As NBA Clock Starts on Andrew Wiggins, T-Wolves Learning What Makes Him Tick

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterNovember 11, 2014

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

Sam Mitchell had no illusions. The journeyman forward knew when he signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves for a second stint following a three-year absence that his time as a starter was temporary, that the prodigy from a Chicago prep academy was simply too talented, and that his first-year head coach, Flip Saunders, simply wanted the kid to feel as if he'd earned it.

"We had a plan," Mitchell told Bleacher Report last week. "And the good thing that Flip did with the plan was that I was included in it. And I was smart enough to understand this guy was the fifth pick in the draft."

The guy, raw as he was, could already do things few others, anywhere, could. That became apparent during the first training camp practice, after which Mitchell turned to his teammate Doug West, who had been among the franchise's few consistent scorers over the first six seasons of its existence.

"Man," Mitchell told him, "we're gonna look back one day and tell people we played with Kevin Garnett."

Nineteen years have passed since Mitchell made that sage statement, and in a sense, he and the Timberwolves organization are right back where they were when Garnett broke in. Mitchell's playing days are long behind him, but he's now an assistant coach under Saunders, who has returned to run the Timberwolves' front office and serve a second term as Minnesota's head coach after working for the Pistons, Wizards, Celtics and ESPN in various capacities over the past eight years.

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Sam Mitchell noticed in Kevin Garnett a talent level and attitude that were different from most NBA rookies.
Sam Mitchell noticed in Kevin Garnett a talent level and attitude that were different from most NBA rookies.David Sherman/Getty Images

They are among those collaborating on an exciting new project, another 19-year-old prodigy whose potential suggests that Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin, Mo Williams and the Timberwolves' few current veterans may someday speak of him the way Mitchell and West knew they'd speak of Garnett.

In Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick acquired in a package for longtime franchise face Kevin Love, the Timberwolves now have yet another chance to make a lasting impression. This has become the NBA's most delicate dance: a small or mid-market organization grooms a gifted prospect for greatness so he can prove himself to the league, all while trying to prove to the player that he should ply his trade in this place during his prime. It can become a balance between giving the player what he needs and what he wants, in terms of rules and restrictions, playing time and tough love.

At least in Minnesota, there's some precedent.

"There are things that we did [with Garnett] that were very positive," Saunders said. "My main thing, our golden rule, is that we give young players enough responsibility that they can take that responsibility and keep on improving. And if they don't, if they take a step back, we're going to take away some of that responsibility. Whether that's playing time, whether that's responsibility on the floor, what you're asking them to do, or whatever."

There's some patience, too.   

"I know what people want me to do and everything like that," Wiggins said of the external expectations that come from being taken first overall. "But for me, I'm just thinking, it's a long season. Hopefully, I'll be around for a while. So I'll have time to really do what I have to do."

What can he be? What will people see?

"I don't know who you'll see, because I haven't really gotten to my highest level yet, playing basketball," Wiggins said. "So I'm not sure yet. I haven't gotten that far."

And there's some perspective.

Flip Saunders has tried to limit Andrew Wiggins' minutes to those in which he is making an impact on the game.
Flip Saunders has tried to limit Andrew Wiggins' minutes to those in which he is making an impact on the game.Jim Mone/Associated Press

"As coaches, as organizations, the thing you enjoy is getting a younger player and being involved in his development," Saunders said. "Because really what happens is that you have a huge responsibility; those first two or three years you have a player, you can establish his mindset really for his whole career. And if it's the wrong mindset, he may never become the player that he can be. So as coaches, and as a coaching staff, and the organization, you have to really look at it that way. Not only do you have a commitment to him, but you also have a huge responsibility."

The Timberwolves have been handed another enormous opportunity, one they are handling somewhat differently due to a distinctly different personality.

Night and day.

That's how Flip Saunders has characterized the demeanor of Kevin Garnett, as compared to Andrew Wiggins.

Loud and soft would have worked just as well.

