In Kobe Bryant, Andrew Wiggins Finding Blueprint for Rising Stardom

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In Kobe Bryant, Andrew Wiggins Finding Blueprint for Rising Stardom
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LOS ANGELES — In the waning minutes of a 119-115 Los Angeles Lakers win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 2, Andrew Wiggins caught the ball on the left block, backed down Kobe Bryant and rose up for a half-spin fadeaway jumper Bryant would surely recognize.

"I got it from you," Wiggins told Bryant immediately after ripping a page from the Mamba's playbook.

Bryant said it looked familiar, Wiggins revealed after the game, per the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda. The Canadian wunderkind told him where it came from—as if Bryant wouldn't recognize his own shadow.

Already, the Mamba was sold.

"His first year in the league, he was off-balance with it, exposing the ball too much," Bryant said after leaving little limelight for Wiggins' 30 points with 38 of his own. "Now that one, it was textbook. Textbook: Hid the ball well, elevated well, faded well. I was impressed."

Every hoops head who came of age during Bryant's heyday has tried to mimic the Mamba's moves. But few have the genetic gifts to actually duplicate them. Even fewer get to try them against—and be graded by—the legend himself.

Before Bryant takes the stage for his final All-Star Game on Valentine's Day, Wiggins will get to pay homage to his hero during Friday's Rising Stars Challenge, when he'll be competing with and against the league's best rookies and sophomores in his hometown of Toronto. Among that exclusive group, Wiggins may be the only one with the wherewithal to someday see eye-to-eye with Bryant in the NBA's pantheon.

"Kobe has mastered everything," Wiggins told Bleacher Report. "That's why he's the greatest of my generation. He's mastered everything, so I'm just trying to perfect stuff, too."

Wiggins' quest to be like Bryant kicked into high gear before the Cleveland Cavaliers made him the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Drew Hanlen, a trainer to the stars, thought Wiggins' raw skills—his length, his fluid lateral movement, his lightning-quick first step, his rubber-ball bounce—smacked of Michael Jordan. So that's who they studied first.

"When I first worked him out, I saw that he could separate like nobody else that I'd ever worked with," Hanlen said. In college, Wiggins flashed a knack for creating space between himself and his defender.

Hanlen also saw Wiggins' respect and admiration for Bryant. While Wiggins appreciated Jordan's greatness, he "looked up to Kobe Bryant just for his ability to master both everything MJ did plus a lot of new stuff for the new era," said Hanlen. So he mixed tape of the Lakers icon into their film sessions accordingly.

"One of the things we're really trying to steal from both MJ and Kobe is the mentality and 'it' factor those two players have that put them head and shoulders above the rest of the field," Hanlen explained. "I think that when Andrew was coming out of college, that was one thing scouts thought he lacked and questioned was, 'Can he get that killer mentality?'"

 

Kobe's Invisible Hand

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Before Wiggins played a single minute in Cleveland, the title-ready team traded him to the Timberwolves, choosing instead to install Kevin Love as LeBron James' sidekick.

"The Cavs hold a special place in Andrew's head and heart, I guess you could say," Hanlen said.

The numbers bear that out. In four career games against Cleveland, Wiggins has averaged 28.8 points—his highest against any team.

Before the Cavaliers came to town on Jan. 8, Wiggins had topped 20 points just once in his previous eight outings. He wanted to gear up for a home showdown with the player and club that had been so quick to move him. So he summoned Hanlen to Minneapolis.

Hanlen had observed an imbalance in Wiggins' shot, which was simple to correct. He encouraged Wiggins to stabilize his core while shooting to eliminate any unwanted twisting in his client's body.

He also noticed that defenses were keying on Wiggins. At 20, as the reigning Rookie of the Year, Wiggins was already the focal point of an offense and the top priority of scouting reports. Where once he had room to roam, he now had to break traps just to catch the ball. And when Wiggins did get the ball, he instantly drew double-teams.

