veteran NBA scribe Mark Heisler noted in a piece for Forbes.com back in January.
Liberty Ballers' Derek Bodner believes ball-handling to be the Kansas product's swing skill—namely, if he improves it, he can be an All-Star; if not, "he will be disappointing in relation to where he's drafted."
His wiry frame could also concern scouts, as B/R's Daniel O'Brien recently suggested. He's never going to be built like LeBron James—Durant is a much more apt comparison—but like KD, he could find it difficult to finish through contact early in his NBA career. He'll also struggle fighting through screens until he adds more muscle.
Which of Wiggins' weaknesses is the biggest concern? That depends who you ask.
Are any of these flaws severe enough to prevent him from going first overall? Not when you consider the red flags for the other top prospects.
Embiid is the only other prospect who replaced Wiggins as the consensus No. 1 choice at some point this season. If not for a stress fracture in his back suffered late in the season, the Cameroonian big man still might be considered the favorite to go first overall on draft night.
However, a big man with an injury history raises major red flags for most teams, given the recent experiences with Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum. Burning a top-three pick on a player who might quickly devolve into a shell of himself could be one-way ticket to the unemployment line for most front offices.
The 7-footer has all the makings of a franchise center on both ends of the court, having averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in only 23.1 minutes per game this season. If his back checks out at the draft combine, he'll be a top-three lock. That's a big "if," however.
Jabari Parker, the other likely contender to go No. 1 overall, will likely enter the 2014-15 NBA season as the front-runner to win Rookie of the Year (assuming he declares for the 2014 draft). He's far more polished on the offensive end than Wiggins, capable of scoring in a multitude of ways, and he's a better ball-handler than Wiggins too.
Parker's biggest questions come at the other end of the court. He was such a liability on defense in Duke's round of 64 loss to the 14th-seeded Mercer Bears that Mike Krzyzewski pulled him at points throughout the second half, raising some scouts' eyebrows:
As B/R's O'Brien notes, Parker this season "frequently got beat by quicker slashers and gave up a few critical layups. On the interior, he was often out of position and caught in no-man's land. That's a bad place to be, especially on pick-and-rolls and weak-side rotations."
Beyond his defensive limitations, one of the biggest knocks on Parker right now is his physical fitness, according to Ford (subscription required). If he shows up at the draft combine in not-ideal shape, his chances of dethroning Wiggins as the No. 1 pick will fall from slim to none.
Had Randle dominated UConn in the NCAA title game and led Kentucky to the national championship, he may have forced his way into the No. 1-pick conversation. Instead, Randle faded in the spotlight after an otherwise excellent tournament performance, scoring only 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting and corralling six rebounds in 34 minutes.
After posting double-doubles in his first four games during the Big Dance, Randle's relative no-show during the title game might concern scouts. Kentucky coach John Calipari had to remove him from the game after only two minutes, telling reporters afterward (via Gregg Doyel on CBSSports.com), "That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people and he ran up and down the court three times and he got winded. … It's normal."
If fading from the bright lights was Randle's biggest red flag, he'd still be in the mix for the top overall pick. However, as SB Nation's Jonathan Tjarks noted back in January, there's an even greater concern when it comes to his NBA potential:
Randle is built like a Tyrannosaurus Rex: all torso and no arms. He has a 6'11 wingspan, per Draft Express, which is enormous in most contexts, but not the super-sized world of the NBA paint. When matched up against the best power forwards in the world, he's going to have a significant length disadvantage, a problem that could impact his game on both sides of the ball.
The 6'9", 250-pound Randle also won't be able to bully opponents at the next level like he did throughout his freshman year at Kansas. He'll need to diversify his offensive repertoire to stand any chance of being an impact player in the NBA.
Exum is the wild card in the mix of potential top overall picks. He has great size for a point guard (6'6" with a 6'9" wingspan, per DraftExpress) but could thrive as an off-the-ball slasher at the 2 as well.
B/R's Jared Zwerling traveled to Australia to get a closer look at Exum earlier this season and was certainly impressed with his on-court demeanor:
On the court, one of the biggest things that caught my attention was Exum's vocal demand for the ball after he missed a shot or when his team was entering a last-shot situation. He never got too down on himself or became too passive with the ball, maintaining a high motor and feeling like it was his responsibility to set the tempo—a true point guard with qualities beyond his 18 years. That leadership translated to huddles, where he was communicative with his coach and teammates while discussing strategy.
However, compared to the other top prospects, NBA teams haven't been able to scout him against nearly as much quality competition. Former point guard Randy Livingston, who runs a scouting service in Australia, told Zwerling that he "had a bunch of teams call worried that he hasn't gotten to play enough, and they're not going to get to see him enough."
Exum is in Los Angeles working out with Tim Grover, the same trainer who works with Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, according to Ford (subscription required). Even after the NBA releases the official underclassmen declaration list, "it's unlikely that more than a couple of teams will get to see him in workouts," Ford says.
Limiting which teams can work him out before the draft will likely limit his potential destinations. Could a team risk passing up Wiggins, Embiid or Parker for a prospect it hadn't seen play live in months?
Wiggins isn't a perfect prospect by any means, and no one should expect him to turn around the fate of a lottery-bound franchise overnight. But when comparing his flaws to those of other potential No. 1 overall picks, it's clear the Kansas swingman should be considered the front-runner for the top spot until further notice.