Those phrases, all of three words apiece, also happen to be roughly equivalent in length to the typical Wiggins response to any media member's question. The Ontario-born teenager is impossibly polite and extraordinarily careful; when he's not starting with an extended "um..." as a pausing mechanism, he mixes in a "pardon me" before requesting that the reporter restate or rephrase. And, then, invariably, he provides a proper, clipped, cliched reply.

Despite a breathtaking level of athleticism, Wiggins has sometimes needed a push from his teammates to unleash the full range of his talents in his first few weeks in the NBA.
Despite a breathtaking level of athleticism, Wiggins has sometimes needed a push from his teammates to unleash the full range of his talents in his first few weeks in the NBA.Fernando Medina/Getty Images

He's not any more assertive with his teammates, especially the veterans. Martin calls him "a laid-back guy." Williams says he appreciates that Wiggins "lets the game come to him" and listens to advice, but adds that, at times, "we've got to force him to be aggressive."

Prior to Minnesota's 102-92 loss in Miami on Saturday, Williams needled Wiggins as the latter got stretched on the locker room floor: "Hey, Drew, you and me got the same amount of dunks this year." After Wiggins had one later that night, a two-hand slam over Dwyane Wade in transition, Williams referred to it as a promising sign.

Saunders has already taken some steps to shatter Wiggins' shell. Consider that when Saunders took over for the fired Bill Blair in the 21st game of the 1995-96 season, he didn't start Garnett until 11 games later, after the Timberwolves had dropped to 8-23, and didn't make Garnett a regular starter until Game 41.

"Rookies weren't expected to start," Mitchell said. "High draft picks, if they were ready, they started. If not, they came off the bench. Or maybe the first 15, 20 games, they didn't play. But it's different now, man. Top-five picks are expected to start."

Wiggins started each of Minnesota's first six games entering Wednesday's matchup against Houston, averaging 27.3 minutes. Saunders hasn't just put Wiggins on the court—he's largely kept Wiggins out there, so long as he doesn't sense the rookie "floating," as was the case late in Friday's 112-103 overtime loss in Orlando, when the coach opted for Brewer's energy instead.

"Like most rookies, he's had times where he's been spectacular, and he's had times where he's had what you'd call wasted minutes, where you really haven't noticed him on the floor," Saunders said. "We're trying to eliminate as many wasted minutes and empty minutes, and try to turn those into productive-type minutes."

Those wasted minutes have sometimes been split into the 24-second segments when Minnesota is on the offensive end. Against Orlando, for instance, he scored his first basket on a sharp backdoor cut, and he connected on jumpers from both baselines, each with hardly any hesitation. And a couple of times he used a spin move in the lane to clear enough space to slip a productive bounce entry pass to Nikola Pekovic. But on many offensive possessions, he didn't make a single or meaningful toucheven more so after playmaker Ricky Rubio left with a sprained ankle—and he wasn't the transition threat his athleticism suggests.

"As I told Andrew, I want him to get out and run like Brewer, get out and get some layups," Saunders said. "And to this point, he hasn't been able to do that quite as much."

Flip Saunders took the unusual approach of matching Kevin Garnett up against elite offensive talents in his rookie season.
Flip Saunders took the unusual approach of matching Kevin Garnett up against elite offensive talents in his rookie season.Andy Hayt/Getty Images

If you followed his uneven freshman season at Kansas, this was expected. But so was something else: that his more immediate professional impact would come on the other end.

"He's much more advanced defensively," Saunders said.

While Saunders acknowledged that the 200-pound Wiggins is currently more capable of guarding players closer to his sinewy size, that hasn't stopped Minnesota's coach from throwing his most touted talent to the NBA's wolves on the wings, of assorted sizes and skill sets.

"We usually put him on the best offensive playeryou usually don't do that with rookies," Saunders said. "You usually try to hide them, because you're afraid that they may get destroyed, they may lose confidence. But even if he gets destroyed, he keeps on coming back."

Saunders tried this tack with another rookie, way back when, to facilitate development.

"I did that with Garnett," Saunders said.

And no rookie regularly since.