To find solutions to Wiggins' woes, Hanlen once again dug into old tape of Bryant. He studied how the Mamba picked apart double-teams by waiting for the second defender to "cleanse"—shorthand for a defensive player stepping out of the lane to avoid a three-second violation—before pouncing on his prey. He took note of how Bryant adjusted his routes to the ball depending on where the trap was coming from. He saw how Bryant used the baseline, a barrier for most, as a weapon.

Hanlen brought those insights with him to the Twin Cities. Over the course of a few hours, he and Wiggins talked over tape of Bryant, walked through what they saw on film and cemented the tweaks in a full-speed workout. "Andrew's ability to retain new information and translate it into game play right away is what makes him special," Hanlen said.

The next day, Wiggins torched the Cavaliers for 35 points, albeit in a lopsided loss. That started a stretch of 11 games during which he scored 20 points or more nine times.

Sam Mitchell, the Timberwolves head coach, likes what he's seen from his squad's rising star.

"He's making great decisions when people are double-teaming him and when he's getting to the basket and bigs are coming over [to stop him]," Mitchell said.

 

A Long Way For Wiggins

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Despite his recent uptick in productivity, Wiggins' outside shot (24.4 percent from three this season) remains a work in progress. So do his overall handles and repertoire of scoring moves.

In some respects, Wiggins is ahead of Bryant's pace. Kobe didn't become an everyday starter for the Lakers until his third season; Wiggins, who has missed just one game as a pro, was a regular in Minnesota's starting five from day one as a rookie in 2014-15.

"At 19 years old, Kobe wasn't playing a whole lot," said Lakers head coach Byron Scott, who mentored a rookie Bryant in 1996-97. "Andrew's getting a great opportunity to play a lot and be featured on a team."

Wiggins seems to be making the most of that opportunity. He's shown potential as a go-to scorer and lockdown defender. Like Bryant before him, he wants to be one of the best two-way players in the league.

Bryant worked tirelessly, year-round and year after year, to become a full-court terror.

"There's a mantra and a tradition here that Magic Johnson kind of started, saying, 'Add something new to your game every summer,'" said Mark Madsen, another of Bryant's teammates-turned-coaches. "Kobe did that."

Those around Wiggins day-to-day see the same fire.

"The first thing that stands out is his work ethic," Timberwolves teammate Kevin Garnett said of Wiggins. "He comes in, he's been really setting the tone with getting not just rhythm shots but things that I think hindered him last year.

Obviously, when you have a year into something, you know what to expect the next year. He's taking those steps to try to really be if not that All-Star, that caliber of player that he could potentially be. He's working his butt off."

 

But Can Wiggins Be An A-----e?

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In time, Wiggins' game could look like Bryant's reflected in a mirror, just as Bryant's became the spitting image of Jordan's.

"I think it would be beneficial for anyone to follow Kobe, to have him as a role model, trying to take your game after his," Wiggins said. "It's Kobe. Kobe is one of the premier people to ever play the game of basketball."

But as much as Wiggins may come to resemble Bryant and Jordan, he may never be the same scowling tyrant that made those two the envy and enemy of teammates and opponents alike.

As a leader, Wiggins' soft voice and quiet demeanor stand in stark contrast to his predecessors.

"Andrew's not what I call a voice guy. He's not a guy that you're going to hear a lot," said Garnett, perhaps the loudest "voice guy" in NBA history.

"The one thing that separates Wiggins and Kobe right now is Kobe's more of an a-----e than Andrew is," Hanlen said. "And while I hope that Andrew gets a little more of that kind of killer mentality on the court, I don't think you'll ever see Andrew change as a person off the court, which will make him a different type of superstar."

A superstar who, someday, could be on the receiving end of the same flattering imitation that he gave to his basketball idol.

"That's Kobe. I'm me," Wiggins said. "I'm just on my own path right now."

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats accurate as of games played Wednesday.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @JoshMartinNBA.

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