There's no question that Andrew Wiggins is poised to become an NBA star—elite athleticism, an explosive first step and a solid jump shot. While his offensive skills have a long way to go, the raw skills are there.
But it's not on offense where Wiggins will help the Cleveland Cavaliers the most; his athleticism is a huge advantage on the defensive end, and he showed flashes of lockdown defense as a freshman at Kansas. Add to that his knack for scoping out an opponent's offensive intentions and generally accurate instincts, and he's well on his way to defensive stardom.
Part of the reason why Cleveland dealt for Luol Deng last season was to shore up its perimeter defense, a huge area of need over the past few seasons. Though the Cavs were 23rd in offensive rating last season, according to NBA.com, much of that difficulty stemmed from a young roster struggling to find any type of cohesion amongst its developing scorers.
There was also the problem of a brand new coach with a brand new offense and the constant disruption of lineup tinkering and learning on the fly. Given time in new head coach David Blatt's offense and more years under its belt, Cleveland's young core of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Andrew Wiggins should find a way to sort things out offensively.
That's just not necessarily the case on the defensive end. The energy Irving expends on offense limits his effort on the other end, and the league is chock-full of talented point guards. While he'll certainly improve bit by bit over the next few years, he's not showing any signs of becoming a lockdown guard.
Dion Waiters, meanwhile, has never been interested in defense whatsoever. He's also a bit small as far as shooting guards go and can get caught in bad matchups in cross-matching. Same goes for Jarrett Jack, whose physicality allows him to handle bigger guards while getting overmatched by quickness.
Enter Andrew Wiggins, who can now take pressure off his fellow wings by immediately taking away the opponent's best perimeter player. He's already shown the ability to guard 1 through 4, adept at sliding his feet laterally against smaller, faster point guards while using his length to bother shots should he get beat.
He's a lot like LeBron James in this way; though a lofty comparison, Wiggins has already shown a LeBron-like aptitude for utilizing the right talents at the right moments. Bodying up quicker players to bother their space while using lateral quickness and length to discourage shots in the restricted area is what James typically does to Tony Parker, and Wiggins has shown his willingness to adapt similar techniques.
It's this competence in varied one-on-one defensive battles that will ultimately carry him forward into the upper echelon of NBA defenders.
Though every team in the NBA teaches team schemes—specific pick-and-roll defense for both the top and sides, where to guide isolations and how to provide primary, secondary and tertiary help rotations—the best and easiest defense is simply shutting down the man in front of you.
If a defender doesn't get broken down off the dribble, he frees up his interior defenders to shot block from the weak side. Instead of a helper having to abandon his man, thereby forcing subsequent defenders to do the same, he's shutting down driving lines while his teammates can take away outlet options by simply guarding their assignment.
Here's Wiggins doing just that at Kansas, guarding Josh Huestis (the Oklahoma City Thunder's first-round pick) of Stanford in the NCAA tournament. As Huestis drives and spins, Wiggins always stays between Huestis and rim.
Even though Huestis is able to gain a little ground and get closer to the basket, Wiggins' strength allows him to stay grounded until Huestis begins his shot release. And it's in that moment that Wiggins explodes upward as well, using his length and verticality to severely alter Huestis' shot attempt.
As you watch the video, you'll also notice that Kansas provides exactly zero help defense. No perimeter player strays from a shooter, and no interior defender slides over. Wiggins is left on his own, and he does the job by himself. Huestis, meanwhile, is caught in the air with nowhere to pass and fires up a very difficult shot.
This will be crucial with Waiters and Irving moving forward, as Wiggins will be able to save both players the required energy to guard a high-usage player on the defensive end.
While Iguodala was assigned the opponent's best wing, Stephen Curry and/or Klay Thompson could be more easily hidden on lesser offensive threats, namely spot-up shooters with little game off the dribble or in the post—players who can't expose the subsequent height/weight advantage.
In best-case scenarios, players get matched up properly on every defensive possession. But basketball is quick, chaotic and largely unscripted. Coaches lay out a framework, and players have freedom to operate within it.
That's why having versatility, both offensively and defensively, is crucial, and it's what Wiggins provides immediately to the Cavs. Cleveland is less likely to get stuck in bad cross-match situations with him on the floor, as Wiggins can handle himself no matter the opponent.
It will also allow for switches to cover up mistakes when any of Cleveland's wing players get caught up on screens.
On the play below against Oklahoma State, Wiggins finds himself switched onto Marcus Smart—a smaller, faster and stronger guard who happens to be an elite ball-handler.
Yet it's no problem for Wiggins. After giving up a step and allowing Smart to put Wiggins on his hip, Wiggins' contest at the rim forces Smart to double-pump. As both players are crashing to the floor, Smart tries to use Wiggins' downward trajectory against him by firing a floater over the top.
But the pump combined with Wiggins' length takes away Smart's court vision, and he's forced into shooting the ball. A Kansas help defender, therefore, is able to go for the block without giving up an easy dish for a dunk. He contests the second shot, forcing a miss.
It's easy to see why Wiggins is so tantalizing as a prospect; his physical tools are out of this world. But projecting a player's offensive development is a difficult task. Some players, for whatever reason, figure out how to match their skills with the NBA game. Others do not.
In this sense, drafting is always risky. Wiggins, however, possesses a rare flare for the other end of the floor that can immediately impact the game. Even if his offense tops out at mediocre, he'll always have his defense to rely on. And in a league with outstanding offensive players everywhere, that will suffice to provide him with a long career.