"Kevin always played up to the challenge," Saunders said. "But you could see it with his emotions. Wig just goes out and just does it. He doesn't show nearly the emotion that Garnett shows."

Is this what Wiggins wants?

Wiggins got an early lesson in veteran NBA play when the Bulls' Jimmy Butler drew a shooting foul with 0.2 seconds left in a recent Minnesota loss.
Wiggins got an early lesson in veteran NBA play when the Bulls' Jimmy Butler drew a shooting foul with 0.2 seconds left in a recent Minnesota loss.USA TODAY Sports

"Definitely, yeah," the rookie said. His first true resilience exam occurred in just his third NBA game, when he was assigned to Bulls guard Jimmy Butler down the stretch, including what figured to be Chicago's final possession. The Bulls were down one. Butler was in trouble. Wiggins bailed him out with a foul with 0.2 seconds left, and the Bulls won by one when Butler hit a pair of free throws.

"Flip spoke to him first, and we all just kind of patted him on the rear end and told him that those things happen," Mitchell said. "That was just a freakish play. How many times does a guy fall down, get up and have the presence of mind to pump fake? I've been around basketball for 25 years, and I've never seen a guy in that situation do that. It was just one of those things.

"But I remember when Jerry Rice was a rookie and dropped a touchdown. I remember Terrell Owens dropping a touchdown. I remember how KG, early in his career as a rookie, struggled. I always tell the guys, it builds character. When they fall down early, they're gonna listen."

Four nights later? Saunders asked him to check Joe Johnson, one of the NBA's isolation and clutch specialists, in the meaningful moments.

"Joe Johnson forgot things that Andrew is still trying to learn," Mitchell said.

Johnson scored 22 points that game, working over Wiggins for a floater with 1:28 left that gave the Nets a two-point edge. But that would be Brooklyn's last lead, and it came during a stretch where, as Saunders put it, "Wig had some great contests against him." 

He also had a polished answer to explain his approach.

"Being a rookie, you're going to make mistakes," Wiggins said. "The good thing about the NBA is that you have another game the next day, or the next couple of days. Someone you're guarding like Joe Johnson, he's a great scorer. Some people you're not going to stop from scoring the whole game. You've just got to make it difficult on them."

No matter how he progresses defensively, it will be difficult for Wiggins to win Rookie of the Year with anything close to his current statistics (9.2 points, 3.5 rebounds per game)—not in a class that includes Jabari Parker and Elfrid Payton, among others. Garnett didn't win the award either; he was sixth, with just one of 113 votes, finishing behind Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis, Joe Smith, Michael Finley and Jerry Stackhouse. Yet he alone had a transformative NBA career, just as Mitchell knew he would.

"KG, he walked in the door, had it, understood it," Mitchell said. "He knew the history of the game, he knew about the Bill Russells, the Oscar Robertsons. And the thing about KG that was so great was he respected the veterans. We tried to treat him like a rookie, but he was respectful that he didn't have to endure the things that a lot of rookies endure. Because he just carried himself in a different way."

Ricky Rubio has talked at length with Wiggins about dealing with the criticism any star in the NBA is going to face nowadays.
Ricky Rubio has talked at length with Wiggins about dealing with the criticism any star in the NBA is going to face nowadays.Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

Timberwolves players say Wiggins carries himself with confidence, even if it's much more subdued and perhaps even a tad more respectful than what Garnett showed early. He carries some burdens Garnett didn't have to bear—as the first overall draft selection and as an Internet darling since his early teens, as much as anyone in recent history other than LeBron James.

"I laugh because Andrew is 19 years old, playing with grown men who know how to play," Mitchell said. "So it's difficult because, in our society now, they've got to be great right now, or they're a bust. And it's just too much pressure."

Teammates have tried to relieve some of that.

"I'm just trying to give him my experience," said Rubio, who became an international sensation after starting his professional career in Spain at age 14. "When everybody expects a lot of things about you, and you don't put the numbers that everybody is expecting you to put up, you just have to go by your feelings.

