Andrew Wiggins' departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers, arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference, to one of the worst in the West would appear to put a damper on his development prospects. Playing around great players such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving would have taken pressure off immediately, allowing him to fill a role and come into his own gradually.
Now that he's with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins doesn't have that luxury. He'll likely be a starter and the team's best wing player. He'll be asked to defend the opponent's best player and take on a significant scoring burden from the get-go. The pressure will be on to perform.
If there's any positive takeaway from the trade, it's that he'll be playing at a significantly faster tempo with a wonderful open-court point guard in Ricky Rubio. Despite LeBron's prowess in the open floor and his near-unstoppable finishing once he gathers a head of steam, he's actually not that inclined to run.
Although Miami boasted one of the most dangerous transition offenses in the league last year with 1.213 points per possession in transition opportunities—good for fourth best in the league, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required)—his team only ran on 14.3 percent of total possessions, ranking near the middle of the pack at 13th.
It's not because Miami couldn't run; it's that James, who's now approaching 30 years old, is trying to save his legs a bit more. He's already played 11 NBA seasons with a handful of deep playoff runs, approaching 100 or more games each season.
That's not a burden any player can handle without a few sacrifices. According to Basketball-Reference, LeBron had averaged under 38 minutes per game only once in his entire career before joining the Heat. Yet in the last three seasons, he's been playing under 38 minutes per game each year.
The limited minutes and tempo restrictions are all meant to extend LeBron's prime for as long as possible. But for Wiggins, a player who still needs to develop in the half court but thrives in wide-open play, this might not suit his immediate needs.
This might seem counterintuitive: Wouldn't Wiggins want to play in an offense that accentuates his weaknesses so he can develop them, especially when the Timberwolves won't win many games anyway? There's certainly a case to be made for that, but there's also this: Wouldn't you want to build up a player's confidence while refining other aspects of his play?
It's a matter of percentages as well. The Philadelphia 76ers, for whom 19.1 percent of scoring opportunities came in transition, still experienced over 80 percent of possessions in the half court. That's plenty to work with, even for a "running" team. Even if Wiggins is streaking up and down the floor all game, he'll see plenty of work in the Timberwolves' half-court sets.
The tempo will be a welcome sign for Minnesota, who ranked 10th in transition opportunities last year at 14.6 percent. They actually would have preferred to play even faster, given Rubio's willingness to share the ball and Kevin Love's renowned outlet passing.
Too often, however, pushing the ball resulted in one-on-three possessions with Rubio ahead of the pack and wing players not filling the lanes on the outside.
The time lapse allowed the defense to get back all the way, forcing Rubio to pull the ball out and set things up in the half court. That was particularly deadly for Minnesota, whose expected points per possession (according to Synergy Sports) dropped from 1.165 to 0.899 when transition chances morphed into half-court play.
We can see that on this Timberwolves possession from late in the season last year, when Rubio grabs an inbounds pass off a free throw and sprints up the right side of the floor. Free-throw makes present easy opportunities to catch a defense sleeping, and Rubio hopes to take advantage.
As he crosses half court, none of the Utah Jazz's players are even below the free-throw line. There's a brief window for Rubio to drive baseline and kick to cutting wing players or spot-up shooters. The scrambling Jazz defense would instinctively collapse on Rubio to protect the rim, and his excellent court vision could have led to an easy jumper or layup for a cutter.
Instead, he pulls the ball out. Only three of Rubio's teammates are within his passing range, but all are behind the ball. Without any true outlets, a drive here would be reckless. Unfortunately, Rubio decides to take a fall-away elbow jumper and misses badly.
This might seem like a minor glitch in the course of a long game, but for teams with slower wing players and bigs, it can mean a handful of lost points.
One of Wiggins' greatest offensive attributes, besides his blinding speed and athleticism, is his ability to start and finish a transition play. It's unfortunately common for an NBA big or wing to grab a rebound, throw an outlet pass and watch the transition play develop in front of him. If the ball is slowed and the half-court possession begins, only then will he enter the play.
Wiggins thrives by snagging the board, sprinting up the wing and reading the ball-handler. Because his athleticism was unmatched in college, that often meant he would weave his way from rim to rim for a dunk. On the play below, notice how he holds his box-out until a teammate grabs a board: Only then does he leak out in transition, ultimately finishing the play.
In Minnesota, Wiggins will see plenty of chances for similar basket attacks—one of Rubio's greatest strengths is passing the ball early so a teammate can attack an off-balance defender.
Point guards that pass for assists tend to sling the ball to a teammate only when he's in prime position to score; Rubio finds his teammates a beat earlier. This limits his own turnovers by avoiding more dangerous passes into crowds, as well as giving his teammate more time to adjust his own path.
Here's an example: Notice how, as Rubio runs the break, he catches the initial outlet and then throws a second one to Corey Brewer. Though the pass doesn't immediately set up a bucket, it capitalizes on Brewer heading downhill on a backpedaling James Harden with no rim protection behind him.
Brewer immediately attacks, and Harden's off-balance positioning, coupled with the lack of help behind, means the Houston Rockets stand no chance to prevent the basket.
Had Rubio advanced the ball with the dribble, Brewer never would have been open: Harden would have simply followed him to the rim or the corner, negating the play.
Wiggins will find himself in similar shoes throughout the season, able to catch quick outlet passes and attack before the defense is set. But the ease with which Wiggins finished around the rim at Kansas is a thing of the past. NBA defenders are longer, faster and stronger, but most of all smarter.
The intensity of college basketball leads to defenders overplaying their men, a tendency that favored Wiggins' preference to attack the rim on the move. More in-depth NBA scouting reports will lead to defenders backing off Wiggins, constantly giving him room and daring him to shoot.
In transition, that means Wiggins will be goaded into firing up catch-and-shoot threes instead of attacking. Except these won't be prototypical catch-and-shoot threes: He'll be on the move, tempted to shoot before he continues his momentum with a dribble.
This is a difficult three-point shot for players transitioning to the pros and one that Wiggins was already struggling with at Kansas:
With an even longer three-point line, he'll have to work on it even more throughout his first few years in the league.
The Wiggins-Rubio combination will not lead to anything special in the NBA, both now and in the future. Until Rubio proves he can shoot the ball with any type of consistency, he'll be a middling NBA point guard. It will be up to Wiggins to carry Minnesota and their championship hopes.
But that doesn't mean Wiggins cannot benefit in the short term from Rubio. There's a lot to be said for point guards who understand ball distribution—when and how to pass the ball in the most efficient manner. Most young wing players suffer in their development simply because their primary ball-handlers can't give them the ball in places to succeed.
This leads to lots of one-on-one play, putting pressure on promising stars to constantly create something out of nothing.
With Rubio, Wiggins won't face this pressure. He'll be able to thrive through his current strengths because Rubio will allow it, which in turn should help build his confidence as he masters other areas of his game.