"Don't listen to what is going on around the world, because everybody is going to talk. Even LeBron or Michael Jordan in his prime time, some people were judging them. So if those people got judged, why are you not gonna get judged? It's something that he has to learn. Don't listen to anybody. But just keep working and do his thing."

That's what Garnett needed to do because of his distinction.

"He was the first high school kid (to go straight to the pros) in 25 years," Saunders said. "So everywhere he went out, everyone thought that he was going to fail his first year, that a high school kid won't be able to do it. So he had the pressure of that that Wig doesn't have. Wig is basically following a lot of kids who have already done this."

If he follows them to stardom, that may lead to a familiar challenge.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, since their 1989 founding, have had just three players who, as professionals, have captured the nation's imagination. Those three playersGarnett, Rubio, Kevin Lovehave played a combined 22 seasons in Minnesotawith Rubio expected to play many more. Just days before severely spraining his ankle in Orlando, the 24-year-old point guard signed a four-year, $55 million deal to continue playing where, initially, he expressed he did not want to play.

After never reaching the playoffs in six seasons with the Timberwolves, Kevin Love agreed to a trade last summer that placed him on a title contender in Cleveland.
After never reaching the playoffs in six seasons with the Timberwolves, Kevin Love agreed to a trade last summer that placed him on a title contender in Cleveland.Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

"No one does," Mitchell said. "And hell, I didn't want to come to Minnesota when I first tried out there."

Mitchell's roommate at Georgia's Mercer University was a Minnesota native, who showed him photos of the winter.

"And I used to say to myself, never in a million years would I go to freaking Minnesota," Mitchell said. "And lo and behold, I end up going to Minnesota, and I was like, you got to be kidding me. But then you get there, and it became my second home."

As it has for Rubio.

"Ricky, he stayed, he signed a good contract, but he stayed because he wanted to be here," Saunders said. "He could have waited. All these players have the ability to wait, if they really want to play it outthey can go anywhere they want to go. That's why you try to have a situation that is conducive for them to grow as a person and grow as a player."

On the morning before suffering his ankle sprain, Rubio spoke of how Minnesota "showed love" from the first day, "not just the organization, who did an unbelievable job; the fans, too, the atmosphere. So I felt like that was my place."

He added that, while the money played a part, "at the end of the day, if you're happy where you're at, why move? I only want to be happy. Win for sure. That's one of the keys on this team. We're young, and we have a lot of potential. I'm willing to take that challenge. And the other one was, I'm happy where I am. So at the end of the day, you go to sleep with a smile on your face. That's what counts."

That signing was a significant step for a franchise that had been forced to trade Love because—after six years of losing and former general manager David Kahn's fateful decision not to offer a full five-year extension—he'd simply had enough. The T-Wolves were fortunate that one of the most interested suitors, Cleveland, had someone of Wiggins' potential to offer in return.

So now the clock has started on his Minnesota future, even with the Timberwolves holding the rights to his services—through annual salaries, team options and qualifying offersthrough the 2018-19 season. The challenge, as he grows, will be for the team to create a connection similar to what it did with Rubio and, way back when, Garnett.

"Kevin (Garnett) didn't want to leave," Saunders said, combatting what he believes is a common misconception. "Kevin had a no-trade kicker. Kevin basically turned down two trades to go to Boston before [his people] finally did it, and the only reason he did it is because the organization convinced him that they were in a total rebuild and they were probably not going to win. And Kevin, anybody who knows him, is that his ultimate thing is he wants a chance to win every time he steps on the floor."

Garnett won at least 50 games in four different seasons in Minnesota, but he never played with another superstar in his prime and reached the Western Conference finals just once. There's no way to know now whether Wiggins will receive greater support and achieve greater milestones. There's no way to know if someday, like so many others, he might want out, for brighter lights in a bigger city. But Mitchell said it's critical not to let that affect how the Timberwolves treat him now.

Wiggins has seen his game and attitude analyzed and shaped by not only the coaching staff but also his teammates.
Wiggins has seen his game and attitude analyzed and shaped by not only the coaching staff but also his teammates.David Sherman/Getty Images

"Can't think about that," Mitchell said. "That's four to five years out. You know, look, players are gonna love you some days, they're gonna hate you some days. That's just how it is. But at the end of the day, when they go home, they know and realize that you have their best interests, and the days that you're tough on them, they needed it. And Andrew understands that. Flip, myself, [assistant coaches] Sidney Lowe, Ryan [Saunders], we've all been tough on Andrew, with all our guys at times, but then at times, we love 'em too."

The plan is to be firm but fair.

"I remember something John Wooden said," Mitchell recalled. "He said no matter how tough a day a kid has in practice, no matter how hard you've been on him, don't let that kid leave that gym that day feeling bad about himself. You always walk up to him at the end of the day and say, 'I was on you for these reasons, but I still believe in you. You're our guy, we're gonna get past this and you're gonna get better.' As long as they give you the effort, which Andrew does, then you can work through everything else."

There's work, and then there's guarding Dwyane Wade. That can be torture, especially when Wade's feeling spry, as he was Saturday night in the South Florida arena the 10-time All-Star calls his "house."

There were times during the Timberwolves' 102-92 loss that Wiggins validated the most effusive of all Saunders' praise—calling him "by far the best two-way player" of the NBA's current rookiesover the prior two days: driving baseline to draw a foul, spinning in the lane to beat two defenders, dunking on the break, even staying down on one of Wade's patented pump fakes. There were others when his jumper looked flat, and his overall energy flatter. 

Yet at the end, there Wiggins was, assigned to the Heat's most lethal perimeter player, young legs against old tricks. On the whole, Saunders was encouraged by his effort, since there were "a couple of times where he forced [Wade] to get rid of the ball, make some passes out."

But there was also a time Wade shaded Wiggins into a Chris Bosh screen, darted past the plodding Nikola Pekovic and dunked for the clincher."It's just gonna be a learning experience for him every time he steps on the floor," Saunders said.

Despite carrying 11 fewer seasons of NBA experience into the game, Wiggins found himself matched up against Dwyane Wade often in the Timberwolves' first visit to Miami this season.
Despite carrying 11 fewer seasons of NBA experience into the game, Wiggins found himself matched up against Dwyane Wade often in the Timberwolves' first visit to Miami this season.Alan Diaz/Associated Press

That experience didn't end when the buzzer sounded. Wade walked over to put his hand on Wiggins' shoulder. As the rookie leaned in, Wade patted him on the chest while doing almost all the talking.

"Just some words of advice, really," Wiggins said. "He just said, 'Just keep going hard.' He asked if I wanted to be great. I said yes. He said I got all the tools to be great, just keep working."

The message was similar to what an established superstar offered to another rising rookie, 11 years ago, while pulling that particular prospect over by the nape of his neck, pointing to his chest, and finally patting him on the rear after believing his message had been respectfully received.

Don't get discouraged. Keep working. You'll be a star, too, someday.

That message came in the fourth game of that rookie's career, after his young team had suffered its sixth straight loss to start the season. That message was different only in that it was accompanied by a bit more profanity than the message Wiggins heard Saturday night.

It was delivered by a vet named Garnett.

It was appreciated by a kid named Wade.

"You realize that you're part of the history of this game, and we are the ones that have to make sure that we give back to the ones coming up to take care of this game," Wade recalled. "So I understood what he was saying to me then, and I really get it now."

Wade's words seemed to similarly affect Wiggins.

"Just motivates me," Wiggins said. "I'm already thinking about what he said. It's going to carry me through for a long time now."

Until maybe, someday, he'll be ready to carry a franchise. If all goes as Minnesota hopes, it would be this franchise, the one Garnett represented for 12 years. Maybe, someday, Wiggins will share the same message with someone else.

But, for now, lessons. Always lessons. After Wiggins dressed to exit, in a checkered red and black shirt, Mitchell playfully punched him in the chest.

"It's never personal," Mitchell said of earlier instruction. "You know that, don't you?"

A smile. A nod. So much to learn, but enough is already understood.

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.